The exciting war to make secretaries of state more boring

On Thursday, a new voting-rights campaign called iVote launched, and it plans to target its resources at secretary of state races in Colorado, Nevada, Iowa and Ohio.

Last week, a conservative super PAC named SOS for SoS kicked off its fundraising campaign in secretary of state races in nine states -- including Colorado, Iowa and Ohio.

In December 2012, two longtime Democratic strategists started the SoS (Secretary of State) for Democracy super PAC, which plans to be involved in six races -- including Ohio and Iowa.

Why has a series of elections known to send the most aerobic of election-year browser refreshers into a deep sleep suddenly taken on the contours of a close Senate contest? Blame a string of events that started with the 2000 presidential election and reached their climax with the current battle over voting rights.


(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

The Constitution states, "the Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof," and in 38 states, secretaries of state are tasked with carrying out the will of the legislature and orchestrating the complex system that decides who gets to run the country.

Most secretaries of state are elected or appointed by the governor, which means the party affiliation of a state's chief election officer often sways with the party affiliation of the state's elected leaders. Although state legislatures are responsible for the voter-ID laws that proved the backbone of the voting-rights battle, secretaries of state have many duties that give them outsize influence over a voter's experience at the polls.

As Steve Rosenthal, one of the founders of SoS for Democracy, notes, "Their powers often include controlling the certification of names of candidates on the ballot and ballot proposals/initiatives, maintaining the lists of registered voters in their state, overseeing voter registration procedures, conducting recounts, overseeing the testing and implementation of voting machines, as well as certifying and registering campaign expenditure reports by both candidates and outside groups. "

Which is why these outside groups are so eager to have a say in who will hold this power in crucial swing states.

Wendy Weiser, who heads the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice, says that the contested voting results in Florida that prompted Bush v. Gore “drew attention to the fact that elections could be manipulated to partisan political advantage."

Six years later, a group called the Secretary of State project appeared, determined to flip election management back to Democrats in states like Minnesota, Colorado, and Ohio.

The project worked well -- mostly due to the fact that secretary of state races usually aren't expensive affairs and a little money can go a long way. The project  raised $500,000 in 2006 -- a year when Democrats won secretary of state elections in many of the places targeted by the group. They saw the 2008 election cycle as proof that their plan had worked, when the decisions made by the Democratic secretary of state in Minnesota in a U.S. Senate recount led to Al Franken's election.

But in 2010, the group disappeared. When Republicans swept elections across the board, the Secretary of State project, as Dave Weigel puts it, "responded by ... falling apart." Now 23 of the country's 39 elected secretaries of state are Republican.

After the well-publicized battle over voting rights leading up to the 2012 election and continuing after it ended, it seemed inevitable that a similar effort to change election administration would appear.

In the fight over voting rights, which reached new cacophonous heights during the 2012 election cycle, conservative state governments are passing strict voter-ID laws, progressives are campaigning against the new policies that often happen to disadvantage their base the most, and conservatives are returning the volley by listing all the people they think are committing voter fraud. ("Dozens, dozens of black people" in Maine, according to some accounts, zombies in south Carolina, "foolish" students and dead people in New Hampshire, etc.).

And now, we have three new outside groups chiming in on secretary of state races, all framing their goals around restoring the role of secretary of state to its original pristine role, although that role is variously described as fighting voter suppression or fighting voter fraud. Of course, each group's obvious ulterior motives include helping their team in the upcoming election cycles.

iVote will definitely get the most buzz of the three, given that its board members -- like Jeremy Bird and Pete Giangreco -- get to wear the enviable "former Obama campaign" name tag that previously helped new grassroots organizing groups like Battleground Texas get attention from the press. SoS for Democracy -- run by Democratic labor organizers -- and SOS for SoS -- run by the former president of Winning the Future, the pro-Newt Gingrich super PAC -- might be able to raise lots of money to fling ads at markets in their state of interest. But they aren't going to get as much attention as a new joint from former Obama campaigners, complete with all the bells and technological whistles we've come to expect from such a venture.

iVote is planning to do polling, digital ads, digital outreach, on-the-ground campaigning, and  data analytics.  The group's board thinks that progressives have been playing defense for far too long on voting rights, according to Bird, "rolling the dice" in the court system instead of playing offense and making elections run smoothly in the first place. The way they see it, spending money in a secretary of state race -- which usually cost around $500,000 -- is a far more cost-effective way of expanding access to the vote.

Smacking all the sleepiness out of these elections and drawing awareness to the role secretaries of state play during election season -- and to the 82 bills involving voter ID, decreasing voting periods, and other big voting rights issues that have been introduced in state legislatures in the past year -- is an important added benefit to their strategy.

In Weiser's view, this trend of planning money drops on secretary of state races seems at odds with another new trend gaining ground this year -- erasing partisanship from the position altogether and leaving it as it was meant to be, a boring bureaucratic job with the aim of making elections as efficient and fair as possible. What makes that difficult is that that secretaries of state are often the only statewide elected officials besides governors, giving them an ideal launching pad to higher office, so parties see the office as grooming ground.

The same day that SOS for SoS debuted, the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration released a report offering their recommendations for improving elections and limiting the presence of ideological decisions at the polling place to the ballot. In the section, "Professionalism in Election Administration," the report states, "Those who run our elections are subjected to competing pressures from partisans and political constituencies, on the one hand, and their obligation to the voting public as a whole, on the other ... these officeholders generally perform capably and with accountability under close public scrutiny ... in every respect possible, the responsible department or agency in every state should have on staff individuals who are chosen and serve solely on the basis of their experience and expertise."

“I have concerns that this is going to increase the politicization of the office of the secretary of state," Weiser said of the new groups. "The emphasis is in the wrong direction, away from increasing the professionalization of election administration.”

But Trey Grayson, a former secretary of state in Kentucky and current director of the Harvard Institute of Politics, was on the presidential commission on election administration and isn't as worried.

"I don’t think they’re at odds," he said, adding, that “the dirty little secret of these groups is that they’re spending all this money on secretary of state races, and secretaries of state don’t have much of an ability to influence elections because they’re mostly run on the local level.”

Grayson also noted that he's a perfect example of how partisan secretary of state elections are supposed to work.

"I was elected to be secretary of state on a partisan basis as a Republican, and the president put me on the election commission!”

He's also optimistic about the future of elections, regardless of how the efforts of these groups pan out.

“If you look at the long arc since 2000, I think elections are better run, partly because the media and the public are paying more attention and asking more questions. There’s increased oversight. But we still have a long way to go, or the president wouldn’t have appointed this commission.”

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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