In the turbulent weeks after the 2020 presidential election, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger faced the media so many times that he felt he must have worn a groove in the marble between his office in a corner of the state Capitol in Atlanta and the grand atrium where he held news conferences. Now it was January 2022, a little more than a year after the infamous phone call in which defeated incumbent Donald Trump urged Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to overturn Joe Biden’s 11,779-vote victory in the state. And Raffensperger was making the same walk again.
Unlike those earlier tense encounters, when the fate of the nation seemed in the balance, today’s announcement was blessedly underwhelming. It was more in line with the dry, pre-insurrection secretary of state fare of normal times: Georgia was getting a new voter registration system. The change was administrative: It could help shorten lines at the polls, Raffensperger said, but otherwise voters would hardly notice a difference. It was called the Georgia Registered Voter Information System, “but that’s a mouthful, so we’re going to call it GaRVIS,” he added.
The other thing Raffensperger wanted to tell the public this week was that an entity impersonating his office was sending emails as part of a corporate registration phishing scam, trying to get people to click on suspicious attachments. In Georgia, the secretary of state does, in fact, handle such registrations. He also oversees investment securities, charities and cemeteries. He processes licenses for boxing and mixed martial arts. As in most states, the job evolved over two centuries from performing secretarial chores to being a jack of all bureaucratic trades — including elections, which in many years count for less than half the office’s annual budget, compared with all the other responsibilities.
“It’s a down-ballot ticket,” Raffensperger told me of his job later, back in his office. “It’s in the weeds, and a lot of people, before 2020, didn’t understand the importance of having a person of character, integrity and resolute determination to follow the Constitution, to follow the law.” A conservative Republican and a structural engineer by trade, Raffensperger voted for Trump, but he duly certified Biden’s victory. Trump called him an “enemy of the people.” “The challenge that you have is when you choose cause over character, you end up with neither,” Raffensperger continued. “And right now, people are so committed to their cause that they’ve thrown character out the window.”
Although the job has the same name in nearly every state, nowhere are the duties alike. In addition to supervising elections, depending on the state, the secretary may oversee bingo and raffles, take care of museums and libraries, or serve as chief protocol officer, schooling legislators on how to behave during missions abroad. In 10 states the secretaries don’t supervise elections.
One of Raffensperger’s responsibilities is to serve as Georgia’s keeper of the Great Seal. A giant likeness hangs in his office. The real seal is the about the size of a hockey puck, and Raffensperger uses it to emboss official documents as a glorified notary public. An antique press once used for the purpose stands prominently at the front of the office, but the real seal itself is no longer on display: Raffensperger put it in safe keeping when protesters were rallying at the Georgia Capitol after Trump lost the election. “It wasn’t as secure as it needed to be,” he told me. “We had a gentleman that actually broke into the Capitol.”
The day after our conversation, this week of routine bureaucratic announcements ended with another jarring reminder of how secretaries of state have emerged from their obscure shells to become the reluctant new superheroes — or villains — of democracy: The Justice Department announced the arrest of a Texas man for allegedly posting a message online on Jan. 5, 2021, that it was “time to kill” Georgia election officials.
The tumultuous past two years of American politics have made the job of secretary of state arguably a risky one — and one that’s suddenly coveted by both political parties, which see it as key to their future electoral success. These sleepy, paper-pushing positions were often dismissed by ambitious politicos as unreliable steppingstones to higher office (notable exceptions: Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp). But now they have become partisan battlegrounds, drawing a slew of competitors and a gusher of campaign cash for the posts on the ballot this year in 27 states. The winners, in most cases, will be strategically placed to supervise the 2024 presidential contest.
Some of the hottest races are in swing states Trump lost in 2020 — Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, Michigan, Wisconsin — and feature candidates who deny Biden’s victory. (Pennsylvania doesn’t elect its secretary of state; nor, for that matter, do Florida or Texas, among others.) Trump has already endorsed primary candidates in Georgia, Arizona and Michigan — almost certainly the first time in history a former president has thrust himself so heavily, and so early, into these once-afterthought races.
“What’s at stake is the future of democracy in this country,” Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, who chairs the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, told me. “Secretary of state races boil down to a very simple choice in 2022: Do we as a nation believe that American voters should be able to choose their elected officials?”
Griswold’s counterpart chairing the Republican Secretaries of State Committee, Tre Hargett of Tennessee, says: “Americans want to know that their elections are being run with the utmost of integrity. As Republicans we’re committed to making sure that we continue to make it as easy as possible to vote while also making sure it’s hard to cheat.”
Recently I sought out current and former secretaries of state, as well as candidates for the job, to understand the breathtaking transformation of this quirky but decisive role, one embedded almost by accident within American democracy. The ongoing dramatic politicization of the job — in widespread perception if not always in fact — highlights an inherent tension: We elect partisans to supervise elections in a nonpartisan way. That tension now threatens to tear the job apart, and raises a vital question that’s on the ballot in these races: Will we ever be able to believe an election again?
The origins of the position go back to the American Revolution, when Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress, certified the authenticity of documents, including the Declaration of Independence. As states entered the Union, they eventually hired secretaries. Here’s how the Maine Constitution of 1820 describes the job: “The records of the State shall be kept in the office of the Secretary. … He shall carefully keep and preserve the records of all the official acts and proceedings of the Governor and Council, Senate and House of Representatives, and, when required, lay the same before either branch of the Legislature. …”
It was “a pretty light lift,” says Matthew Dunlap, who served 14 years as Maine’s secretary of state, interrupted by an unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate. “I mean, you just put the journals of the House and Senate on a shelf, and if they say, ‘Hey, do you happen to have the journals?’ you bring them over. That was really what it amounted to.”
But there was one additional note to the job description, as written in Article V, Part Third of the state Constitution: The secretary shall “perform such other duties as … shall be required by law.” There it was, the marvelously vague carte blanche to basically make the secretary of state do anything. In Maine, says Dunlap, when corporate formation acts got adopted after the Civil War, the secretary was tasked with keeping track of corporations. After automobiles were invented, the secretary kept the records. Ditto elections, as the state centralized and modernized election tabulation.
A similar pattern of piling on tasks was followed in other states. “It was a functionary job for two centuries,” says Gabriel Sterling, chief operating officer in the Georgia secretary of state’s office. “Essentially, if you go around the country, it’s like, ‘We have something we want to do with government. … Let’s give it to the secretary of state. We gave him everything else.’ That’s literally how most states have dealt with secretaries of state.”
The job remained a quiet bureaucratic backwater until November 2000, when Katherine Harris of Florida burst into the nation’s consciousness. George W. Bush’s Florida margin over Al Gore was 537 votes; whoever won the state would become president. Harris insisted on sticking to the state deadline for certifying the results — effectively derailing a chaotic recount process. At the time, she said that she was using her “discretion” to deny requests to extend the deadline for amending county tallies, saying there was insufficient justification to grant an exception — despite widespread ballot problems in Democratic strongholds. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected Gore’s attempt to continue the recounting.
When I reached Harris in Florida, she was reluctant to talk about that election, or make comparisons to 2020. “I guess the clearest point I could say to you and for any secretary of state … is that your only safe harbor is following the law,” she said. The certification deadline was the law, she said. “I had just as much pressure from Republicans to take things one way as I did Democrats in those first few days.” She says she resisted the pressure. When I reminded her that she had been perceived as partisan in part because she was co-chair of Bush’s campaign in the state, she said that was an honorary function that Florida secretaries of state had filled before. As for 2020, without commenting on particular secretaries’ conduct, Harris questioned whether changes in voting procedures during the pandemic were enacted with proper authority — a critique that tracks with Trump supporters’ complaints.
Some Democrats had flashbacks to Florida 2000 in 2004, when they saw how John Kerry lost Ohio to Bush. They placed some of the blame on Republican Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell — co-chair of Bush’s Ohio campaign — for long lines, insufficient voting machines and controversial policy decisions, which they said suppressed the vote, especially in African American precincts. On Jan. 6, 2005, 32 Democrats in Congress objected to Ohio’s electoral votes — not to overturn the election, they said, which Kerry (unlike Trump today) had conceded, but to raise the issue of “electoral justice.”
The perceived motivations of Harris and Blackwell, and the Democrats’ reaction, marked the beginning of the job’s politicization. Democratic activists and funders formed the Secretary of State Project to try to elect Democratic secretaries in key states. By 2009, the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State was formed with similar aims.
The Republicans responded in kind, formalizing a loose association of secretaries into the Republican Secretaries of State Committee, housed within the larger Republican State Leadership Committee.
Heightened partisan attention meant a certain loss of innocence over the person who was simply supposed to supervise clean elections — when they weren’t registering corporations or regulating bingo. “There was this sort of [realization], like, ‘Huh, the rules might matter,’ ” says Trey Grayson, former Kentucky secretary of state. “And who’s [secretary of state] matters, because sometimes the rules aren’t clear.”
“I tried to be nonpartisan in the work, and it didn’t make me a lot of friends,” says Dunlap, a Democrat. “I can remember many Democratic legislators literally hissing at me as I walked down the hall. ‘You’re supposed to be helping us!’ No, I’m supposed to be supporting the efforts of the little blue-haired old ladies at the county fair, collecting signatures on a petition. You make policy; I run the process.”
Over the past two years, the politicization of the job went into overdrive — a result of pandemic-forced voting adjustments, narrow margins in multiple battlegrounds, and Trump’s attacks on the process before and after the election. Across the country, secretary of state races have turned into expensive, marquee showdowns — not over who’s the most competent administrator, but who’s on the correct side of the bitter national divide over the last presidential election and fundamental civil rights. The Democratic secretaries group raised a record $4.5 million last year and set a goal of $15 million for this election cycle. The Republican state leadership group — which bills itself as “America’s only line of defense against socialism in the states” — and an affiliated foundation raised $33.3 million, an unspecified portion of which will be pumped into secretary of state races. Meanwhile, individual candidates are raising record sums on their own, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice.
The transformation of the job into a prized partisan trophy has consequences, David Becker, executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, told me. “I am very concerned that in the future — and this is not going to be solely limited to Republicans — but that as chief election officials, as secretaries of state, start using more partisan rhetoric, making it appear as if the job is really important to be held in a particular political party’s hands toward the good of the country, that there will be a natural delegitimization of the work of those offices. That perception is likely to be false, but the risk of it is real.”
It wasn’t long ago that simply being impartial was the most partisan thing a secretary of state could do: Their competence spoke well of their party. “I was a Republican, I wanted Republicans to win, but I also thought it was good politics for me to do a good job and be perceived as doing a good job,” Grayson says. “The guidepost now is, you know, pleasing a former president or doing the party’s bidding. … I look at some of the candidates who are running, and it does bother me because some of what they’re saying leads me to think that if they don’t like the count, or they don’t like the law, they might not do the job.”
A man in a white cowboy hat strode to the lectern in an outdoor arena in Florence, Ariz., and invited the audience to gaze west and behold another gorgeous desert sunset. “Look at the welcome Donald Trump is getting from God!” Mark Finchem told the cheering crowd at Trump’s Save America rally in mid-January. Finchem, a term-limited Arizona state legislator and former public safety officer was granted the honor of opening for Trump because Finchem is running for secretary of state.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we know it and they know it: Donald Trump won!” he declared, provoking more cheers. Finchem is unpersuaded by multiple analyses and rulings debunking claims of fraud in Arizona, including a 93-page report issued 10 days before the rally by GOP officials in the state’s largest county. “I look forward to the day that we set aside an irredeemably flawed election,” Finchem continued. “With all the evidence we have, the Arizona election should be decertified with cause by the legislature. … This is how the people can get justice.”
When it was Trump’s turn to speak, he pointed to Finchem seated in the front row. “The next Arizona secretary of state — a man who’s tough and smart and loves our country. A man who you must get elected,” Trump said. “He’ll get to the bottom of everything. Do you think you’ll get to the bottom of it, Mark?” Finchem leaped to his feet and waved two thumbs up.
Finchem, who attended the protest Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, is a leading example of a new category of candidate drawn to the job: the election deniers, those who dispute Trump’s defeat. If elected to the seat being vacated by Democrat Katie Hobbs, who’s running for Arizona governor, Finchem favors using paper ballots with currency-style protections, making ballot images a public record, and making it easier to audit elections, according to his campaign website and interviews he’s given to conservative media. (He didn’t respond to my requests for an interview.) He’s a strong contender for the post, having raised nearly $700,000 — more than any of the Democratic candidates, and more than all but one of the Republicans, according to state campaign finance records. In mid-February, the congressional Jan. 6 investigation committee subpoenaed Finchem for information on efforts to overturn the election. Finchem responded in a tweet: “Kangaroo court speaks. LOL.”
As of late January, at least 21 election deniers were running for secretary of state in 18 states, according to new research by States United Action, a nonpartisan election protection advocacy group co-chaired by former Republican New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman. “It’s important that we pay attention, and early, to the rhetoric about our election system happening in these down-ballot races,” she said in a statement upon releasing the report in early February.
When election denialism gets injected into campaigns for secretary of state, the job itself can be undermined. “It’s certainly okay from a policy perspective to advocate different levels of voter ID or whether people need to request a mail ballot,” says Becker of the Center for Election Innovation & Research. “What we have now is several candidates … who seem to be running on a platform of election denial, on the idea that their role as the state’s chief election officer is not to give voice to the voters of their state, regardless of whether they agree with it or not, but rather to ensure that their preferred candidate takes office. That we’ve never seen before, and to see it on a scale like we are right now, where it’s a feature of their campaign, not a flaw … is an entirely new thing that’s very concerning.”
The election deniers argue that they are the true democracy defenders who want to pick up the pieces after a botched election. “I have been aware of, and fighting against, election fraud here in Nevada for a long time,” Jim Marchant, a Republican candidate vying to succeed the term-limited Barbara Cegavske, told me. Cegavske, a Republican, was censured by her party after she certified Biden’s victory. Added Marchant: “Once I get in there, I can start to whittle away at the ways that they cheat, to the point where the people that get elected here in Nevada are who the people of Nevada really want. We haven’t elected anybody here since 2006. They have been installed and selected by the cabal.”
Marchant is a former member of the state legislature who ran for Congress in 2020 with Trump’s endorsement. He lost the race by about 5 percentage points and sought a revote, alleging election fraud. A judge denied his request. So far Trump hasn’t endorsed him in the secretary of state race. But he told me he was asked by people in the “Trump orbit” last year to help form a coalition of like-minded secretary of state candidates from around the country. Dubbed the America First Secretary of State Coalition, the candidates listed on its website include Marchant, the three candidates endorsed by Trump — Finchem, Kristina Karamo in Michigan and Rep. Jody Hice in Georgia — plus candidates in Colorado and California. Marchant said he is meeting candidates in other states to add to the coalition.
Several states with election deniers on the ballot also have more traditional Republican candidates seeking the GOP nomination, making this year’s races the most unpredictable in history, says the dean of secretary of state political handicappers, Louis Jacobson. For about 20 years Jacobson has been reporting on down-ballot races; for the past 10 he’s been writing tipsheets on secretary of state races for various publications. It was lonely work, but he owned the beat. “My stories on secretaries of state … were really obscure,” Jacobson, who’s also a senior correspondent for PolitiFact, told me. “Up until very recently, it’s been pretty hard to get enough people to focus attention on the secretary of state.”
Now his expertise is in demand, and he’s been engaged to write regular analyses of down-ballot contests for the newsletter Sabato’s Crystal Ball out of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. In a recent piece Jacobson described how election denialism could boomerang against the GOP contenders: “Will the Republican simply coast to victory based on party affiliation alone, especially in a midterm election that is looking favorable to the GOP? Or will voters be turned off by a strongly Trump-aligned candidate whose opponent is painting them as a threat to democracy?”
The Republican secretary of state establishment is cool to the election deniers but reluctant to challenge them head-on. (A spokesman for the Republican State Leadership Committee didn’t respond to my question about the America First Coalition of candidates.)
Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams, vice chair of the Republican Secretaries of State Committee, pointed to his efforts to expand voting while ensuring security as a Republican model of making it easy to vote and hard to cheat. “Republicans for the moment have a better message because what you see on the Republican side … is we are talking about election integrity, we’re talking about verifying voter accuracy,” Adams told me. “But we’re also talking about ease of voting. … The Democrats are really focused almost exclusively on the easy-to-vote part, and I think that leaves them a weakness because voters do care about election integrity.”
As for campaigns built on claims that Trump won, speaking for himself and not the committee, Adams said: “I think it’s really hard for someone to run on a platform like that and then be able to win the confidence of not just the Republicans who vote in the primary, but also all of the voters who vote in the general election. I just think it’s a bad message. Even if you personally believe that, most people don’t. And that’s a great way to lose the election and not ever make a difference.”
Just as Republican election deniers depart from the stolid administrator types who used to aspire to these positions, a new profile of Democrat is jumping into the races: voting rights advocates who, in another era, might have pursued their passion as civil rights lawyers or state legislators.
“I consider it the chief democracy officer,” says Reginald Bolding, one of the Democrats running in Arizona. “In 2020, had Arizona not had a Democratic secretary of state, there is no guarantee that the rightful electoral votes from Arizona would have been awarded to Joe Biden.”
Bolding, who serves as Democratic leader in the state House of Representatives, is the founder of what his campaign says are the largest Black-led voting rights and community engagement groups in the state. They registered more than 50,000 voters and filed federal lawsuits to protect voting rights. Bolding told me he thinks the secretary of state’s office is the most effective place for him to continue his work seeking to expand access to the polls while ensuring the people’s voice is heard.
The battleground state of Nevada, too, has several Democrats who feel called to defend democracy as secretary of state. “I started to see who was running in that field on the Republican side, and it’s not your normal Republican. It’s the extremist,” says Cisco Aguilar, a former state athletic commissioner and sports management lawyer who’s the founding chairman of a Catholic high school for economically marginalized students in North Las Vegas.
He began to see secretary of state as a perch where he could move the needle on societal problems he wanted to solve. “I can continue to spin my wheels doing the work we’re doing as a community, but we are never going to get anywhere if we don’t have access to the polls,” he told me. “And I thought: Here I am fighting for the fundamental right of education, when the fundamental right to vote is being challenged.”
In Michigan, another swing state targeted by Trump, incumbent Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson was a pioneer of the new wave of aspiring Democratic secretaries. She went to law school with the express purpose of becoming a voting rights attorney and enforcing the Voting Rights Act. But after she saw the power secretaries of state had in elections in Florida and Ohio in the early 2000s, she had an epiphany. “Instead of trying to sue secretaries of state to compel them to do the right thing, what if I just ran for the position and tried to do the right thing?” she told me in a telephone interview.
Benson lost her first try for the job in 2010, the year she published a book profiling estimable Democratic and Republican secretaries of state titled “State Secretaries of State: Guardians of the Democratic Process.” She was elected in 2018 and is running for reelection against Kristina Karamo, the Trump-endorsed Republican. Karamo’s campaign denied my request for an interview but referred me to her website, which includes an interview in which she claims Benson was “strategically placed” in office by liberal interests to get their friends elected. Since Trump’s defeat in Michigan, Benson has endured similar evidence-free attacks on what she says was “the most high-turnout and secure election in our state’s history.” This year around the country, she adds, “Democracy is on the ballot in November.”
In Colorado, Jena Griswold became the nation’s youngest elected secretary of state, at 34, in 2019, and the first Democratic one in Colorado since the early 1960s. Griswold ran in response to rhetoric about voter fraud that Trump started using three years before he faced reelection. “It just became clear to me at that point that the foundation of the country as we knew it was being shaped in a different way,” she told me. “And so I decided to run.”
Now she’s being challenged by several Republicans. “We see in every swing state, including in Colorado, someone who … says 2020 was taken from President Trump, in the face of all the facts to the contrary, running to oversee elections,” she says. “That’s like giving a bank robber the keys to the vault.”
However, Democratic advocacy for voting rights and against ballot suppression can shade into what might sound like a liberal form of election denialism. Stacey Abrams initially refused to concede her 2018 loss in the Georgia governor’s race to Brian Kemp — in part because of actions Kemp had taken as secretary of state overseeing the very election he was competing in, such as purging more than a million voters from the rolls. Kemp argued that the pruning, conducted over several years, was a routine part of keeping the rolls up to date. The following year Abrams told the New York Times that, while Kemp got enough votes to win, she still had “legally sufficient doubt about the process to say that it was not a fair election.”
In January during a news conference, Biden cast potential doubt on the reliability of the 2022 elections if stalled voting rights measures, which Democratic secretaries of state also support, weren’t passed. (Senate Republicans later blocked the measures.) “I’m not going to say it’s going to be legit,” Biden said. “The increase and the prospect of being illegitimate is in direct proportion to us not being able to get these — these reforms passed.”
The idea that elections might be unreliable unless Democrats get their way — or unless Democrats get elected secretary of state — is a strain of the same poison being peddled by people who say Biden didn’t win.
The White House later tried to recast Biden’s remarks as saying what would happen if the states do in 2022 what Trump wanted them to do in 2020. Either way, the damage was done. Back in Georgia, Raffensperger tweeted: “President Biden should not be undermining the integrity of our elections. Pushing these claims is a threat to the security of American democracy.”
The last time a Georgia secretary of state had to hide the Great Seal was in 1947, when Ben Fortson held the job. The governor-elect died before he could be inaugurated, and three rivals claimed the position, prompting the so-called Three Governors Controversy. One of the pretenders seized the governor’s office and changed the locks. While the courts sorted out the crisis, Fortson knew that none of the ersatz governors could sign legislation without the Great Seal. So Fortson, who used a wheelchair, hid the seal under his cushion and sat on it for two months until a legitimate governor was named.
Fortson is Raffensperger’s role model for a secretary of state rising above the political fray and maintaining “unquestioned integrity.” Now Raffensperger finds himself in a lonely reelection battle with challengers on the right and the left questioning his impartiality.
Trump has endorsed Rep. Jody Hice, now in his fourth term in Congress. That a sitting member of Congress would leave to run for secretary of state shows how the political gravitas of the job has spiked. “Yes, I believe Trump won,” Hice told me in a telephone interview. “If we were to get an accurate count of the votes in Georgia, I believe absolutely Trump won Georgia.”
Hice maintains that steps Raffensperger took during the pandemic opened the election to fraud. When I asked about the multiple recounts, the spot check of signature matches and other reviews that found no evidence of fraud, he said: “If you have a hundred dollars of counterfeit money and you recount them over and over and over, you may get the same count, but you still have counterfeit money. The question was not the count. The question was whether or not the ballots were legal.”
The other main Republican challenger is lawyer David Belle Isle, who lost to Raffensperger in a primary runoff in 2018. We met in his office in Alpharetta, a small city outside Atlanta, where he had been mayor. He told me he’s not in a position to identify the specific tainted votes that gave Biden the victory but added: “I believe on statistics alone that Trump won Georgia.” As proof, he points to what he says is a sharply higher rejection rate for absentee ballot signatures in past elections compared with 2020. (Raffensperger’s office disputes that there is such a large discrepancy.)
“Brad had a colossal failure to be curious,” Belle Isle says. “He came up with a conclusion just two days after the election that it was the fairest, most secure election in Georgia’s history. … His conclusion came first, and everything that has happened after that has been to support the conclusion.”
On the other side of the aisle, Raffensperger obliterated much of the goodwill he may have enjoyed with Democrats when he supported an election bill passed in Georgia last year that addressed many of Trump supporters’ complaints. “I recognized it was the same man who I’ve always known, who would always come to committee and not be a friend for voting rights,” says Bee Nguyen, a state legislator who is one of the top Democrats seeking Raffensperger’s job.
Nguyen holds Stacey Abrams’s old seat and is an outspoken advocate for voting rights. She told me running for secretary of state “was not part of my plan” until the aftermath of the 2020 election, when she saw how decisive the job could be in securing the right to vote. To her, Raffensperger now merely wants “to placate this base that has rejected him — this base that continues to double down on the ‘big lie.’ ”
If none of the Republicans prevail in the primary in May, there will be a runoff in June. Hice and Belle Isle say Raffensperger can’t win a one-on-one Republican runoff. Raffensperger, for his part, says he’s the only Republican who can win the general election against Nguyen or another Democrat.
As I surveyed the secretary of state landscape, I kept bumping into examples of how this infinitely elastic job has been shaped and tugged and sometimes twisted to meet the needs of the moment. Given the intense partisanship of today, we probably should have expected the job to be hammered into its latest incarnation: crusader.
Near the end of my exploration, seeking the consolation of experience, I consulted America’s longest-serving secretary of state currently in office, who, until recently, thought he had seen it all. Doug La Follette, 81, was elected to the job in Wisconsin in 1974; except for a four-year break, he’s held it ever since. He imagined it might be a steppingstone to higher office but, predictably — nope. He lost races for lieutenant governor, U.S. Senate and U.S. House. So he settled in for the long haul, trying to modernize the office, using it as a bully pulpit for his environmental activism as one of the organizers of the first Earth Day.
Before he took office, the legislature removed election authority and handed it to an outside election board. Then, during Democrat La Follette’s long tenure, Republican governors stripped away nearly all the remaining grab bag of duties. In the early 1970s, La Follette had nearly 50 employees. Today he has two and is relegated to a tiny office in the basement of the state Capitol.
“How do I feel?” La Follette asked during a Zoom call. “To be quite honest, I feel damn s---ty about it, because it means that in my tenure, the office has been emasculated.” The main thing he does now is authenticate documents for foreign transactions. “I can do the office with both hands tied behind my back, and it’s not a very exciting thing if you like to do stuff.”
Then the 2020 election happened. Trump supporters refused to accept Biden’s 20,000-plus vote victory in Wisconsin. That December, someone delivered to the basement office a list of electors — in support of Trump. One of La Follette’s other duties, every four years, is to authenticate the official list of electors transmitted by the governor to Congress. In 2020, of course, it was a list of Biden electors.
“They said, ‘We met and we chose these electors supporting President Trump’s reelection,’ ” La Follette recalled. “Of course, it didn’t come from the governor, and it wasn’t authentic. So I just kind of smiled. … I put them in a drawer and forgot about it.” Now the Jan. 6 committee in Congress and other investigators are digging into the scheme to submit Trump electors from multiple swing states. “People have now gotten interested in those fake electors,” La Follette said. “So I got them out of the drawer.”
Suddenly his job looms larger than it has in decades. For the first time in memory, the race for Wisconsin secretary of state really matters. Four Republicans and a Libertarian candidate have signaled interest. At least two of the Republican candidates want to restore election authority to the office after all these years. That defies the trend in some other swing states, where Republican legislatures have sought to weaken the secretary of state. But it perfectly fits the politicization of the office: Since Trump’s loss in Wisconsin can’t be blamed on the secretary of state, but allegedly on the outside election commission, why not give power back to the secretary of state and elect a Republican?
“The biggest applause line I get is when I say the Wisconsin Elections Commission has to be fired,” Jay Schroeder, one of the Republicans campaigning for the nomination, told me. He calls himself an America First candidate, and he’s a serious contender in the race. When he ran against La Follette in 2018, he got 47 percent of the vote. “The secretary of state was a sleepy position, kind of in hibernation — but it isn’t now.”
After more than 40 years in office, La Follette could easily consider retiring, but now he’s not so sure. “If they can elect a Republican secretary of state, and if they can elect a Republican governor this year, and we’re going to have a Republican legislature — that’s fixed in stone by gerrymandering … then they can fuddle with the election the way Trump might like them to,” he says.
With his statewide name recognition, La Follette would be a strong candidate, but when we talked in late January, he still hadn’t decided on running. What gave him the most pause was the requirement to get thousands of signatures for his candidacy. That’s a risky activity for an 81-year-old during the pandemic. But then, serving as secretary of state these days is a risky activity. Like everyone aspiring to be secretary of state in 2022, Republicans and Democrats, La Follette thought the state — and the nation — just may depend on his taking the chance.
David Montgomery is a staff writer for the magazine. Washington Post researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.