The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats will have to find new ways to defend voting rights. Here’s one.

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold on June 30, 2020, in Denver. (David Zalubowski/AP)

The awful new Supreme Court decision on voting rights is more than just a reminder that the court will continue to uphold even the most nakedly obvious Republican voter suppression efforts, though it is that.

It’s also a reminder that Democrats will have to adopt a kind of flood-the-zone approach, in which they look for every new way to defend voting rights they can find, at all levels of politics and government.

One key place where this must happen is in oft-neglected down-ballot races. In particular, races for secretary of state — the position of chief election officer in many states — will suddenly become a lot more important.

“We’re seeing a coordinated national attack on democracy,” Jena Griswold, the Colorado secretary of state and the chair of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State (DASS), told me, adding that officials in this role often “have a lot of executive power to protect the vote.”

In many states, these are elected positions, and Democrats are now focused on 2022 races in at least five battleground states. In three — Michigan, Arizona and Colorado — the position is held by Democrats but Republicans are gunning for the seats. In Nevada and Georgia, Republicans already hold the position, but Democrats see pickup opportunities.

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These races matter, in part because secretaries of state can have a real impact on voting rights and access, largely through the exercise of executive authority and through the administering of elections.

Examples cited by DASS include the following: In Arizona, the secretary of state set up automatic voter registration. In Michigan, the secretary of state worked to ensure that as many voters as possible had absentee ballot forms amid the pandemic. And in Colorado, Griswold helped expand the number of mail ballot drop boxes on tribal reservations and college campuses.

Republicans understand perfectly how important this position is to the functioning and integrity of our democracy. In three of those contested battlegrounds Republicans who have questioned the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s loss are now running for the position.

At the same time, in some cases GOP state legislators are working to weaken the position’s authority. In Arizona, Republicans curbed the ability of the secretary of state to defend election laws against court challenge. In Georgia, Republicans stripped the secretary of state of power over the State Election Board.

In the Georgia case, the secretary of state is a Republican, Brad Raffensperger. But this confirms the point: Raffensperger rebuffed Trump’s pressure to help steal the 2020 election, and now he faces a primary challenger who has vowed to use his power to overturn future elections in a way Raffensperger wouldn’t.

In short, this position is crucial to efforts to corrupt democracy as well as to defending it. “The folks who are trying to suppress the vote and grab power understand this executive authority and are trying to roll it back,” Griswold told me.

The Supreme Court decision upholding two Arizona laws — one making it easier to invalidate ballots, the other making it harder to collect them — weakens yet another check on GOP voter suppression. As Rick Hasen notes, the ruling “has severely weakened Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act as a tool to fight against laws that make it harder to register and vote.”

Coming at a time when Republicans have blocked congressional action, and a handful of Democrats are enabling that by defending the filibuster, an all-hands-on-deck approach will be needed. That includes popular mobilization, voter registration drives and, yes, paying attention to sleepy down-ballot races.

“The Supreme Court has decided not to protect voters and in particular voters of color, and that will have rippling effects across the nation,” Griswold told me. “It’s going to be up to secretaries of state.”

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