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Democrats, citing GOP-imposed voting restrictions, aim to flip secretary of state offices in five states

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who heads the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, is launching an initiative to try to take back those offices from Republicans. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

The Democratic Association of Secretaries of State is launching an initiative to try to wrest control of those offices from Republicans, who the group claims have used their power to make it harder for certain demographics to vote.

Buoyed by successes last year in Arizona, Colorado and Michigan, the group has set its sights on flipping five more states in 2020. In addition to recruiting and supporting Democratic candidates, the association is planning a public education campaign on the importance of secretaries of state, who oversee the election process in most states.

The offices of governor, U.S. senator and even attorney general tend to get more attention in statewide elections than that of secretary of state. But Alex Padilla, California’s secretary of state and the head of the association, said Republicans understand the influence of the office and have used it unfairly to their party’s advantage.

“For all of the talk about taking back the White House and the Senate, all the important races that people tend to focus more on, in my mind it starts with making elections fair again,” Padilla said.

He said Republican secretaries of state not only facilitate more-restrictive policies for voters but also have mostly remained silent as President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have downplayed or blocked efforts to address Russian interference in U.S. elections.

Padilla said that instead of encouraging more people to vote, Republicans have sought to “limit or control the electorate … to tilt the scales in their favor by excluding voters who are disproportionately lower-income, disproportionately from communities of color, disproportionately young.”

In a video ad for the initiative, Padilla says: “The threat is real. Republican secretaries of state are helping Trump wage a Jim Crow-style assault on our voting rights.”

The Democratic Association of Secretaries of State hopes to unseat Republicans in Missouri, Montana, Oregon, Washington and West Virginia next year and will work to reelect Democratic secretaries in North Carolina and Vermont. Padilla said the group also will support Democrats in races this fall in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi. Republicans currently have a 25-to-22 advantage among secretaries of state. The office does not exist in Alaska, Hawaii and Utah.

Padilla is scheduled to announce the effort Thursday during the Democratic National Committee’s summer meeting in San Francisco. It comes at a time when the issue of the integrity of the nation’s electoral system is being raised both by Democrats and by Trump.

House Democrats in June passed an election security bill to protect the nation’s voting system from foreign interference, but McConnell has refused to bring it up for a vote in the Senate. Trump falsely claimed that millions of illegal votes were cast in 2016, and shortly after he took office, he appointed a commission to study voter fraud. But many secretaries of state, including some Republicans, refused to turn over their states’ voter rolls, and the body disbanded without offering any evidence of fraud. Trump has continued to push conspiracy theories about extensive voter fraud.

Since 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court weakened the federal Voting Rights Act, many states with Republican-controlled legislatures have enacted stricter laws for voter registration and voter identification and cut back on early voting hours and polling places. Those rules often disproportionately affect people of color, young people and low-income people, groups that tend to vote for Democrats and liberals.

Democrats say such policies amount to voter suppression. Republicans argue that stricter laws are needed to guard against voter fraud, though studies have found no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the United States.

Jason Snead, a policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, dismissed the notion of voter suppression in an interview last week after former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams announced an initiative to help Democrats set up voter protection operations in 20 states next year.

“I simply do not see any evidence of voter suppression and do not subscribe to the notion that election integrity measures constitute voter suppression,” Snead said.

He said requiring people to show identification to vote and routinely purging from voter rolls the names of people who have not cast ballots in years are reasonable safeguards.

“I don’t think they’re designed in any way to disenfranchise voters, and I don’t think they have that effect,” he said.

Republicans and conservative activists have criticized Padilla for problems with last year’s launch of California’s “motor voter” program, including about 84,000 duplicate registrations, inaccurate party affiliations and about 1,500 ineligible people who were registered to vote. Some GOP lawmakers and conservative activists have blamed some midterm losses for the glitches, but news reports have not uncovered significant voter fraud.

Former U.S. attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., who heads the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, is also contributing to the effort to flip secretaries of state. Republicans, whose numbers are shrinking in relation to those of Democrats as a result of demographic changes, he said, are trying to hold on to power by making it more difficult for an increasingly diverse electorate to vote. “It’s un-American and unpatriotic,” he said.

“Our election system is the bedrock of the democratic process,” Holder said. “If their power is unchecked, Republican secretaries of state will undermine our elections and ultimately undermine our democracy.”

The debate over how states run elections ignited last year in Georgia when Republican Brian Kemp refused to step down as secretary of state while running for governor. During Kemp’s tenure, more than 1.4 million voters were purged from the rolls and tens of thousands of people had their registration put on hold for minor discrepancies or because application processing was arbitrarily cut off. Kemp was ordered by the courts multiple times to reverse or revise such policies.

Abrams, the Democratic nominee, called Kemp the “architect of voter suppression” and cited widespread voting irregularities for her narrow defeat. She formed the voter protection initiative Fair Fight and filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the state “grossly mismanaged” the 2018 election, calling for improvements to how the state runs its elections ⁠ — from how it registers voters to how it counts ballots.

Abrams last week announced her Fair Fight 2020 campaign, a $5 million program that provides funding and technical assistance to help Democrats hire staff, set up hotlines and develop communications strategies to help voters obtain registration information.

Padilla said Republicans’ “overly aggressive purges of voter rolls and voter identification are solutions in search of problems,” and why the association’s initiative aims to “elect as many pro-voting-rights Democratic secretaries of state as possible.”

“If you look at the facts, look at the voter data, fraud in America is exceedingly, exceedingly rare, which means the current safeguards are working,” he said. “Yes, the integrity and security of our elections is important, but so is the accessibility of our elections, and that’s what we should all be striving for.”

This post has been updated.