The Washington Post

Big-money partisanship invades quiet realm of secretary of state elections

In this Oct. 2, 2012, file photo, voters stand in line outside the Hamilton County Board of Elections in Cincinnati. Last month, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted (R) announced that voters who want to vote early this year will have 22 days to do so. For the first time since early voting was established in Ohio, early-vote locations will not be open on a Sunday. (Al Behrman/AP)

The partisan battle over voting restrictions is engulfing secretary-of-state races around the country, as parties on both sides focus on controlling the offices responsible for administering election laws.

Democrats and Republicans are launching high-profile and well-financed campaigns aimed at spending millions of dollars in what are normally under-the-
radar contests.

On the left, veterans of President Obama’s reelection campaign have launched iVote, a super PAC that will funnel money to battleground states with competitive races for secretary of state. Another group, dubbed SoS for Democracy, is being led by longtime labor activists Steve Rosenthal and Larry Scanlon.

From the right, a super PAC called SOS for SoS — organized by a former top official at an outside group that supported Newt Gingrich — is aiming to raise and spend $10 million on key races.

Another group, the Republican Secretaries of State Committee (RSSC), will run its own independent campaigns aimed at keeping GOP officials in top elections offices; that group is being run out of the long-established Republican State Leadership Committee.

“There seems to be renewed interest on secretaries races with all these new PACs,” Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R), who chairs the RSSC, said in an interview. “It’s a political race, and this year will be no different. I think there’s a lot more focus on our races now than there ever has been.”

In the past, secretary-of-state races have been fairly nonpartisan, with the outcomes determined more by whether the incumbents have run the department of motor vehicles well or similar technocratic measures.

But recent battles over voter-identification legislation, the Supreme Court’s decision rolling back a part of the Voting Rights Act, and Democratic efforts to establish mail-in elections in states such as Colorado, Washington and Oregon have injected a new partisanship into once-nonpartisan races.

Republicans control 28 election administration positions, compared with 22 for Democrats. Eighteen Republican seats and nine Democratic seats are up for grabs in 2014.

“Voting rights are really under attack across the country, and that attack is being led by the Republican Party,” said Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily’s List, an outside fundraising group that aids Democratic women who support abortion rights. “They’ve already pushed voter-ID requirements. They’ve reduced early voting.”

In many states, secretaries of state have wide latitude over purging voters because of registration errors, how provisional ballots are processed and the hours during which early-voting stations are open.

“Folks are beginning to understand how important this office always has been,” said Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, a Democrat challenging the incumbent secretary of state this fall. “You can shave off votes here and there just by [changing] the rules.”

Last month, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted (R) announced that voters who want to vote early this year will have 22 days to do so — weekdays between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. for four weeks, and the final two Saturdays before Election Day, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

For the first time since early voting was established in Ohio, early-voting locations will not be open on a Sunday.

Democrats say the lack of Sunday hours will affect their ability to turn out voters. For years, church groups in primarily African American, heavily Democratic precincts have driven voters to the polls on Sundays — an effort activists refer to as “souls to the polls.”

“There are no evening hours in this latest directive, and there are no Sundays. It makes no sense,” Turner said. “This is disenfranchising a great deal of Ohioans who really enjoy access to the ballot.”

Beyond Ohio, Democrats are aiming to topple Republican incumbents in states such as Michigan, Indiana and New Mexico, and to win back Republican-held offices that incumbents are vacating in Iowa, Arizona and Colorado.

Republicans are hoping to win offices that Democrats hold in Nevada, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The new money set to be injected into battleground states is likely to vastly outweigh that raised by the candidates themselves. Most such races have been relatively inexpensive in the past: Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett and his Democratic opponent spent a total of $936,000 in 2010, while Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler (R) and his rival spent a combined $630,000.

“When it comes to elections, we want to make it easier for people to vote and harder to cheat,” said Kemp, the Georgia secretary of state. “You want people in office that you know will make sure there’s a fair process that’s not manipulated.”

Some secretaries of state bemoan the arrival of partisan politics into their races. Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman (R) is the only statewide elected Republican on the entire West Coast — a feat she attributes to focusing her campaign on managing the office well rather than on partisan issues.

“I had over 20 years’ experience in conducting elections at the county level. My opponent didn’t have that experience, and she really ran a campaign focused on being pro-gay marriage, pro-women’s right to choose, the kind of solid Democratic agenda,” Wyman said. “I was keeping those things out of the race, saying running elections are more important than any of this.”

Reid Wilson covers national politics and Congress for The Washington Post. He is the author of Read In, The Post’s morning tip sheet on politics.


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