Secretaries of State: Our democracy's new first responders
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In recent weeks, our nation and our democracy were attacked by our own government. Donald Trump’s “voter integrity” commission demanded each state hand over the names, addresses, and social security numbers of millions of Americans citizens. Led by state secretaries of State, more than 40 states said “no” in whole or part to Trump’s effort.

Just two weeks ago we learned of another unprecedented attack on our nation and our great democracy. Department of Homeland Security officials testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that Russian agents attempted to hack the election systems of 21 states in advance of the 2016 elections. An earlier report by Bloomberg found that the election systems of up to 39 states were hacked by Russia.

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Secretaries of State are on the frontlines of our national security: election systems in over 30 states are run by state secretaries of State.  In a world of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, secretaries of State are our democracy’s new first responders. Voters don’t tend to be invested in this political office, but the person filling the role will be guarding against attempts by a hostile foreign government to compromise our democracy.

The seemingly dull administrative position is actually a powerful political office that some use to suppress the will of voters and others use to ensure that every eligible voter has their voice heard.

The prime example of the former is Kris Kobach, the secretary of State appointed by President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Republicans move to block Yemen war-powers votes for rest of Congress Trump says he's considering 10 to 12 contenders for chief of staff Michael Flynn asks judge to spare him from jail time MORE to lead his attempts to legitimize his own election in the face of his popular vote loss. Kobach’s efforts to undermine participation earned the nickname “King of Voter Suppression” by the ACLU. He is the mastermind behind Kansas’s “Show me your papers” law which demanded everyone show a birth certificate in order to register to vote, until the conservative 10th Circuit unanimously found it to be unconstitutional.  

Media reports are that he’s now planning to undermine the national “motor-voter” bill — the hugely popular 20-year old law which allows people to register at DMVs. Fighting Kris Kobach is like whack-a-mole: every time the courts strike down one of his ideas, he comes up with another, like dual-registration systems or “Cross Check.”  

Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams announced he would be one of the few to comply with parts of the Trump demands to hand over the personal information of Colorado voters. Just as the commission intended, the results have been chilling. Denver election officials have reported a 2,150-percent increase in people withdrawing from voting rolls in just the first week.

On Election Day, American citizens need to remember the critical roles these officials play, and vote to protect and advance our democracy. Our county’s values and security may depend on them. We wouldn’t knowingly hire a police officer in cahoots with the mob, or firefighter that moonlights as an arsonist. Likewise, we can’t hire secretaries of State that suppress the vote, give away our personal information, or allow hostile foreign governments to undermine our vote.

As one of our democracy’s new first responders, a strong secretary of State should work to modernize our elections and encourage greater participation. Rather than exposing our personal information to the federal government, they should work with federal authorities to keep hostile governments from hacking our elections. Rather than tacitly dissuading participation, secretaries of State should actively work to expand access to voting for all eligible citizens with automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, and long periods of early voting.  

Secretaries of State have direct jurisdiction over the exercise our democracy in more than 30 states. News reports are telling us that attacks on our democracy are coming from inside and outside of our borders. We need to start thinking differently about the importance of the office. We aren’t just electing an administrator. We’re electing a guardian of our country’s values. We need to start voting like it.

Ellen Kurz is the founder and President of iVote, a voting rights advocacy organization that runs campaigns to elect officials and enact laws that will expand access to voting. iVote ran multiple independent expenditure campaigns to elect pro-voting secretaries of State, including electing Maggie Toulouse Oliver in New Mexico. iVote has also helped pass automatic voter registration legislation in jurisdictions around the country including California and Illinois.


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