State Watch

New spotlight on secretaries of state as electoral battlegrounds

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PHOENIX — Democrats and Republicans are preparing to pour millions of dollars into races for secretary of state in half the states next year amid a new recognition that those who oversee the electoral process can play pivotal roles in deciding an election’s outcome.

The focus follows former President Trump’s pressure campaign on state leaders to overturn the results of last year’s election, and as Republican-controlled state legislatures advance and pass electoral reform bills that would limit access to absentee ballots, drop boxes and other avenues to voting.

“These offices used to be kind of sleepy offices, they were personality contests and the people who ran for them were paper-pushers,” said Michael Adams (R), Kentucky’s secretary of state and the vice chair of the Republican Secretaries of State Committee, a group that will back GOP candidates. “We’re going to be uniquely a focus in a way that we never have been before. Our side is going to be prepared for that.”

Candidates are already drawing battle lines in contests that will determine which party controls the electoral experience voters will face in the next presidential election.

Democrats cast the races as critical to ensuring the future of American democracy, in the face of Trump’s unprecedented assault on historical norms and the truth.

“We need to stand with the American people, because American voters, both Democrats and Republicans, overwhelmingly support having free and fair elections,” said Jena Griswold (D), Colorado’s secretary of state and chair of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State. “Democracy will be on the ballot in 2022.”

For Republicans, the situation is more complicated, and the message more muddled.

Some in Republican primaries, like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R), will promote their efforts to secure elections while expanding access. Others, like Raffensperger’s primary challenger, Rep. Jody Hice (R), will back Trump’s false claims about election fraud; in an interview with CNN in May, Hice said Trump would have won Georgia, a state he lost by nearly 12,000 votes, had the race been “fair.”

Adams, who helped advance bipartisan election reform that won broad support from both Democrats in the legislature and Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D), said the GOP primaries would split between two factions.

“You’re gong to have two different types of candidates running on our side, I’m talking about primaries. You’re going to have bomb throwers and you’re going to have people like me and [Washington Secretary of State] Kim Wyman and [Ohio Secretary of State] Frank LaRose,” Adams said, pointing to Republican colleagues in other states — one President Biden won, and one in Trump’s column — who won high marks for election administration in 2020.

“If you’re a secretary of state, you work for everybody, and you’re personally held accountable for the quality of your election system, not just integrity, but the whole customer service experience,” Adams said. “Your handling of yourself needs to be apolitical.”

Though it is early in the election cycle, Arizona is already shaping up as a key battleground between all three factions: Former Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes (D), who administered the 2020 elections in the state’s largest county, and state House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding (D) are vying for the Democratic nomination to replace Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D), who is running for governor.

On the Republican side, the leading contenders are state Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, state Rep. Mark Finchem and state Rep. Shawnna Bolick, three Republicans who reflect the current schism among their party’s elected leaders.

Ugenti-Rita is chair of the Senate Elections Committee and the author of several bills passed this year aimed at reforming election administration in ways critics say will restrict voter access. She voted to fund an audit of Maricopa County’s election results after Biden became the first Democrat to carry the state since former President Clinton, but in recent weeks she has turned against what she called a “botched” process.

Finchem has no such qualms. Attired in a trademark cowboy hat, he has appeared on far-right networks and podcasts associated with the QAnon conspiracy theory to claim the audit would flip Arizona’s electoral votes back to Trump. Footage shows Finchem attended the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, though there is no evidence he entered the building.

Bolick went one step farther than Finchem: She introduced legislation last year that would have permitted the state legislature to reject a secretary of state’s certification of presidential electors in a simple majority vote, effectively nullifying the legitimate results of a presidential election.

At a recent Phoenix rally that Trump attended, hosted by the conservative student group Turning Point USA, which has recently become a hive of anti-vaccination propaganda, Ugenti-Rita was booed off stage.

In an interview last week, Ugenti-Rita, who has made election reform her area of expertise during a decade in the legislature, said voters are more interested now in electoral rules than they had been in the past.

“I get a lot more from the press than I have previously, but the same group of people that were interested in it years ago are still interested in it today,” she said. “It’s definitely percolating as a more mainstream issue” after the 2020 elections, when Democrats pushed administrative changes to election rules in the midst of the pandemic.

“They kind of needed a vessel, and they used COVID as a vessel to weaken our election system,” Ugenti-Rita said.

Twenty-six states will elect secretaries of state in next year’s elections, including many that will be at the heart of the race for the White House in 2024. Republicans are defending 14 states they currently control, including Nevada, Iowa, Ohio and Georgia. Democrats are running to save seats in 12 states, including Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Those who win office will have the immediate power to oversee elections, business registrations and in some states agencies like the Department of Motor Vehicles. They will also have a critical stepping stone to higher office: Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D), Sens. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Reps. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), Chris Jacobs (R-N.Y.), Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), Roger Williams (R-Texas) and Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) all served as secretaries of state before winning their current posts.

Races that have in the past attracted little outside attention are now likely to be the targets of millions in outside spending. The Republican State Leadership Committee, the umbrella organization overseeing the Secretaries of State Committee, has raised $6.5 million so far this cycle. Their Democratic counterparts have raised $2 million and are budgeting for $15 million for the entire cycle.

“We can win a lot of these seats,” Griswold said. “The urgency is at an all-time high.”

Tags Alex Padilla Arizona Bill Clinton Brian Kemp Donald Trump Electoral College Jim Langevin Jody Hice Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kate Brown National Association of Secretaries of State Roger Williams Roy Blunt Sherrod Brown state elections Tom Cole
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