In most states across the country, voters elect the chief election officer in their state — their secretary of state. These officials hold the keys to vital parts of the election administration process — and who holds these offices has significant ramifications for elections.
As seen in the 2020 elections, they can either stand as bulwarks against illegal election interference or aid right-wing conspiracy theorists in their efforts to undermine our democracy. In today’s Explainer, we’ll walk through why secretaries of state are so important — and how you can work to get Democrats elected to these positions across the country.
What do secretaries of state do?
In 35 states, secretaries of state are elected by the people, and in the other 12, the secretary is appointed by either the governor or the state legislature. The position does not exist in Alaska, Hawaii or Utah. Their roles can vary, but in the vast majority of states, they serve as chief election officers, with responsibilities such as maintaining voter databases, registering voters and overseeing the administration of elections. In the United States, our elections are significantly more decentralized than other countries, with local officials and state entities deciding the majority of voting rules for non-federal elections. This distribution of power vests significant responsibility with secretaries, who must ensure that elections for all levels of office in their state run smoothly, new or changed voting laws are put in place in a timely manner and collaboration with the federal government over funding and rules goes well. These secretaries can be advocates for voters by expanding voting access and ensuring that elections go off without a hitch — or they can undermine the process by restricting voting options and helping suppressive laws limit the democratic process.
Why does this role matter?
In 2020, our presidential election faced multiple threats. Outside interference, an unprecedented global pandemic and Trump’s repeated delegitimization of our democracy all compounded the challenges faced by secretaries of state. Through it all, these chief election officers were tasked with dealing with these challenges on short notice, expanding voting opportunities for at-risk voters and maintaining trust in our election systems. Faced with these challenges, Democratic secretaries of state stood in firm defense of democracy — and Republicans saw an opportunity to further their partisan interests.
The powers of the secretary of state differ from state to state. But Democrats used the abilities available to them to expand voting access and push back against legislators turned conspiracy theorists. In California, then-Secretary of State Alex Padilla (D) implemented automatic voter registration before the 2020 election, increasing voter registration by 25% in one year, and transitioned the state to mail-in voting to ensure voters stayed safe while casting their ballots. In Michigan, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) proactively sent ballot applications to all registered voters in the state, which drew the ire of then-President Donald Trump. In February, Benson announced a post-election legislative agenda to expand ballot access that included making this automatic application distribution to all voters permanent for every federal election, making Election Day a holiday and more. Secretary of State Jena Griswold (D) in Colorado has established automatic voter registration and extended extra pay and sick leave policies to poll workers. Secretary of State Jim Condos (D) in Vermont recently spearheaded universal mail-in voting in the state, which was signed into law in early June. And in Arizona, where unnecessary and unconstitutional audits pushed by Republican conspiracy theorists have continued for months, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D) has sued to stop the audit, successfully won access for observers on the audit floor and launched a public website documenting and reporting all recorded violations and mistakes made by Republican officials and the private firms they hired to conduct the audit.
Meanwhile, Republican secretaries have been instrumental to the mismanagement and purposeful sabotage of our voting systems that defines the conservative project to limit the franchise. In Georgia, Secretary Brad Raffensberger (R) oversaw a 2020 primary election that severely limited access for Black voters: 80 Atlanta-area polling locations closed and mail-in ballots that were requested were never delivered, forcing voters into long lines in the middle of a pandemic in an effort to have their voices heard. Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft (R) of Missouri has repeatedly advocated for stricter voter ID laws, despite the state Supreme Court repeatedly striking down provisions of the legislation. “I don’t care what the Supreme Court says,” said Ashcroft of the rulings. “You all should make the decision, the people of the state.” Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee (R) has pushed to ensure that voters’ decision to restore voting rights to ex-felons in the state never gets enforced. Lee repeatedly sued and appealed to keep the issue bound up in court before the 2020 election, and continues to use litigation to suppress voters in 2021 by defending the Florida voter suppression law, Senate Bill 90, in court.
How do we protect these offices?
Republican legislatures in states with Democratic secretaries have been working to strip them of their election powers and reassign these responsibilities to the legislature. This type of legislative seizure is increasingly common and disconcerting in light of the 2020 election where Democratic secretaries of state in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona were some of the last lines of defense against Trump’s baseless, conspiratorial attacks on our democracy. Where they can’t strip current secretaries of their powers, Republicans are putting forward terrifying candidates to run in the next election. In a recent piece for Democracy Docket, Chair of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State (DASS) Jena Griswold wrote of these candidates: “Make no mistake: these conspiracy theorists want these secretary of state positions to try to bend democracy to their will. This is nothing more than an ongoing, coordinated effort to suppress voters and grab power. It’s undemocratic, un-American and just wrong. We cannot let this become our standard for elected officials.”
In states where secretaries of state are elected, Democrats are working to secure their current positions and flip even more seats. If you want to help protect the democratic process and elect Democrats, look no further than the DASS — it has all the resources you need to help elect Democrats in your state and across the country. “In every state, we need to elect secretaries of state who believe in democracy and who believe every eligible American should be able to choose their elected leaders at the ballot box,” wrote Griswold. “That is how we protect our democracy. We cannot elect officials as chief election officers who spread lies in order to pass voter suppression laws to help their political allies.”
Visit the DASS site now to volunteer, donate and stay up to date on their efforts before the next election.