How Secretaries of State Can Lead the Fight to Strengthen Democracy

A blueprint with an blue outline of the Massachusetts state shape beneath a hand holding a megaphone and notepad that says, in black ink, "We demand voting rights now!" with a black pen and black pencil next to the notepad.

The existential threats to our democracy demand urgent action. But with Republicans (and some Democrats) in Congress blocking federal efforts to reinstate critical elements of the Voting Rights Act, safeguard the right to vote and fight back against systemic disenfranchisement, the responsibility inevitably falls to the states — particularly blue states like Massachusetts — to lead the way on not only protecting but also expanding voting rights.

Voting rights are civil rights, and as relentless state-level attacks across the country have made clear, the voting and civil rights movements are not features of a distant past – they’re happening right now and we all have a part to play in the ongoing struggle to realize a truly just and representative democracy for all.

As a lifelong advocate and volunteer president of the NAACP’s Boston branch, I’m no stranger to fighting back when our civil rights are threatened. And as I think about the ways in which recent attacks on voting rights echo the poll taxes and jelly bean tests of the Jim Crow era, and threaten to exacerbate deeply entrenched inequities that have impacted BIPOC communities for generations, I keep coming back to the need for proactive, visionary state-level leadership. 

Massachusetts has long prided itself on creating blueprints for change. Much of our civic mythology is tied to the ways in which Massachusetts has led national progress on health care, same-sex marriage, education and more. But, so far, our Commonwealth has not been the  leader it can – and should – be on voting rights and access. 

For too long, we have settled for good enough, perpetuating a status quo that continues to fail too many voters across our state. Only now is the Massachusetts Legislature considering the VOTES Act, legislation that would codify critical voting reforms already present in many other states, including permanent vote by mail and expanded early voting, greater accessibility for eligible voters who are currently incarcerated and same-day voter registration. These changes are long overdue, yet they represent only one part of the work we need to do to meaningfully expand voting rights and access across our Commonwealth and our country. 

There is too much on the line to risk “business as usual.” Secretaries of state are uniquely positioned to stand as a bulwark against continued efforts to shrink our democracy.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, in 2020, “70.9 percent of white voters cast ballots while only 58.4 percent of nonwhite voters did” nationwide, a disparity that has “remained relat­ively unchanged over the last six pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, with a few notable fluc­tu­ations.” That same pattern is evident in Massachusetts. In 2020, despite overall record turnout, enormous gaps persisted between different communities. Particularly, “communities that were educated, white, and wealthy saw the largest voter turnout. Communities that were poor, minority, and less educated saw the lowest number of voters,” according to Commonwealth Magazine. Even as policies have changed, historic disparities have persisted, making it clear that closing these gaps will require not only strong voting laws, but also intentional, community-level efforts to make sure people understand their rights and feel connected to, and engaged with, their government. 

In Massachusetts, we have the opportunity and responsibility to redefine how state-level leadership looks, particularly in the secretary of state’s office, which plays such an outsize role in our democracy. If Massachusetts is going to live up to its own self-image as a national leader committed to progress, it needs a secretary of state who is a proactive, engaged partner and civil rights champion dedicated to strengthening government throughout our Commonwealth and providing a model for leadership in states across the country. 

The people of Massachusetts deserve a secretary who works in deep partnership with community to identify the most effective solutions for persistent barriers to voting; who fosters strong, supportive partnerships with local elections offices to make sure cities and towns have the information, technical resources, and funding necessary to administer safe, secure and accessible elections; who promotes a culture of civic participation where people see their own lived experiences and perspectives reflected in their government; and who advocates for voting rights policies and legislation that not only bring Massachusetts in line with our neighbors, but also push us ahead. 

Massachusetts deserves a secretary who takes up the mantle of leadership and embraces a shared vision for a stronger, more vibrant and more expansive democracy for all of us. Voting rights and access is about more than just the laws on the books; it’s about giving people a pathway into our democracy and a reason to engage. 

In the face of continued attacks on our voting rights and efforts to intimidate and disenfranchise entire communities, one thing is clear: good enough is not enough. There is too much on the line to risk “business as usual.” Secretaries of state are uniquely positioned to stand as a bulwark against continued efforts to shrink our democracy, concentrate power in the hands of a few and shut out Black and brown people, immigrants, low-income people, young people, people with disabilities and others who have already been excluded for generations. Especially in a blue state like Massachusetts, we must show what it means to take a more equitable, holistic and proactive approach to expanding access to the ballot box.  

We need strong laws and strong advocacy, voter protections and voter engagement to fight back against systemic disenfranchisement and fight for voters who have been ignored and left behind. Massachusetts, and our nation, deserve more. Together, we can harness the power of the secretary of state’s office and make the Commonwealth a beacon for other states around the country.

Tanisha M. Sullivan is an attorney, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP and candidate for Secretary of the Commonwealth in Massachusetts.