The Troubling Partisanization of Elections for Secretary of State

Party money is now pouring into these races, which once drew little attention. The threat to the integrity of elections these officials administer worries two former secretaries of state.
December 10, 2014
By Phil Keisling  |  Contributor
Director of the Center for Public Service at Portland State University's Hatfield School of Government
By Sam Reed  |  Contributor
Sam Reed, a 2009 Governing Public Official of the Year, served three terms as secretary of state of the state of Washington.

In early November 1956, a young state senator named Monroe Sweetland was locked in a tight election campaign for Oregon secretary of state, one that Sweetland would narrowly lose. But as election day neared, Sweetland was encouraged that voters finally seemed aware of the important duties of Oregon's second-ranking state office.

The reaction of two elderly women he met outside a post office on this particular day was especially heartening. Clasping Sweetland's hands in delight, one told him, "Of course you can count on both of our votes -- and all our friends, too!" But Sweetland's newfound faith in voter awareness was short-lived as the woman then exclaimed, "Yes -- all of us think that John Foster Dulles has just got to go!"

When Sweetland told this story nearly 40 years later, he was making a larger point. The office of secretary of state might be quite important in the scheme of things, but don't assume that most voters closely follow the occupants -- much less know that most of them oversee state election systems rather than manage American foreign policy. A recent Pew study found that just 4 percent of Florida's citizens and 7 percent of California's could correctly identify the elected official in charge of running their states' election systems.

One thing has changed in the last 40 years, however: an explosion of partisan political interest in these offices. In the 2014 election cycle, two dozen secretary of state offices were in play, and most of these positions included the duties of chief elections officer. As detailed by Politico, the 2014 election cycle also saw the rise of well financed national political action committees, on both the right and the left, focusing on offices once predominately viewed as sleepy administrative backwaters.

This spring, for example, the conservative-oriented PAC known as SOS for SoS announced that it would spend between $5 million and $10 million on races for secretary of state in nine key states. Meanwhile, two Democratic-affiliated PACs, SoS for Democracy and iVote, announced their intention to raise seven-digit amounts for a handful of key races.

While outside money in secretary-of-state races arguably isn't new -- many Republicans note the money that George Soros, the liberal billionaire activist, spent in 2006 on behalf of Democratic candidates. Democrats cite large Republican donations to these offices in advance of the 2010 redistricting cycle; the stops really came out in the 2014 election cycle.

This year's Arizona contest, in which Republican Michele Reagan defeated Democrat Terry Goddard, illustrates the trend. By election day, more than $1.4 million had been spent, over $300,000 of it coming in the closing weeks in the form of so-called "dark money" whose donors need not be disclosed. Other hard-fought races in which outside money from both camps played significant roles included those in Colorado, Iowa, Nevada and Ohio.

Not surprisingly, issues about what to do about potential vote fraud, such as passing photo ID laws or prohibiting the collection of voters' absentee ballots, were prominent themes of Republican candidates, while concerns about campaign spending and disclosure -- and fighting those photo ID laws -- were common Democratic themes.

One of us (Phil Keisling, elected as a Democrat) served as Oregon secretary of state for nearly nine years (from 1991-99), and the other (Sam Reed, elected as a Republican) served as Washington secretary of state for a dozen years (from 2000-2012). Our point isn't to mourn or celebrate the fact that Republican candidates largely prevailed over Democrats in these close, hard-fought campaigns. Rather, it's to note a much more worrisome trend: that as money and partisan interest in these races exponentially rises, there is a real danger that these offices will become increasingly viewed as little more than extensions of partisan movements rather than as independent election watchdogs.

Despite our different party affiliations, both of us during our respective tenures saw our primary mission as helping citizens have access to their elections and better exercise their right to vote. In pursuit of that, we both ended up working for similar initiatives to further expand the franchise and make voting more accessible.

Both of us worked to expand the use of absentee ballots, to ensure that busy voters wouldn't have bad weather, sick children or work demands get in the way of casting their ballots. As a result, Oregon and Washington are now two of just three states (the other is Colorado, beginning this year) where all registered voters automatically receive their ballots through the mail.

Dismayingly, however, surprisingly little was advocated for by either party's candidates in this year's key races for secretary of state about how to significantly change a voter-turnout picture that's grown so dire that nearly two of every three Americans are now voting no-shows in key midterm elections like this year's. While the 2014 midterm elections were the most expensive in American history, they also were the least attended in modern memory. Although the number of voting-eligible Americans grew between 2010 and 2014 by 10 million, this November about nine million fewer ballots (82 million) were cast than four years earlier (91 million).

There's also the critical issue of what happens to the ballots that are cast. As part of our election duties, both of us oversaw difficult recounts in close, high-stakes elections. In Oregon, a conservative-backed measure to limit public-employee pensions ended up passing by just 1,000 votes. Phil and other Oregon elections officials oversaw the hand-counting of nearly 1.5 million ballots, which re-confirmed the original result (to the great dismay of Phil's fellow Democrats).

In Washington state, one of the tightest governor's races in American history brought national-party scrutiny and high-priced lawyers in 2008 as thousands of ballots were fought over in a lengthy recount process that Sam oversaw. The eventual result was a 129-vote victory for the Democratic candidate, Christine Gregoire. Needless to say, this didn't earn Sam a place in the Republican pantheon of heroes.

We're certainly not saying we made every call correctly. But we each felt a certain freedom to call it as we saw it without anywhere near the worry that today's chief elections officers will have about the millions of dollars they'll need for their own re-election campaigns. In the end, we'd argue that voters in every state should want exactly these kind of independent judgments from their chief elections officials.

Our nation's secretaries of state certainly can't escape the hurly-burly of politics altogether; with over 20 years of elected statewide office between us, we're not naïve about that. But election administration is a core function in our democracy, and voters rightfully require accountability for the integrity and smooth operation of our voting process.

The path to ensuring that accountability and integrity isn't a clear one; even the two of us don't agree on what direction to take. Sam thinks we should focus on raising the profile of these offices so that voters will better understand the importance of electing people who have proven records of independent judgment and rising above party. Phil certainly agrees but also thinks it might be time -- by statutory change where possible or constitutional amendment elsewhere -- to put races for elections officials on the same nonpartisan basis as we do elections for most mayors and other local officials.

But there is one thing we completely agree on: The 2014 elections for secretary of state gave these offices far more attention than they've received in the past -- and that isn't all necessarily for the best.

Sam Reed | Contributor | sam@samreed.org