Election

Secretary of State Seats Get Competitive

With voter ID laws a bone of contention, more attention and money is flowing to state secretary of state contests.
by | March 27, 2014
Of the races to watch involving incumbents, Wisconsin is the only one with a Democratic Secretary of State -- Doug La Follette.
Of the races to watch involving incumbents, Wisconsin is the only one with a Democratic Secretary of State -- Doug La Follette. AP/Michael P. King
 

With election administration a hot topic nationally -- and one of the most divisive topics in politics today -- both major parties have increasingly taken an interest in state secretary of state offices.

The duties of secretaries of state vary somewhat from state to state, but officials are often responsible for administering early voting, online voter registration, the location of polling places, ballot layout, poll-worker training, voting equipment usage, funding allocation, voter-list maintenance and procedures for holding elections after disasters, according to the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS). All are sensitive duties in the contemporary political arena.

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Currently, the GOP holds 28 of the 50 secretary of state offices, including 23 of the 39 that are chosen by voters. (In three states, an elected lieutenant governor handles the duties of secretary of state, while eight secretaries of state are appointed by the governor and three are picked by state legislatures.)

The GOP has held a majority of offices since the 2010 cycle, though this means that Republicans have about twice as many seats to defend in 2014 as Democrats do. As a result, a lot of money is pouring in. This cycle, the well-established Republican Secretaries of State Committee will be joined by a new super PAC called SOS for SoS.

On the Democratic side, two new entities have sprung up in recent weeks also targeting secretary of state contests -- a super PAC called iVote, headed by veterans of the Obama and Clinton campaigns, and SoS for Democracy, directed by labor strategists Steve Rosenthal and Larry Scanlon.

"At the cornerstone of the GOP strategy is an assault on voting rights in state after state, the likes of which hasn't been seen in this country in decades," Rosenthal wrote recently in Huffington Post. "One crucial office that is often overlooked when these battles are being decided is that of secretary of state. … With so many important issues being decided by secretaries of state, increasing our involvement in their elections is vital."

Further propelling both parties to focus on secretary of state races is that they are traditionally lower-cost contests, meaning that a modest amount of money can easily be leveraged. In addition, as statewide races, secretary of state positions are not subject to gerrymandering.

"We will tailor activities to fit the state and the political landscape, working with folks on the ground who are familiar with the state political scene," Scanlon said in an interview.

Based on interviews with national strategists from the two parties, there are about 13 key secretary of state races to watch in 2014.

Six of them are open seats: Arizona, California, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota and Nevada. Of these, three are held by Democrats, and three by Republicans.

The remaining seven seats are occupied by incumbents. All but one of these seats (Wisconsin) are held by Republicans -- Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico and Ohio.

In addition, there are two more races worth keeping an eye on: Two vulnerable gubernatorial seats, currently held by the GOP, that have the power to appoint the secretary of state.

Florida and Pennsylvania both have highly competitive gubernatorial races which could lead to a switch in secretary of state party affiliation after the 2014 election. In Florida, Republican Gov. Rick Scott is vulnerable to Democratic frontrunner Charlie Crist. And in Pennsylvania, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett is vulnerable to several Democratic hopefuls.

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