Since 2000, secretaries of state have had to grapple with a pretty tricky question: Should officials who oversee election administration in their state, and who might need to make tough calls in the case of recounts and contested elections, endorse other candidates, particularly those running for president?
Until the contested Bush-Gore election of that year, few people -- either secretaries of state or voters -- thought much about this potential conflict of interest. But then Katherine Harris, Florida's secretary of state at the time, attracted national controversy for her dual roles of co-chairing Bush's Florida campaign and certifying the contested results in her state.
"I can say confidently that secretaries of state are thinking about it more," said Trey Grayson, a Republican who served as Kentucky's secretary of state from 2004 to 2011 and who now heads Harvard University's Institute of Politics. "If you decide to endorse, you know there will be both positive and negative consequences."
These days, secretaries of state are increasingly seen as having a strong potential for winning higher office. So their ability to offer endorsements of fellow candidates can be important for their future careers. On the other hand, there's a risk of appearing too partisan. Grayson decided to endorse candidates while serving as secretary of state, but declined to take leadership roles in any campaign. He said he saw Harris and other secretaries of state "get in trouble for becoming presidential campaign chairs, and they weren't even really doing anything," Grayson said.
A recent study of secretaries of state's endorsement patterns this year by the journalism project News 21 suggests that they are taking the issue seriously -- and more often than not, cautiously.
Nationally, 37 secretaries of state serve as chief elections administrators; 30 of them are elected, with the rest appointed. Of the 37 that have election administration duties, News 21 found that 13 are endorsing other candidates while 23 are not. (Rhode Island's secretary of state did not answer News 21's query.)
"Most that didn't endorse said it was by personal choice -- that they wanted to avoid any real or perceived bias," said Joe Henke, one of the reporters on the project. "Some who are endorsing stated that they're an active member of a given party, but they separate that from their secretary role."
The secretaries of state who aren't endorsing are almost evenly divided by party -- 13 Republicans and 10 Democrats. The non-endorsers include secretaries in four swing states Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, the secretaries of state who are endorsing include only two Democrats -- Denise Merrill in Connecticut and Missouri's Robin Carnahan, who is relinquishing her seat this year. By contrast, 11 Republicans are endorsing, including three who serve in presidential in swing states -- Scott Gessler in Colorado, Matt Schultz in Iowa and John Husted in Ohio.
To one degree or another, all three have been seen in a partisan light. Gessler, Schultz and Husted have all clashed with Democrats over the tightening of voter identification requirements -- a policy that supporters say is intended to prevent voting fraud but which critics say amounts to an attempt to suppress the votes of minorities and low-income voters.
Gessler, according to News 21, addressed a Republican dinner in June by saying, "In Denver, there are lots of unaffiliates [independents], there are lots of Democrats. We call it a target-rich environment. We are going to win this state. We are going to do it in Denver by converting people over to our banner, our point of view."
Still, some specialists say it's possible for a secretary of state to balance their twin roles carefully. Ben Cannatti, a political consultant who advises Republican secretary of state candidates, said that concerns about potential bias by secretaries of state in recounts or election enforcement in the presidential race are overblown.
"The dozen secretaries of state who have endorsed either the president or Gov. Romney are all doing so as political leaders in their states," Cannatti said. "It's neither surprising nor alarming. That's what politicians do. As public officials they've taken an oath to uphold the law and run elections fairly in their states -- to do anything else is politically and legally disastrous."
Since 10 secretaries of state are up for election or reappointment, it's time to revisit our handicapping of the races, which was last done a year ago. In that time, we've found a significant tightening of many of the races.
Governing is not officially handicapping the secretary of state contests the same way we do for governors, state legislatures and state attorneys general. Because information about secretary of state races is less readily available, we use less precise handicapping categories than we do for other races. We rate contests as being competitive, potentially competitive or not competitive, and we don't rank them in order of vulnerability.
A year ago, we rated as competitive (in no particular order) Maine, Montana, Oregon and Washington state. Today, each of these contests remains in the competitive category. But we've now added two additional states to the category: North Carolina and Missouri, both of which were previously rated potentially competitive. Meanwhile, one state -- West Virginia -- has shifted from not competitive to potentially competitive.
Here's a rundown of each of this year's secretary of state contests:
Montana (D-held; previously rated competitive). In Montana, the Democratic incumbent Linda McCulloch faces a challenge from Republican Brad Johnson, whom she unseated in 2008. The contest is low-key, taking place in the shadows of a high-profile Senate reelection race for incumbent Democrat Jon Tester and an open gubernatorial seat. Johnson, thanks in part to name recognition, defeated insider favorite Scott Aspenlieder in the GOP primary. Johnson has some baggage though -- a DUI incident as well as the mistrust of some within his own party for being too moderate. McCulloch, on the other hand, hasn't made any major missteps. Unfortunately, she's a Democrat in a year in which being a Democrat in Montana doesn't have much of an upside, thanks to Obama's deep unpopularity. Observers give McCulloch an edge, but the contest will be competitive.
North Carolina (D-held; previously rated potentially competitive). Long-serving Democratic Secretary of State Elaine Marshall faces Chowan County Commissioner Ed Goodwin. In August, Public Policy Polling had Marshall up 43 percent to 37 percent, suggesting a generic advantage for the better-known Marshall. But the contest will likely be shaped by the other contests going on in the Tarheel State this fall, particularly the presidential race and the gubernatorial contest. This is a contest either candidate can win.
Washington state (R-held open seat; previously rated competitive). Sam Reed -- the rare Republican who has been able to consistently win statewide office in this Democratic-leaning state -- decided not to seek a new term, leaving a competitive contest to succeed him. Republican candidate Kim Wyman is the Thurston County auditor, just like the most recent two secretaries of state. (Reed is offering Wyman his support.) The Democrat is Kathleen Drew, who once beat former Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi for the state Senate and later served as Gov. Chris Gregoire's special assistant for elections. Fatigue with the Democrats' long dominance of statewide offices has given Republicans an opening in several contests this fall. Both candidates have a shot.
Oregon (D-held, previously rated competitive). Democrat Kate Brown -- who won easily in 2008 with help from Barack Obama -- is being challenged by Republican Knute Buehler, a surgeon and former Rhodes Scholar. Democrats have had a lock on the office since 1984, but Buehler is making it a race, almost doubling Brown's money haul. The challenge for Buehler is that he'll be on his own: The GOP isn't putting a serious effort into the presidential race or several statewide contests.
Maine (Republican-held; previously rated competitive). In Maine, the Legislature appoints the secretary of state. Incumbent Republican Charles E. (Charlie) Summers Jr. is running for the U.S. Senate. If Summers loses his Senate bid and if the GOP retains legislative control, he'll likely stay on as secretary of state. But Governing rates control of the Maine Legislature competitive for 2012, meaning that Democrats could regain the right to name the secretary of state, which they would almost certainly exercise, given Summers' decision to eliminate the state's same-day voter registration rule. That change was opposed by most Democrats and was later overturned by the voters.
Missouri (D-held open seat, previously rated potentially competitive). Secretary of state Robin Carnahan, whose father served as governor and was elected to a U.S. Senate seat days after he died in a plane crash, is relinquishing her position. The contest to succeed her pits Democratic state Rep. Jason Kander and Republican state House Speaker Pro Tempore Shane Schoeller. Kander probably benefits from the fact that the Democratic governor, Jay Nixon, is a strong bet for a second term, though more broadly, Republicans are ascendant in the state. The two candidates should be fairly evenly matched.
West Virginia (D-held, previously rated not competitive). Democratic incumbent Natalie Tennant is better known than her Republican opponent, Brian Savilla. Still, Savilla has an opening due to turbulence in Tennant's office, including a controversy over the placement of incarcerated felon Keith Judd on the Democractic primary ballot, which resulted in Judd gaining a significant minority of votes against President Obama and the state garnering negative national publicity. Despite an increasingly Republican lean in federal races, however, Democrats tend to have a persistent edge in down-ballot contests in West Virginia.
In Delaware, the secretary of state is appointed by the governor, and Democratic Gov. Jack Markell is basically a lock for reelection. That should mean job security for incumbent Democrat Jeff Bullock.
In Tennessee, where the Legislature appoints the secretary of state, Republican incumbent Tre Hargett looks to be in good shape since the GOP is expected to retain legislative control after 2012.
And in New Hampshire, William Gardner, a Democrat, is in no danger of losing his job. He's been appointed by the Legislature since 1976, regardless of which party is in control. His most important duty -- and perhaps the only important duty as far as most voters are concerned -- is keeping the state's "first in the nation" presidential primary status. Experts agree that Gardner will continue to push that agenda for the foreseeable future.