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Tahesha Way Becomes First Black Person to Lead S.O.S. Org

She has been secretary of state for New Jersey since Gov. Murphy took office in 2018 and will lead the National Association of Secretaries of State, the oldest organization of major public officials in the country.

(TNS) — At a time when the nation’s secretaries of state are pushing back against baseless claims of voter fraud and efforts to make it harder to vote, they’ve elected their first Black president — and she’s from New Jersey.

Tahesha Way, who has been secretary of state since Gov. Phil Murphy took office in January 2018, is the first Black to lead the National Association of Secretaries of State, the oldest organization of major public officials in the country.

Way told NJ Advance Media her role in the organization that fights for voting rights is important, “being African American and having my heritage being excluded from our democracy for most of our nation’s history.”

“A century ago, folks like me weren’t able to vote and not even able to hold a position as being a secretary of state,” she added. “Now I have this distinct honor to lead this historic association.”

Way is leading the organization whose members administer elections, a process that is increasingly under attack by Republicans motivated by President Donald Trump’s false claims of voter fraud, which culminated in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

“She’s needed nationally at a time that we’re seeing too many challenges to free and fair elections,” said U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, who has fought efforts to curtail voting rights. “She carries a lot of moral authority because of her work and because of her lived experiences. I just think that she is going to be a truly effective leader at a time when our nation really needs one in this position.”

This year alone, 150 bills to make it harder to vote were introduced in 32 states, and New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice said such legislation often disproportionately affects voters of color.

And more than two dozen bills would let partisans interfere in running elections, traditionally a nonpartisan exercise, or would threat election administrators for their actions.

“The attention to and importance of secretaries of state has skyrocketed in recent years,” said Bawadden Sayed, a spokesman for End Citizens United / Let America Vote, an advocacy group. “Voting rights are under an unprecedented attack by MAGA extremists, particularly aimed at silencing voters of color.

“The perspective and experiences of a Black woman at the helm of (the national group) provides a necessary depth to the organization that has been absent from these types of leadership positions for too long. Her role as president ... helps serve as an important counterbalance to the threats facing our democracy.”

David Becker, founder and executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, called Way’s ascension to the presidency “a milepost and a good one.”

“Given the history of voting rights in this country and the fact that many minorities were denied voting rights — and African Americans in particular were targets — it is a sign of our evolution,” Becker said.

It’s not just Way. Becker said more minorities were getting involved in election administration.

“The election field has historically been very much dominated by whites,” he said. “.It’s wonderful to see more representation of people from other backgrounds.”

She has focused on efforts to make elections more secure. In 2019, the state Department of Homeland Security warned state and county elections officials that Russia or another foreign actor could hijack their websites or social media accounts, “severely impacting and eroding confidence in the election results.”

“You always want to be proactive instead of reactive,” she said.

Way previously served as an administrative law judge and was a member of the Passaic County Board of Chosen Freeholders. She is graduate of Brown University, and University of Virginia School of Law. She and her husband, former New York Giants fullback Charles Way, have four daughters.

As secretary of state, Way also oversaw a massive reorientation of the state’s voting system toward more mail ballots and in-person early voting. Some of it was borne out of the coronavirus pandemic and some in an effort to make it easier to vote.

She said she borrowed from other states that already had enacted the changes she sought to do. For example, Washington state’s Republican secretary of state and Colorado’s Democratic secretary both shared their experience with all-mail balloting, she said.

And she and her staff has worked hard to disseminate correct information to counterbalance the lies that are being spread.

“Voting is a right and not a privilege,” Way said. “Folks fought and died to ensure this right includes all of us. With dis- and misinformation out there, which can be seen as a form of voter suppression, you really want to make certain that your voters have ongoing information that’s true and accurate as to the election process.”

Way also is presiding over an effort by New Jersey’s 21 counties to install new voting equipment that allows for paper trails, which election officials use to check that voting machines were not hacked and the results not tampered with. New Jersey remains one of just six states that don’t require paper trails.

All of New Jersey’s early-voting machines have paper trails, and counties are buying new equipment as their old machines wear out. Mark Lindeman, a director of Verified Voting, a national nonprofit election verification organization, said companies are getting out of the business of making machines without paper trails.

In 2020, 71 percent of New Jersey’s votes were cast on machines without paper trails. Next year, 40 percent will, according to Verified Voting.

“Progress is being made,” Lindeman said

©2023 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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