Secretaries of State: A Key Front in the Battle to Protect Voting Rights

Across the country we are witnessing a wholesale attack by the right wing on workers, unions, women's health, the environment, LGBT issues, civil rights, immigration and nearly every other right that Americans hold near and dear.
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Across the country we are witnessing a wholesale attack by the right wing on workers, unions, women's health, the environment, LGBT issues, civil rights, immigration and nearly every other right, protection and civil liberty that Americans hold near and dear. In recent years, Republicans have invested in and won key state legislative victories, which has resulted in lopsided redistricting that will make the work for progressives even more difficult at the state and federal level for years to come.

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. The right wing understands that their views are out of step with the rapidly increasing progressive majority in America -- women, people of color, union members, LGBT and young voters. And the only way they can win is by attempting to prevent this new progressive majority from voting. If we are to turn things around, finding new ways to defend fair and equal access to the ballot must be a top priority for progressives.

One crucial office that is often overlooked when these battles are being decided is that of secretary of state. In many states, secretaries of state have far‐reaching influence over the electoral process. Their powers often include controlling the certification of names of candidates on the ballot and ballot proposals/initiatives, maintaining the lists of registered voters in their state, overseeing voter registration procedures, conducting recounts, overseeing the testing and implementation of voting machines, as well as certifying and registering campaign expenditure reports by both candidates and outside groups. With so many important issues being decided by secretaries of state, increasing our involvement in their elections is vital.

One needs to look no further than Michigan in 2012, where Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson played a critical role in defeating Proposal 2, the collective bargaining initiative. Through the powers of her office, Johnson appointed a panel that rammed through lopsided ballot language, which framed the proposal as an attack on the state's constitution rather than protecting workers' right to collectively bargain. Internal polling showed support for the initiative dropped more than 15 percent based on the ballot language alone, and supporters were never able to make up that lost ground. In Colorado, Secretary of State Scott Gessler has used his office to weaken Colorado's strict campaign finance laws, tried to stop county clerks from mailing ballots to inactive voters on the permanent absentee list, and embarked on an aggressive voter purge effort aimed at alleged non-citizen registrants.

Additionally, the office of secretary of state often serves as a stepping-stone for higher office --Fourteen former secretaries of state are now governors, senators or members of Congress. In 2014, current or former secretaries of state are running for competitive senate and gubernatorial races in states such as Arizona, Colorado, Georgia and Michigan. Given the importance of this office and the fights our side can expect to have moving forward, we have launched an independent expenditure committee called SoS (Secretaries of State) for Democracy with the support of some of the most progressive organizations and labor unions in the country. The sole purpose of this organization will be to help elect progressive candidates as secretaries of state in targeted states around the country. Last month, the Washington Post ran this piece, which accurately describes our efforts.

The bad news is that Republicans dominate this office. They have a leg up, and they've been investing in these races for the last few years. As a result, of the 26 secretary of state races up in 2014, Republicans currently hold 17 of those seats.

The good news is that unlike many down-ballot races that are uncompetitive due to partisan gerrymandering, these are statewide races, and many of them are located in swing states. This provides progressives with a great opportunity to pick up seats in 2014. And, by and large, the money raised and spent in these races is significantly less than other statewide offices, so relatively small amounts of money can go a long way toward deciding the outcomes.

The time to act is now. The right wing has gotten smart, and they understand that so much of their ability to advance their agenda is tied to dismantling voting rights. Progressives have to get smarter too. We simply cannot ignore secretary of state races if we hope to pass a progressive agenda and stop the right from making further gains.

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