These Unknown Officials Could Hold the Balance of Power in 2020

These Unknown Officials Could Hold the Balance of Power in 2020

By Daniel Malloy


Because these officials can decide how you vote.

By Daniel Malloy

As the minority leader in the Arizona Senate, Katie Hobbs could not stop a law that made collecting mail-in ballots for others a felony. So instead she wants to limit its impact as the next secretary of state.

The “ballot-harvesting” law — which Hobbs says will have a disproportionate impact on tribal lands where post offices are sparse — is among an array of instances where Arizona Republicans pressed forward with policies that could hamper Democrats at the ballot box. It’s done under the guise of guarding against voter fraud, though in the case of “ballot harvesting,” tales of political operatives steaming open ballots in microwaves and chucking certain votes in the trash were provided without a whit of supporting evidence. Hobbs also talks about making sure there is the proper number of polling places in Latino communities and keeping a closer eye on local election officials for missteps such as putting the wrong election date on a website.

It’s the best-kept secret in American politics — this really powerful but unsexy and sleepy office of Secretary of State.

Ellen Kurz, iVote

This Sun Belt state’s red track record isn’t the only one Democrats are looking to change by getting a blue thumb on the scale. Secretaries of state across the country have wide latitude to run elections. Their campaigns typically are overlooked affairs, but this year the national Democratic group iVote plans to pour $5 million into key races, former Attorney General Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee is targeting Ohio’s secretary of state contest, and the Democratic National Committee is keeping a close watch on these races.

They all have an eye toward who will be running in the 2020 elections and playing at least a partial role in redrawing district lines after the next census. ”It’s the best-kept secret in American politics — this really powerful but unsexy and sleepy office of secretary of state,” says Ellen Kurz, president and founder of iVote. 


They’re playing catch-up. The Republican Secretaries of State Committee has been around for more than a decade, and Republicans hold the office in 30 states and two territories. “State-level elections have always been important to Republicans, which is why we are seeing all-time highs, including 32 secretaries of state and nearly 1,000 state legislative seat flips from Democrat to Republican in the past decade,” says David James of the Republican State Leadership Committee, which has the RSSC under its umbrella. “While the duties of the secretary of state vary by state, secretaries play key administrative roles in statewide government, such as ensuring free and fair elections that broaden access while preventing cheating.” 

Given the thin margin of the 2016 elections — Hillary Clinton came within 11,000 Michigan votes, 23,000 Wisconsin votes and 45,000 Pennsylvania votes of the presidency — any number of small shifts could have changed the course of history. Many Democratic fingers have pointed to Republican efforts to tighten ballot access in places like Wisconsin, where a strict voter ID law reduced turnout overall by 200,000 and had a disproportionate impact on Black communities, according to a study by the Democratic Super PAC Priorities USA. A federal judge wrote in 2016 that a suite of voting changes in North Carolina “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”

Governors and legislatures matter more for big-picture efforts like voter ID laws, but secretaries of state can determine when to purge the rolls of infrequent voters, how resources are allocated to polling places, how voter fraud is investigated and which laws to push in the legislature. Missouri Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, for example, implemented a new voter ID law in a way that passed muster with the courts, which tossed out a challenge based on racial bias. (In Missouri, you can cast a provisional ballot without a valid ID if your signature matches the one in the voter file, or if you return later with the proper ID.)

Secretaries of state also are in the crosshairs of securing elections. Russia targeted 21 states’ voting rolls in 2016 and several were breached, according to the chief cybersecurity officer at the Department of Homeland Security. When iVote gathered Democratic secretary of state candidates for a training in Boston in December, they heard from MIT computer science professor Ron Rivest on risk-limiting audits of vote totals and the importance of backing up machine votes with paper ballots. “Democrats can talk about that this is a real threat and not be in la-la land like [Republicans] are, talking about no threat from Russia — following the president’s example,” Kurz says.

Voting itself will be on the ballot this year too. Florida voters will decide whether to restore voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences. Nevada will vote on whether to institute automatic voter registration. Nevada will also decide between incumbent Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske and Nelson Araujo, a 30-year-old Democratic rising star who talks about growing up as the son of a single mother who worked as a housekeeper on the Las Vegas Strip.

“It’s about time that national leaders are stepping up and looking at the secretary of state seats specifically — and, quite frankly, in the battleground states — and saying: Hey, this is an incredibly important seat,” Araujo says. He eagerly backs automatic voter registration and is pitching an app that allows you to check in ahead of time and skip the queue to vote. If voting becomes more like a trip to Starbucks, big-party donors are betting that Democrats will benefit.