Forget federal races. Democrats are targeting a key state office

Secretaries of state are in the spotlight with voting rights under siege

Allison Plummer waits in line with other voters to cast her ballot at Grady High School during the midterm elections in Atlanta. Democrats are attempting to regain lost ground at the state level after years of focusing on federal elections and offices. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images file photo)

The presidential, congressional and gubernatorial races typically get all the media attention as Republicans and Democrats duel for dominance, but another statewide office is quietly becoming a battleground between the two parties: the secretary of state, who in most states is responsible for administering elections.

Democrats, who control fewer secretary of state offices nationwide than Republicans, see gaining control of the office as key to ensuring free and fair elections. The results of the November elections left Democrats controlling 20 secretary of state offices and Republicans 25. Two state offices are nonpartisan and the position does not exist in three states — Alaska, Hawaii and Utah.

“As we get closer to 2020 more people are reminded of the need to secure our elections and secure our voting rights,” said Alex Padilla, the California secretary of state and president of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State. “Last November we saw the disgraceful conduct of elections in Georgia and Florida, motivating people to fight for change.”

Padilla was referring to the 2018 midterm elections in both states where Democrats questioned how the voting process was handled. In Georgia, Brian Kemp, the secretary of state, was also the Republican Party’s candidate for governor, competing against Democrat Stacey Abrams.

Kemp defied repeated calls for resignation as Democrats insisted it was a conflict of interest for him to conduct an election in which he was a candidate. Democrats also charged Kemp with attempts to suppress voter turnout by requiring an “exact match” between identity documents and voter registration rolls. That tactic and others, they asserted, turned away tens of thousands of voters.

During a debate, Abrams said those strategies not only blocked people from voting, but also caused a climate of fear.

Kemp, who won the election narrowly, denied the charges and refused to step down as secretary of state until a day after declaring he had enough votes to become Georgia governor. Kemp’s resignation came ahead of a hearing in a lawsuit by five Georgia voters that asked him to be barred from exercising his duties as the state’s chief elections officer in any future management of his own election tally.

Florida once again faced problems with vote tallies in the November election, with 3,000 votes disappearing during a machine recount.

Democrats lost the gubernatorial races in Georgia and Florida, as well as the U.S. Senate seat held by Bill Nelson, which was won by then-Gov. Rick Scott. Those are the reasons driving Democrats to focus on secretary of state offices, Padilla said.

In states where Republicans were in charge of election security, Padilla said, state officials showed a lack of interest in securing election infrastructure. Five states — Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina and New Jersey — still lack paper ballots as a backup. Republican state officials are in charge in three of those states, while Democrats control Delaware and New Jersey.

Democrats are attempting to regain lost ground at the state level after years of focusing on federal elections and offices, said David James, communications director for the Republican State Leadership Committee.

“Having failed at the ballot box at the state level for multiple cycles, they have responded with a strategy of litigation, ballot initiatives and efforts to cause chaos and disarray at the ballot box in order to rig the system in a naked power grab for their party,” James said. “The Republican Secretaries of State Committee is committed to electing Republican secretaries of state across the country and preserving the integrity of elections, while expanding ballot access.”

The Republican Party had spent about $250,000 in 2018 to retain a majority of secretary of state offices, James said.

In 2019, three secretary of state offices are up for grabs in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi. Democrats are trying to keep Kentucky “in the blue column,” Padilla said. “That’s our first priority.” The office is now held by Alison Lundergan Grimes, who first won the job in 2012.

“People say Louisiana and Mississippi are difficult to win, but we are trying to win there too,” Padilla said.

In the 2020 cycle, Democrats are targeting Montana, Oregon, Washington and West Virginia, where Republicans currently hold the office.

Padilla said the presidential cycle is likely to boost voter turnout and help propel Democrats at the state level as well. 

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