Under the Radar

The Democrats' Katherine Harris Strategy

No one’s usually cared much who held secretary of state posts at the state level. Then the parties noticed that they have one major duty.

Lynne Sladky/AP

With control of the Senate up for grabs and a Republican House looking to expand its majority in November, it would seem strange for DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz to spend even a minute thinking about usually sleepy down-ballot races like the open seat for Iowa’s Secretary of State.

But at the Democratic National Committee summer meeting last month, Wasserman Schultz not only talked about that Iowa contest—she also promised to campaign for the Democrat in the race, Brad Anderson, and four other Democratic secretary of state candidates in swing states across the country this fall. Why use so much fire power on such low-profile offices?

“We’re committed to ensuring that those who administer elections do so fairly,” Wasserman Schultz said, singling out five races in Ohio, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada, in addition to Iowa, as the ones she’s most focused on. “The fights over voter ID and early voting are just the latest reminder of how important the rules for elections are in shaping the electorate and determining the eventual outcomes.”

The office of secretary of state was once little more than a pit stop on the road to higher office—four years of resume building that included inglorious duties like licensing beauticians and other small businesses, maintaining state historical records, and running around the state handing out proclamations to civic groups. But more than three dozen secretaries of state across the country have one duty that’s as serious as they come: They oversee and administer elections.

Over the last several years, secretary of state offices have taken on a new and more controversial role as partisan legislatures pushed changes to election laws and secretaries of state were charged with making decisions on everything from ballot language to voter eligibility to voting hours and crucial calls in contested elections. The decisions ultimately affect not only who votes in elections, but often who wins them.

Look no further for the evidence than Kansas, where the Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach ruled on Thursday that the Democrat in the Senate race cannot take his name off the ballot, a decision that will likely benefit incumbent GOP Sen. Pat Roberts, whose campaign Kobach is supporting.

As the jobs have gained prominence and power, so has the pressure for the two parties to win them. Republicans currently dominate the breakdown, with 27 GOP secretaries of state in the 47 states that have the position. Democrats believe reversing that ratio is key to expanding ballot access in the short term among traditionally friendly constituencies like low-income seniors, women, and minorities, as well as setting the table for the 2016 presidential elections by having Democratic elections officials in place in key swing states.

The mastermind behind the unprecedented attention to the races is Pratt Wiley, a veteran of the Obama campaign who joined the DNC in an expanded capacity last year as Director of Voter Expansion.

"As we started to talk about the voter expansion program and ways we could expand access to the ballot box, this was a big piece of the platform,” Wiley said of the five races. "For a lot of us at the DNC, 2012 was a real eye-opener, the degree to which the Republican legislatures, Republican governors, and Republican secretaries of state will use their official powers in office in order to make it more difficult for folks to vote.”

Pratt pointed to new voting laws in North Carolina, Ohio, Iowa, and Texas, as well as voter list purges in Florida, as examples of Republicans making it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for legally eligible voters to cast their ballots. “One of the best ways to deal with that is to change the leadership at the top,” Wiley said.

Not surprisingly, Republicans take issue with Democrats’ portrait of GOP-sponsored voting reforms as a cover for voter suppression.

“Republicans want to make it easier to vote but harder to cheat,” said Jill Bader, spokeswoman for the Republican State Leadership Committee, a Republican-led 527 group that spent more than $30 million in 2012 on down-ballot races like secretary of state positions. “We want everybody to come and vote, but we want to make sure we have secure elections.” Bader pointed to Republicans' new registration site as evidence of the party's commitment to expanding the vote and said the DNC is just catching up to where Republicans have been for years—focusing on state-level contests: “I am not at all surprised to see Debbie Wasserman Schultz looking at what we’ve known for a long time, which is that real results come in the states.”

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Bader would not say which races the RSLC will spend resources on, but she said defending current GOP-held seats like the one in Ohio is a top priority. That’s where Democratic state senator Nina Turner is challenging GOP Secretary of State Jon Husted, who made national headlines earlier this year when he announced he’d cut back state-wide early voting hours to eliminate in evenings and the Sunday before Election Day.

Both parties are also focused on the open seat in Iowa, where the outgoing Republican incumbent was roundly criticized for spending nearly $300,000 earlier this year prosecuting a case of voter fraud against a woman who voted in an uncontested mayoral race in which 110 ballots were cast. The woman was acquitted of perjury, which could have landed the mother of three 15 years in jail.

The importance of the individual secretary of state races has become so significant that two Super PACs launched with great fanfare at the beginning of the year promising to spend millions to win them. But FEC filings show that neither the left-leaning SoS for Democracy nor the right-leaning SoS for SoS have taken off yet. So far, SoS for Democracy lists just one donation, $250,000 from George Soros, while SoS for SoS shows a little more than $3,000 in donations in 2014 and $300 cash on hand as of July.

That leaves the DNC and RSLC as the big players on the field, where the real, if usually unspoken, prize is having a team of their own to call on during the 2016 presidential elections, if the need arises.

“There shouldn’t be any confusion that just as in 2000 when Katherine Harris became a household name across the country, these offices matter,” said the DNC’s Wiley. “Having the wrong person at the wrong place at the wrong time could affect a presidency. Our job is to make sure that doesn't happen."