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Secretaries of state fashion new, activist roles

REUTERS/Eric Miller
Unlike many Republican secretaries of state, Mark Ritchie opposes a voter ID requirement in Minnesota

Editor’s note: This report is part of a project on voting rights in America produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.

A number of activist secretaries of state are dramatically changing a once nonpartisan job that involves supervising elections.

Some have supported partisan legislation. Some have endorsed or advised their party’s candidates. In 36 states, the secretary of state also holds the title of chief election official.

The most aggressive of this new group are Republicans Kris Kobach, of Kansas and Scott Gessler, 47, of Colorado.

They have been leaders in efforts to enact strict voter registration requirements in Kansas and to purge voting rolls in Colorado. Both say they want to stop voter fraud while critics, including Democrats and civil rights groups, say the measures would suppress voting.

The partisanship of secretaries of state in the role of chief election official “is an obvious conflict of interest between the essential obligation to serve all voters and their attachment to one of the major political parties,” said Daniel Tokaji, an election law professor at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.

Currently, more Republicans than Democrats have made their secretary of state offices partisan, Grayson said. Of the 36 secretaries of state who are chief election officers, 23 are Republican and 13 are Democratic.

One outspoken, partisan Democratic secretary of state is Minnesota’s Mark Ritchie.

Ritchie outspoken on voter rights

He grabbed the national spotlight through election recounts. Conservatives questioned Ritchie for his role in the recount that certified Al Franken the winner of a 2008 Senate race and, two years later, Mark Dayton the winner of a gubernatorial recount.

Both winning candidates are also Democrats.

Ritchie is outspoken on voting rights issues. Unlike the Republican secretaries of state, he opposes a voter ID requirement in Minnesota, saying it will disenfranchise voters and cost millions in unnecessary expenses.

Minnesota has 4,000 polling places with 30,000 election judges, Ritchie said. He downplays the influence a secretary of state has as chief election officer.

“It’s the towns that run the elections. The counties are the chief election officers, and they own and control their voter list completely,” Ritchie said. “We don’t own the elections. This is why a lot of this conversation about secretaries is kind of meaningless in a way.”

Minnesota Republicans say Ritchie is trying to influence voters by renaming two proposed constitutional amendments — one requiring voters to show photo ID and the other banning same-sex marriage — on the November ballot.

The GOP-controlled Legislature called the voter ID amendment “Photo Identification Required for Voting,” but Ritchie retitled it, “Changes to in-person and absentee voting and voter registration; provisional ballots.”

Ritchie also changed the language of the same-sex amendment, from “Recognition of Marriage Solely Between One Man and One Woman” to “Limiting the Status of Marriage to Opposite Sex Couples.”

Amendment proponents say Ritchie has changed the titles to confuse voters and help defeat the measures to benefit Minnesota Democrats.

Changing role of election officers

More than others, Kobach and Gessler are changing the role of a state’s election officer.

Kobach and Gessler also have used their offices to endorse statewide and federal candidates. While Gessler endorsed Mitt Romney, Kobach said he’s an informal immigration adviser to the presidential candidate’s campaign.

However, Romney campaign regional press secretary Alison Hawkins told News21 that Kobach isn’t an adviser to the campaign on any issues, either formally or informally.

Kobach and Gessler aren’t alone.

Secretaries of State Brian Kemp of Georgia and Matt Schultz of Iowa, both Republicans, have supported voter ID legislation. All the states that have passed ID laws have Republican-majority legislatures except Rhode Island, which had a Democratic majority in 2011 when its law passed with bipartisan support.

Arizona’s Republican Secretary of State Ken Bennett added to the birther debate, largely Tea Party-driven, when he threatened to remove President Barack Obama’s name from the general election ballot unless Hawaii sent him the president’s birth certificate.

Bennett has since received it and apologized if he offended anyone.

Kobach wrote Arizona immigration law

Kobach has been involved in national Republican politics since 2001 when he was chief immigration adviser to then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Sec. of State Kris Kobach
Kansas Sec. of State Kris Kobach

He went on to write S.B. 1070, Arizona’s contentious anti-immigration law. Three of four parts of that law were rejected in June by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Gessler addressed the Republican $250-a-plate Lincoln Day Dinner in Denver in June about voter fraud, saying, “People on the left say it doesn’t exist … but I’m from Chicago originally, where they used to say, ‘Vote early and vote often.’ ”

“In Denver, there are lots of unaffiliates [independents], there are lots of Democrats,” said Gessler. “We call it a target-rich environment. We are going to win this state. We are going to do it in Denver by converting people over to our banner, our point of view.”

Trey Grayson, who was Kentucky’s Republican secretary of state from 2004 to 2011, said he “cringes” today at partisan comments by Republican secretaries of state.

“I was a very proud Republican, but I was very cognizant of the fact that people needed to be able to trust elections,” said Grayson, who now directs the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

“So I tried to remember that in what I said, whether it was on a policy, on politics or on an individual, and always being aware of that appearance,” he added.

But Gessler believes his outspokenness is respectful to voters.

“When I say I’m a Republican and this is what I stand for, I think I’m giving people an honest choice,” Gessler said. “When people hide their party affiliation, or when people pretend there is no policy divide, pretend there is no choice here, what they’re really doing is masking what those choices are.”

Alexander Keyssar, professor of history and social policy at the Kennedy School, said the office should be nonpartisan.

“One of our many problems in the world of elections is that our election administration is generally partisan. They’re elected as members of a party. That’s how Katherine Harris could be secretary of state and state chair of Bush’s campaign simultaneously,” he said.

While serving as Florida’s scretary of state under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, Harris was accused of partisan bias as she declared George W. Bush the winner of Florida’s electoral votes in the 2000 presidential election, a decision ultimately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Unlike Kobach or Gessler, Harris didn’t tackle such controversial public policy issues as immigration and voter ID.

Kobach was elected as Kansas secretary of state in 2010 after a two-year stint as Republican Party chairman. He co-wrote the state’s Secure and Fair Elections Act, requiring photo ID to vote and, effective next year, proof of citizenship to register to vote.

Kobach argues he can fairly govern his state’s elections and also take strong partisan stances. While campaigning, Kobach told voters he would work on voter ID and anti-immigration legislation.

“My opponents tried to use that against me,” he said. He beat his Democratic opponent by more than 21 points.

Kobach believes “a person can be a strong Republican or a strong Democrat and still approach the administration of elections with a nonpartisan, evenhanded attitude.”

Gessler wanted to keep law practice, too

Similarly, when Gessler took office in January 2011, the Denver Post reported his intention to continue practicing law at Hackstaff Gessler LLC. His Denver-based firm “specializes in campaign and elections law and has represented a number of Republican-aligned clients,” according to the newspaper.

Colorado Common Cause and Colorado Ethics Watch, two groups that aim to hold government accountable, called this a conflict of interest.

Gessler consulted with Colorado’s Republican attorney general and then decided to leave the firm, even though he said he would have only worked on real estate cases.

“At the end of the day, it caused a lot of controversy and it really become untenable,” Gessler said.

Sec. of State Scott Gessler
Colorado Sec. of State Scott Gessler

He’s since spent significant time in the courtroom, dealing with at least 10 lawsuits. These involve handling of ballots for inactive voters, attempting to reform campaign finance in Colorado, and addressing public access to ballots.

In a country so divided along party lines, secretaries should be wary of partisan politics, said Doug Chapin, a University of Minnesota researcher and director of the Program for Excellence in Election Administration.

Jocelyn Benson, a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, who was the Michigan Democratic nominee for secretary of state in 2010, said the officeholder should be an advocate for voters.

 “So the question is: Are they making decisions that are in the best interest of the voters or are they simply advancing what their party’s agenda is?” said Benson, who wrote “Secretaries of State: Guardians of the Democratic Process.”

Balancing act

To some degree, she added, the public should expect secretaries to advance their party’s political agenda. However, balance is needed in Republicans’ desire for integrity in elections and Democrats’ expectations for access to voting, said Benson.

“The challenge is to do both and to essentially make it easier to vote and harder to cheat,” she said.

In Louisiana, state law keeps some partisan politics out of the secretary’s office. Secretary of State Tom Schedler can’t endorse candidates, serve on campaign committees of candidates or make campaign contributions.

In New Mexico, Secretary of State Dianna Duran has not endorsed candidates. Her office believes it would conflict with the New Mexico Governmental Conduct Act.

Other states’ secretaries don’t endorse candidates out of personal belief. Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin, a Democrat, hasn’t endorsed a candidate since he took office in 1995.

South Dakota’s two previous secretaries of state, Chris Nelson and Joyce Hazeltine, served for a combined 24 years. Like Galvin, they personally chose to never endorse a candidate.

But in June, South Dakota Secretary of State Jason Gant, a Republican, endorsed then-Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum and South Dakota Republican state Senate candidate Val Rausch.

“The operation of elections has a vast amount of laws,” Gant said. “Whether people endorse or not or do different political maneuvers, the laws we have in our state are very strong.”

Other states stay clear of partisan politics by using election boards and commissions. State election boards or commissions administer elections in 11 states and Washington D.C.

The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, for example, consists of six former judges as a nonpartisan staff. Together, they oversee the state’s elections, campaign finance, ethics and lobbying laws.

“The benefit of having a board like ours is that all of our judges are trained decision makers. They know how to weigh the evidence, how to look at the law and how to apply it,” said Reid Magney, the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board public information officer.

With a partisan secretary of state, Magney said, opponents will say, “it’s because you’re a Democrat or it’s because you’re a Republican” that a decision was made.

Kobach and Gessler disagree.

They think a secretary of state who is also the chief election official means greater accountability.

“They’re not as politically accountable as a single elected official,” said Kobach of election boards.

Secretaries of state who also are the chief election officer “subject themselves to the scrutiny of voters … so you have public accountability built in,” Gessler said.

Most secretaries of state elected

Including Kobach and Gessler, 32 secretaries serving as chief election officials are elected. Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas secretaries of state are appointed by their governors. New Hampshire’s legislature names its secretary of state.

Delaware Election Commissioner Elaine Manlove, who was appointed by a Democratic governor to a four-year term, thinks elected secretaries, who must campaign, should not alienate other parties.

“I just don’t know how you split yourself down the middle like that,” she said.

Though Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed, a 12-year veteran, has made political endorsements, he’s been praised for running elections fairly, most notably in 2004 when he oversaw the closest gubernatorial election recount in U.S. history.

Reed, a Republican, introduced two popular changes: the nation’s first top-two primary system and an all-vote-by-mail system.

“When you’re there to talk about elections, you’re there just to make the system work better, not with some partisan ax to grind, or get back at someone for something they have done before,” Reed said.

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner runs his election system similarly. The Democrat first took office in 1976 and has since been re-elected by both Republican and Democratic legislatures.

With Reed and Gardner as possible exceptions, Tokaji calls addressing partisan election administrations the great-unfinished business of election reform.

“The past decade we have seen a lot of changes, many of them positive, but we really haven’t addressed this problem when it comes to how our elections are run,” Tokaji said.

Joe Henke was a Hearst Foundations Fellow this summer for News21.

About this project: “Who Can Vote?” was produced by News21, a national investigative reporting project involving college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. News21 is funded by the Carnegie Corp. of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

 For the complete Voting Rights in America project, visit here.

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by J.E. Smith on 08/14/2012 - 08:52 am.

    Clearly the authors didn’t do their homework on MN elections

    The State Canvassing Board is the body that ultimately certifies the results of an election. The authors of this piece make it sound as if the Secretary of State alone has the power to do so. This is clearly not the case. For what it’s worth, the 2008 canvassing board was balanced along partisan lines in terms of who appointed the justices and judges. Furthermore, in the 2008 Franken/Coleman recount, an election contest and subsequent appeal was filed. A three-judge panel, comprised of a judge appointed by a democratic governor, one appointed by a republican governor, and one appointed by an independent governor–presided over the contest. The subsequent appeal was overseen by the MN supreme court.

    As to the 2010 canvassing board, it contained Justice Paul H Anderson, a Carlson appointee, Justice David Stras, a Pawlenty appointee, District Judge Denise Reilly, a Carlson appointee, and Districe Judge Gregg E. Johnson, a Carlson appointee.

    Minnpost usually does a pretty good job covering elections, but this article is an absolute stinker when it comes to talking about the elections process in Minnesota. That’s a shame.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 08/14/2012 - 10:03 am.

      MinnPost didn’t write this article

      “Editor’s note: This report is part of a project on voting rights in America produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.”


      “Joe Henke was a Hearst Foundations Fellow this summer for News21.

      About this project: “Who Can Vote?” was produced by News21, a national investigative reporting project involving college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. News21 is funded by the Carnegie Corp. of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.”

      Other than that, you make some very good points about the erroneous statements that can be passed along by writers who aren’t familiar enough with what actually has occurred in Minnesota elections.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/14/2012 - 10:05 am.

    Clearly the authors didn’t do their homework

    or they would have mentioned Mark Ritchie’s relationship with George Soros and leftist plot known as the Secretary of State Project …(“a development that could benefit Barack Obama if any of those states are closely contested on Election Day.”)

    Don’t let anyone ever accuse Ritchie of not giving his benefactors their money’s worth.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 08/14/2012 - 10:37 am.

      From your article

      “traditional Democratic interests —such as increasing voter registration and boosting turnout — rather than Republican priorities such as stamping out voter fraud.”

      Wow – increasing voter registration and boosting turnout. Yup – those are some pretty evil objectives all right! Heaven forbid we get more of the population actively involved in the governance of this country!

    • Submitted by Jackson Cage on 08/14/2012 - 03:02 pm.


      I always love the “Partisan” Ritchie stories from guys like Dennis. Yet they’re fully capable of ignoring Mary Kiffmeyer who (a) was defeated by Ritchie as Sec.of State; (b) became a legislator working exclusively on voter ID; (c) proposes virtually ALEC legislation. Yeah, Kiffmeyer isn’t “activist” or bought and paid for.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/14/2012 - 02:20 pm.

    Orders from Head Quarters

    Secretary of State Project

    Waiting to hear the righteous indignation from all those lefties that hate the corrosive effect wealthy partisans have on our democracy…..well, not really.

  4. Submitted by Tom White on 08/14/2012 - 04:42 pm.

    Errors from the Soldier

    I was really frightened when I read on the Discover the Network site that:

    For example, during the recount process a number of ballots were found in an election judge’s car; one Minnesota county suddenly discovered 100 new votes for Franken and claimed that a clerical error had caused them to previously go uncounted; another county tallied 177 more votes than it had recorded on Election Day; and yet another county reported 133 fewer votes than its voting machines had tabulated. “Almost every time new ballots materialized, or tallies were updated or corrected, Franken benefited,” writes Vadum. In addition, at least 393 convicted felons voted illegally in two particular Minnesota counties

    Luckily, I remembered that none of those things were true. Mr. Swift, you are not adopting the practice where if you tell a lie enough times, eventually people think it is true?

    • Submitted by Sean Huntley on 08/14/2012 - 05:21 pm.

      It really is amazing how the voter suppression crowd clings to stories that were debunked years ago.

      This article has some good detail of what REALLY happened, not the tea party, Soros puppet master fantasy we keep hearing.

    • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/14/2012 - 08:02 pm.

      Tom, you can dispute my opinions, you can even call me a liar if it makes you feel better, but you cannot change facts.

      Mark Ritchie is the poster boy of George Soros’ Secretary of State project. He doesn’t deny it himself, how is it useful for you to do so?

  5. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 08/14/2012 - 09:41 pm.

    Let Us Never Forget

    That you can always tell what a “conservative” has already done,…

    or would do as soon as they have the position, power, and resources to pull it off,…

    by observing what they continuously accuse others of doing or wanting to do.

    We have examples of this in this thread, of course (the conspiracy theories regarding George Soros being completely false, for instance, but made completely true if you simply insert the Koch bros., Sheldon Adelson or any of the 15 or so other big Republican donors currently trying to buy control of the US government),…

    but an even more amazingly consistent example is how Mitt Romney continuously reveals what he has done in the past and what his agenda for the future REALLY is by observing each and every accusation he lays against President Obama.

    Romney’s attacks on Obama continuously reveal more and more of who Romney really is, what tactics his campaign is using, and what he will do if he is elected.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/15/2012 - 07:42 am.

    The article is misleading in a another way regarding MN

    The Secretary of State’s office is NOT campaigning against the voter ID amendment. Obviously Ritchie thinks it’s a bad idea and he’s expressed that opinion, but he cannot deploy the resources of his office in a partisan manor, and he’s not doing so. Ritchie interprets the statues regarding his office to mean that the office cannot campaign, it can only inform educate. If you go the SoS website you will not find a campaign against voter ID, you find FAQs regarding MN elections system. As SoS he’s been asked for his expert opinion and he’s given it, that’s what he’s supposed to do. Just because Republicans disagree doesn’t make Ritchie’s behavior partisan. The law requires the SoS to write a title for constitutional amendments on the ballot, that’s what he’s done. These are both controversial and divisive amendments, it wasn’t Ritchie’s idea to put them on the ballot. At least in MN it’s not the Secretary of State that’s injected partisanship into the process, it’s an hyper partisan legislature that’s put extreme and controversial amendments on the ballot. Richie is just doing his job, he can’t help it if the legislature drops these divisive and hyper partisan amendments in his lap. I think it’s important to remember that.

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