Races for secretary of state across the country historically have not been the most interesting on the ballot. The office typically manages the state’s administration and its elections, and so the campaign issues can often be mundane — think voter registration timetables, small business registration, and, in some cases, protecting the state’s official symbols.
But 2018 appears to be different. For many states, this year’s elections for secretary of state appear against the backdrop of the US Supreme Court gutting the Voting Rights Act, several states going to court over requiring voter ID at the polls, the election of Donald Trump that ushered in a controversial and now-defunct voter fraud commission, and questions about foreign nations hacking — or at least attempting to hack — into voter databases and election systems. What’s more, many secretary of states will be heavily involved in the next round of redistricting.
It all adds up to one thing: the contests for secretary of state haven’t gotten this much attention in more than a century.
This year, 36 states will hold elections for the office, including competitive battles in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
“Typically the secretary of state position is only interesting because it serves as a political launching pad to who will run for higher office in the future, but this year these races are so much more intense, more competitive and there is a feeling that there is a lot more on the line,” said Louis Jacobson, who handicaps state races, including for secretary of state, for Governing magazine.
The last time the secretary of state position got so much attention was following the 2000 presidential election. It was then that both parties woke up to the significance, both politically and substantively, of the post: Republican Katherine Harris certified a presidential recount in Florida, even though she had co-chaired the Florida campaign for her party’s nominee, George W. Bush.
But now the focus has shifted from partisan politics and battleground states. Today’s secretary of state races are driven by discussions on voting issues, such as calls for more election security or increased access to the ballot.
“Where before we were talking about hanging chads and butterfly ballots in 2000, this time the discussion is now at a different level about voting rights and cybersecurity against foreign nations like Russia,” said California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who chairs the organization aimed at electing more Democratic secretaries of state. “For this reason you are seeing attention and money flow to these races in ways we have not seen before.”
Republicans hold 28 secretary of state positions, while the Democrats hold 17 (Only 47 states have the job, and, in several of them, the legislature or governor pick who holds the role).
This year, all seven seats with no incumbent running are currently held by Republicans, meaning that they may be ripe for Democrats to pick up.
David James, of the Republican State Leadership Committee, said the new progressive energy this year in the secretary of state races means Democrats are finally getting up to speed with the GOP on the importance of these elections.
“Democrats are undermining our election system in nothing more than a naked power grab because they can’t win at the ballot box,” James said. “Republican Secretaries of State will continue to work on expanding ballot access while preventing cheating.”
But in addition to the potential for a partisan shift, there may be a generational change afoot. Each of the nation’s four longest-serving secretaries of states are facing a significant primary challenge from a younger challenger who has positioned him or herself as representing the party’s base.
In Massachusetts, Secretary of State Bill Galvin, the fourth-longest-serving secretary of state in the nation, is being challenged by Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim, who is running on a platform that includes allowing for residents to be automatically registered to vote. (After Zakim began his primary challenge, Galvin announced his support for an automatic voter registration bill and pushed for its passage in the Legislature.)
Zakim defeated Galvin for the state party’s endorsement earlier this year, and the two will face off on the same ballot on Sept. 4.
In New Hampshire, Bill Gardner, a Democrat who has held the post since 1976 and has built a reputation as caretaker of the state’s first-in-the-nation primary, is facing a challenge from the 2016 Democratic nominee for governor, Colin Van Ostern.
Democrats are highlighting what they see as a serious misstep by Gardner. He agreed to serve on Trump’s voter fraud commission that perpetuated unsubstantiated questions about voter fraud in New Hampshire. They say he has no regrets about associating himself with the commission. (In the Granite State, the newly elected Legislature will decide Gardner’s fate in December.)
In Wisconsin, the second-longest-serving secretary of state, Doug La Follete, who has been in office since 1983, is facing a spirited challenge from Arvina Martin
, the first Native American to be elected to the Madison City Council. La Follette, part of a storied political family in Wisconsin, has called it a “nuisance” that he has an opponent in their Aug. 14th primary.
In North Dakota the race for Secretary of State is particularly wild. Republican Al Jeagar, the incumbent since 1993, lost the state Republican convention endorsement in April to an upstart businessman who, unlike Jeager, supported a strict voter ID law. After that Jeagar dropped out of the race. But then a month later the Republican who beat Jeagar withdrew himself after the press reported he pleaded guilty in a “peeping tom” case at a local university in 2006. Now Jeagar is running for reelection as an independent.
In many of these races, candidates are campaigning on voting issues formerly left to academics and historians to debate, such as whether it's legal to ask voters to show photo identification before voting, or how long a state should keep inactive voters on file.
But discussion of voter ID and purging inactive voters are just the latest way the nation has fought over voter access since its earliest days, according to Ned Foley, the election law program The Ohio State University’s law school.
“We haven’t seen this level of interest and fight over mechanics of voting since maybe the Gilded Age when we fought over simply having voters register,” Foley said.
He noted that back then, some viewed voter registration as an act of voter suppression since the average worker couldn’t get to a registration office during the work day before it closed. Today, however, having voters register before casting ballots is a given.