From USA Today
The banner ad that popped up online last month from an organization called iVote used a line as innocuous as a civic textbook: "Because every vote should count." In fact, the ad, and the Democratic group that sponsored it, iVote, are part of a highly partisan and increasingly expensive battle over an elected position most voters are barely aware of.
Thirty-nine states elect their secretary of State, and because the job includes overseeing the administration of elections, Republican and Democratic PACs have emerged to fight for control of the position. In addition to iVote, a second Democratic PAC called SOS for Democracy and a Republican group named SOS for SOS have also begun raising money for secretary of State races in November.
The election-year focus on secretaries of State results from the flood of outside political spending that began in earnest in 2012 and is now flowing to races further down the ballot. It also grows out of a wave of controversial GOP-led voter identification legislation, challenged in court by Democratic groups arguing that they are intended to disenfranchise poor and minority voters.
The PACs' effort also is part of a growing political belief that no detail is too small to be ignored in gaining an edge on an opponent. If that means trying to elect your candidate as Ohio secretary of State so that he or she can set early voting hours in Cuyahoga County, that is worth the effort.
"It is the long game. And it's really important. These are the kind of things that we need to do instead of sitting back and playing defense," says Jeremy Bird, former field director for the 2012 Obama campaign and now one of the organizers of iVote.
Secretaries of State "have a pivotal role to play in how elections are run,'' says Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California-Irvine and author of Election Law Blog. "It's very inside baseball, it's very esoteric, but for people who are inside it makes a big difference.''
Republicans control 25 of the 39 elected secretaries of State, but the top targets for both parties are in presidential battleground states. There are open seats in Iowa, Colorado and Nevada, where incumbent secretaries are running for higher office; in Ohio, where secretaries have played key roles in presidential election voting decisions since at least 2004, Republican incumbent Jon Husted is being challenged by Democratic state Sen. Nina Turner.
The PAC spending is "almost the inevitable result of there being such a big bull's-eye on voting rights,'' says Estelle Rogers of Project Vote, which advocates for greater voter participation by low-income and minority groups. "The more the parties think about how important it is for them to achieve the electorate they want, the more likely it is they would be interested in who the secretary of State is than they used to be.''
Republicans, who have pushed strict voter identification laws in a dozen stateswant to continue pressing for what they call "free and fair" elections, says SOS for SOS organizer Gregg Phillips, former director of a PAC supporting 2012 GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. Republican grassroots activists feel "a general frustration that their votes are being nullified by non-citizens or felons or people that shouldn't be voting,'' Phillips says.
The Republican State Leadership Committee, which spends party money on state elections, has a specific fundraising committee for secretary of State races. "Who the secretary of State is matters when the votes are counted, making sure you have integrity in the process,'' says Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is head of the Republican group.
Whether they win their elections or not, PACs spending on secretary of State races will likely have at least one effect: making previously cheap political races into expensive ones.
"This is an example of the parties trying to cover themselves in every respect whether it makes a difference or not,'' says Nate Persily, a Stanford Law School professor. "They are spending money because they're spending money on everything, and secretary of State races are just emblematic of both the aggressiveness in the way parties are raising money, and their heartfelt belief they want to ward off any possible advantage the other party could get in an election dispute.''