WASHINGTON, DC -- Campaigns for secretary of state, often relegated to the back burner of American politics, are drawing increasing attention from Democratic and Republican groups that hope to influence how elections are overseen in a number of presidential battleground states.
"For too long I think we've been on the defensive on these issues," said Jeremy Bird, a founder of iVote and a former Obama campaign national field director. "We're fighting for people to be able to vote, to have easier access to voting and easier opportunities for voter registration."
Republicans currently control 28 of the 50 state elections offices, some of which are part of the lieutenant governor's office, according to the National Association of Secretaries of State. Among the states that elect their top elections official, Republicans control 23 of the 39 offices.
Obama's re-election campaign was largely successful in a number of legal challenges to Republican efforts to curtail early and absentee voting, alter voter registration practices and implement photo identification requirements. Yet heading into the 2014 midterm elections, both parties are trying to play a more direct role in electing officials who will interpret voting laws and oversee elections even before a dispute reaches a courtroom.
Gregg Phillips, who recently founded the conservative SOS for SOS, said his organization planned to spend $5 million to $10 million on secretary of statecampaigns in Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico and Ohio. The group backs candidates who support photo ID requirements, proof-of-citizenship requirements and policies to prevent voter fraud.
"We have no agenda other than ensuring one person, one vote," Phillips said. He said the group intends to support "people with a backbone, someone who is able to stand up to the name-calling."
Republicans have made a concerted effort to win down-ballot elections across the country, helped by the Republican State Leadership Committee, which raised $39 million in 2011-12 for statewide campaigns to elect lieutenant governors, attorneys general, secretaries of state and state legislators.
In many states, the secretary of state's office typically oversees election laws, ballot measures and the recount process, a role that received widespread attention during the Florida recount after the 2000 presidential election. Yet in the states where the job is an elected position, the campaigns tend to be sleepy affairs overshadowed by more prominent races for governor and attorney general.
That is beginning to change.
Last year, a group of Democrats formed SOS for Democracy, which aims to support secretary of state candidates in about six or seven states. A kickoff lunch included labor unions, environmental groups and EMILY's List, a Democratic group that supports female candidates who back abortion rights.
Organizers from both parties note that unlike costly Senate and gubernatorial campaigns, many campaigns for secretary of state can cost $500,000 or less to run. That means the influx of $200,000 or more of television and radio ads could play a major role in convincing voters and influencing the outcome.