Across the country we are witnessing a wholesale attack by the right wing on workers, unions, women’s health, the environment, LGBT issues, civil rights, immigration and nearly every other right, protection and civil liberty that Americans hold near and dear. In recent years, Republicans have invested in and won key state legislative victories, which has resulted in lopsided redistricting that will make the work for progressives even more difficult at the state and federal level for years to come. At the cornerstone of the GOP strategy is an assault on voting rights in state after state, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in this country in decades. The right wing understands that their views are out of step with the rapidly increasing progressive majority in America — women, people of color, union members, LGBT and young voters. And the only way they can win is by attempting to prevent this new progressive majority from voting. If we are to turn things around, finding new ways to defend fair and equal access to the ballot must be a top priority for progressives.
One crucial office that is often overlooked when these battles are being decided is that of secretary of state. In many states, secretaries of state have far‐reaching influence over the electoral process. Their powers often include controlling the certification of names of candidates on the ballot and ballot proposals/initiatives, maintaining the lists of registered voters in their state, overseeing voter registration procedures, conducting recounts, overseeing the testing and implementation of voting machines, as well as certifying and registering campaign expenditure reports by both candidates and outside groups. With so many important issues being decided by secretaries of state, increasing our involvement in their elections is vital.
One needs to look no further than Michigan in 2012, where Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson played a critical role in defeating Proposal 2, the collective bargaining initiative. Through the powers of her office, Johnson appointed a panel that rammed through lopsided ballot language, which framed the proposal as an attack on the state’s constitution rather than protecting workers’ right to collectively bargain. Internal polling showed support for the initiative dropped more than 15 percent based on the ballot language alone, and supporters were never able to make up that lost ground. In Colorado, Secretary of State Scott Gessler has used his office to weaken Colorado’s strict campaign finance laws, tried to stop county clerks from mailing ballots to inactive voters on the permanent absentee list, and embarked on an aggressive voter purge effort aimed at alleged non-citizen registrants.