Secretaries of state and electoral reform

Released December 2, 2005

Regardless of whether or not you agree with Danny Tarkanian’s politics, he undoubtedly got one thing right when he announced his candidacy for Secretary of State last week. "Nevada is going to a battleground state again in 2008," Tarkanian said. "It is going to be very contentious election and the person who oversees the election process, ensures the fairness of it is the secretary of state.”

Although close elections in Ohio in 2004 and Florida in 2000 brought some (negative) attention to these particular Secretaries of State, most Americans still do not realize the influence (both positive and negative) a Secretary of State with the duty of chief election official has over their elections. While specific duties vary by state, this office is often responsible for administering areas such as providing voter information, campaign finance disclosures, voting equipment purchases, training local election officials and ordering recounts. In this administrative role, this office also has important influence with state legislatures when they take up measures such as registration deadlines and voter identification requirements.

Beyond mandates to administer elections in a fair manner, many Secretaries of State around the country also play a leading role in encouraging participation in their states’ elections. This can include activities such as exploring more effective methods of voter education, working with schools to engage young people in the political process or developing and supporting community voter registration efforts. Although Tarkanian may be correct when he says "it isn't our responsibility to push people to the polls,” it is easily within the influence of the office he seeks to hold.

As we begin the 2006 election cycle, voters should give the same attention to Secretary of State races as they do to more high profile Congressional and Gubernatorial contests. After all, the Secretary of State administers the system we use to elect these other offices. When voters consider the candidates for this office, they should of course weigh these candidates’ abilities to administer elections in a fair manner that balances problems of voter accessibility and voter fraud. But more than that, they should consider the candidates’ electoral philosophy. While a chief election official may not be required to make our elections more accessible and inclusive, does it not strengthen our democracy to have someone who at least attempts to do so?