Why are secretaries of state crucial to the electoral process?

Why are secretaries of state crucial to the electoral process?

John J. Martin is a professor of law and serves as a research assistant at the University of Virginia.

These individuals are often overlooked despite holding significant roles in government. Their choices have the capability to impact the outcome of elections. Researchers have dubbed them as the “protectors of the system of democracy.”

Who are these unidentified, yet vital, authorities?

This position oversees elections at various levels, including state, local, and federal levels.

despite their significance, secretaries of state have been able to evade
the responsibility of managing them throughout history.

During times of elections, the main focus is centered on one person or topic.

“The times are evolving.”

Disputes over election results and ballot access have become more prominent over the past half-decade. In turn, secretaries of state have faced newfound scrutiny and are likely to become more central figures in coming elections.

Power from the Constitution

The constitutional source for the broad jurisdiction of state secretaries is delineated in the U.S. Constitution: Article I grants states the ability to control the scheduling and methods of conducting congressional elections. Additionally, according to Article II, states have the authority to determine the selection process for their electors in presidential elections.

The management of federal elections is primarily up to the individual states. Secretaries of state hold authority over state and local elections due to the 10th Amendment, which gives states all powers that are not explicitly granted or prohibited by the Constitution.

This principle clarifies why the Maine secretary of state is responsible for tasks such as disallowing former President Donald Trump from being listed on the presidential primary ballot and ensuring the smooth running of the 2023 local elections.

This discusses the reasons behind the disputes surrounding Georgia’s secretary of state’s certification of the 2020 presidential election and 2018 gubernatorial election.

In the role of the primary authority for elections, a secretary of state has the power to impact all elected positions within the democracy.

Substantial sway

The authority over election-related matters held by secretaries of state may differ from state to state, but there are shared characteristics among them.

Most state secretaries decide who is allowed to be on ballots for political parties and individuals. These decisions are usually simple and involve checking age and citizenship requirements.

However, the recent developments in Colorado and Maine regarding Trump’s eligibility for presidency according to the 14th Amendment demonstrate that these rulings can be intricate and have a significant impact.

In addition to their regular duties, most secretaries of state are responsible for confirming the winners of primary and general elections in their respective states. As a result, secretaries were frequently targeted as defendants in former President Trump’s legal actions disputing the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.

State secretaries hold a significant influence on your voting decisions, and this can encompass the appearance of your ballot on Election Day.

An instance of this is the Montana secretary of state, similar to other secretaries, holds the authority to implement “general rules applicable throughout the state” which outlines important aspects such as the arrangement of candidates on the voting sheet, management of write-in candidates, and protocol for rectifying ballots.

While they may seem insignificant, the events of the 2000 election in Florida demonstrated the impact that ballot design can have on the outcome of an election. The layout of the ballot resulted in some Al Gore supporters mistakenly casting their vote for third-party candidate Pat Buchanan. Many experts believe that this played a major role in Gore losing the election.

Potential for abuse

The secretary of state has the power to influence the counting of votes. In Nevada, they have the authority to establish rules that will apply to the entire state for vote counting.

In the upcoming 2022 midterm elections, there will be a contest between the Nevada secretary of state and county officials.

The secretary refused to allow county officials to manually count mail-in ballots prior to election day.

Similarly, many state secretaries have the power to approve or reject the usage of voting machines. This authority was demonstrated in the aftermath of the 2020 election when several secretaries opted to decertify voting equipment that was being examined through “Stop the Steal” audits initiated by followers of former President Trump.

Unfortunately, this list of powers is not complete. In fact, certain secretaries of state have been given significant election authority, raising worries about possible misuse.


State secretary from Arizona

For instance, it is possible to calculate the longest wait time that is acceptable at voting stations. Since there is a correlation between the length of lines at polls and voter turnout, the misuse of this ability could potentially decrease the number of people participating in elections.

The Arizona secretary of state has the authority to reject the certification of election officers, who assist in conducting elections, for any reason that does not meet the secretary’s expectations.

Although this type of power would usually not be a cause for concern if the secretary of state is acting with honest intentions, it could potentially be used by a secretary with ulterior motives, such as denying the results of an election or showing bias towards a certain candidate, to appoint biased individuals to manage the state’s election process.

How can we ensure accountability?

I am not mentioning these instances to imply that secretaries of state should be viewed with fear. In my experience as a professional and researcher in election law, most of them are highly dedicated public servants.

Their significant impact on the function of democracy highlights the necessity for mechanisms of responsibility in cases where secretaries of state misuse their authority – potentially through intentional voter suppression or exhibiting excessive partisan behavior.

One of the most clear methods of holding officials accountable is through elections. In many states, the secretary of state, who is responsible for overseeing elections, is chosen by the voters themselves.

In seven states, the secretary of state is chosen by either the governor or legislature. This does not protect the secretary from being held accountable. However, the process for removing them may be more difficult when politics are involved, such as needing a large majority vote for impeachment.

One downside of this type of responsibility: delayed action. In situations where a secretary of state is actively affecting the democratic process, waiting until the next election may not be the most effective course of action.

An option is to take legal action. In the year 2018, advocacy groups in Georgia successfully petitioned a federal court to prevent Secretary of State Brian Kemp from discarding absentee ballots without notifying voters.

There are flaws in relying on lawsuits as a solution. In some cases, voters may not have the ability to legally sue a secretary of state for their actions. Additionally, the fact that a lawsuit is necessary suggests that damage has already been done.

Internal checks and balances can provide additional accountability. When a secretary of state makes an important election-related decision, that decision could be subject to the scrutiny of another official. This is how it is done in Louisiana, where the secretary of state’s decisions on issues such as absentee and early voting require the approval of the state’s attorney general.

The Conversation

This article has been reprinted with permission from The Conversation and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license.


Source: cbsnews.com