edemocrats and defenders of small democracy across the country continue to rejoice as does almost everyone else denying the election on the 2024 election watch ballot in swing states is declared a loser. Stories touting the wisdom of American voters rejecting Trump-backed conspiracists in the secretary of state races dominate the national conversation, rejecting even Carrie Lake’s “will they, won’t they” concession history from Arizona to a simple subplot.
At the risk of being trash in the bowl, it’s possible to overstate the significance of these results for the future health of American democracy.
These results, while a huge relief, are as much a product of the Democrats’ strategy of bankruptcy, a shock and awe national campaign, as they are a denial of electoral failure. Indeed, two of the most vocal election deniers in the group, Jim Marchant and Mark Finchem, lost far less decisively than might have been expected. Consider: they ran ill-advised, anti-democratic campaigns that likely depressed voter turnout among their base; they faced high-quality opponents with colossal fundraising and spending advantages. So why weren’t Marchant and Finchem defeated? Donald Trump can certainly take some credit. The rest, however, is thanks to the hyper-partisan, nationalized nature of our politics, from which no area of government is immune, including the traditionally apolitical issue of electoral administration.
Over the past decade, as the polarization between the two major parties has deepened, their positions on how to conduct elections have drifted further apart and hardened. While Republican state officials have pushed for tighter controls on voting — from tougher voter ID requirements to voter roll purges — Democrats in many states have responded by pushing for easier access to the ballot box. Those earlier partisan battles paved the way for the GOP’s acceptance of Donald Trump’s discredited election-rigging claims, which, along with the pandemic, essentially turned the secretary of state’s administrative office into a lightning rod for national partisan controversies.
As Covid-19 collided with the 2020 primary election season, secretaries of state across the country rushed to expand their vote-by-mail infrastructure or provide technical assistance to their colleagues with less experience with voting by mail, such as through all the while running highly publicized campaigns to inform voters about their ballot access options and the reliability and party neutrality of mail-in voting.
They did an exemplary job, playing a leading role in what election security officials called “the most secure election in US history.” Yet their mail-in voting messages failed to reach millions of Republicans. Years of misinformation targeting the government, combined with an increasingly polarized and polarizing media environment, have swayed a majority of Republican voters — and almost half of GOP candidates in last Tuesday’s midterms — to believe, or at least entertain, the “Big Lie.”
Were it not for Trump, what the secretaries of state accomplished in 2020 would be widely remembered as a shining example of government competence—something we sorely need in an era of record-low institutional trust. Instead, the secretary of state position has become yet another casualty of the hyper-partisan polarization and nationalization of state and local politics.
While the midterm results offer hope that Trump’s spell over his party is not absolute, the legacy of Stop Theft will continue to haunt the election administration and administrators. For example, huge 148 banknotes were filed by Republican state legislatures in 2021 that would strip elected officials of their usual powers, and more have been filed this year. And since 2020, Republican voters’ suspicions about the electoral process have only grown, especially about voting by mail. Early analysis of this year’s midterm elections suggests that those doubts, fueled by GOP candidates, may have depressed Republican turnout, making it all the more troubling that Marchant and Finchem have gotten so close.
The post-2020 frenzy has also led to an increase in national attention on secretaries of state, which is both common and unhealthy for the body politic. Powerful, as most secretaries of state are – overseeing elections and voter registration 37 countries— their duties are state-centric and primarily administrative. As such, secretaries of state tend to be more technocratic and civic minded. They are too more likely to be women than their fellow heads of state. According to the Rutgers Center for American Women in Politics database, 135 women have served as secretary of state in American history, compared to just 45 female governors and 41 attorneys general. Perhaps not coincidentally, secretaries of state were also less likely to continue serving in senior positions than other heads of state. Before 2020, these characteristics kept both the office and its occupants out of the national spotlight. (Notable exceptions include Brian Kemp in 2018 and Katherine Harris in 2000.)
In some cases, this newfound attention to secretaries of state and election workers manifested itself in threats of violence. In others, like this year’s midterm elections, the attention came in the form of unprecedented campaign spending for the secretary of state in swing states.
Fundraising for six close races for secretary of state has more than doubled since 2018, driven in large part by out-of-state contributions, a trend the Brennan Center attributes to increased nationalization in these elections. Democratic groups were particularly aggressive in their efforts to counter the threat posted by America’s First Secretary of State Coalition. The all-Republican members of the coalition campaigned on election “reform” goals such as erasing voter rolls and forcing voters to re-register, rewriting state election procedures, killing early and mail-in voting, abandoning voting machines votes in favor of manual counting and refusing to certify results they don’t like. Despite their radical positions and the fact that they have spent almost nothing on advertising since the primaries, pre-election polls have shown a number of these candidates leading or within striking distance of their Democratic opponents.
In response, the Democratic Secretary of State’s Association and affiliated groups spent more than $24 million –eight times what they spent in 2018 – to defeat these extremists. In TV ads alone, Democrats outscored Republicans 57-1 to defend their candidates, according to the NYT. Democratic nominees for secretary of state also had the support of notable figures such as former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and an actress Kerry Washingtonand even pro-Democrat Republicans like it Rep. Liz Chaney Without this unprecedented investment of money and star power in the secretary of state races, it’s easy to imagine some of them would have ended differently.
Attracting such huge amounts of campaign cash and media attention is unusual for statewide races, but that is becoming less so as more state and local campaigns are incorporated into the major parties’ national platforms and framed in existential terms. . Such is “bipartisan doom loop,” as my colleague Lee Drutman calls it, that these conflicts will only continue to escalate and infect new corners of democratic life until we make serious structural changes to our elections. Reforms like ranked-choice voting, proportional representation, and fusion voting have the potential to break America’s toxic zero-sum approach to politics, which fuels negative partisanship and rewards extremism over compromise. Unfortunately, despite the stable advances for ranked voting in particular, these changes are unlikely to be implemented anytime soon.
Secretaries of State are the quiet engines that keep our democracy going. Their choices always mattered, even when we weren’t paying attention to them. This year, however, the stakes were too high to ignore, and U.S. voters took notice, defeating nearly every election denier who sought employment. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we had to work so hard to do it, and chances are it won’t be the last time.
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