Voting matters — so does the person running a state’s election

January 11, 2018

The Hill: Voting matters — so does the person running a state's election
By Stephanie Schriock

The dissolution of Donald Trump’s sham “voter fraud commission” is 2018’s first reminder of something Democrats can’t afford to forget in 2018: whether or not we continue to have a functioning democracy in the United States depends largely on whether or not we elect good secretaries of state — especially in states where they serve as the chief election official.  

To be clear, I don’t think that for a secretary of state to be good at doing their job they also have to be pro-choice, Democratic, and a woman (though any secretary of state candidate EMILYs List endorses will always be all three).

My intention also isn’t to use “good” here purely as a synonym for “Democrat.”

I know as well as anyone that when a good Democratic secretary of state is committed to carrying out the legal responsibilities that come with doing their job, that can be equally frustrating for both parties — and that’s as it should be.

When I managed the eight-month Minnesota Senate recount that followed the 2008 election, Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who was a Democrat, was so committed to following the letter and spirit of the law at every point that his ethical rigor was a big part of the reason why the entire process took so long in the first place — and thank goodness it did.

So Ritchie did everything possible to ensure there wasn’t any partisan advantage tipping the scale. In fact, there were days in late 2008 where, if you had run into me after a long day with the Canvas Board, I probably would have told you (and only half-jokingly) that Mark Ritchie was driving us all crazy.

But, of course, he was doing it for all the right reasons, because he knew how important it was to ensure that the voice of every Minnesotan who had cast a ballot in that race was heard. And none of us could disagree with that.

Ritchie was protecting democracy for every voter. As he said at the time himself, making sure the recount was “correct, transparent, and trusted” was more important than getting it over with quickly.This is how it always should be.

No secretary of state should ever make a decision to sacrifice the integrity of our democratic process for the sake of political expediency or convenience, or because they personally favor one political party over another.

This is why electing secretaries of state and top elections officials with a healthy respect for the law and a commitment to protecting our right to vote shouldn’t be a partisan issue.

But unfortunately, that is what it’s increasingly becoming.

The Alabama Senate race a few weeks ago provided us with a good reminder of this. When Roy Moore initially refused to concede and demanded a recount, it was notable how quickly Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill moved after the election to express his confidence in the results.

After all, Merrill, of all people, knew how high the barriers were for voters who turned out to the polls — because his office (working together with conservative legislators in the state of Alabama) had helped build them, taking deliberate steps to suppress voter turnout in the state over time.

Ironically, in spite of those barriers, African American women still turned out in large numbers and 98 percent supported Jones over Moore.

For many reasons, this was a worst fear realized for Republicans like Merrill, who have taken so many steps to silence the voices of voters they know are the most likely to vote against a Republican agenda.  

The power of women of color to make a difference for Democrats in elections like this one is something that has not gone unnoticed by the GOP. Recent attempts by Republicans to limit that vote should not only be deeply concerning to members of both parties, but they should also be seen for what they are: the latest chapter in a disgraceful history of minority voter suppression in this country.

Sticking with Alabama, take, for example, the state’s implementation of its voter identification law, which requires registered voters to present an approved form of photo ID, like a driver’s license, when they show up to vote.

The state of Alabama has not only made it more difficult for anyone without a driver’s license to vote (and at the time the law passed, 500,000 registered voters in Alabama didn’t have one), but they also attempted to reduce access to 31 driver’s license offices, many of which were located in counties with a large African American population, including eight of the 10 counties with the highest percentages of registered non-white voters in the state.

Then there’s Merrill’s take on automatic voter registration, which he opposed, apparently, because he considers the current voter registration system useful for weeding out the people he doesn’t think have done enough to “deserve” their right to vote — like “sorry, lazy people” or people who “think they deserve the right [to vote] because they’ve turned 18.”

“As long as I’m secretary of state of Alabama,” Merrill has pledged, “you’re going to have to show some initiative to become a registered voter in this state.”

The problem, of course, is that the last thing voters need is someone like Merrill making the final decision about who does or doesn’t “deserve” the right to vote. We already have a Constitution for that.  

But these kinds of scenarios, sadly, are all too common in states with Republican secretaries of state.

Of course,  the good news, in Alabama’s case, was that voters still showed up on Election Day in 2017 to defeat Roy Moore.

But if they could do that in spite of a system that’s stacked against them, it makes you wonder what kind of message they would send with a secretary of state who believes all of their voices deserve to be heard.

It also makes you wonder how far a bad secretary of state would go to stop them.

The truth is that when we read about tactics being used that are meant to instill fear, like having police at polling stations checking for outstanding warrants to arrest voters. We've read about something like what happened in Georgia, where a server containing evidence in an election security-related lawsuit was wiped clean. We see the number of polling places in certain areas drastically reduced before an election. We've witness people having to wait in hours-long lines to cast their votes. Republicans and Democrats alike should be equally concerned.

And in 2018, all of us should be paying close attention to the people running to be our next secretaries of state and chief elections officials.

Because the future of our democracy is at stake.

Stephanie Schriock is president of EMILY's List, the nation’s largest resource for women in politics. The organization recruits and trains candidates and turns out women voters. EMILY's List has helped elect 116 women to the House, 23 to the Senate, 12 governors and over 800 to state and local office.