Secretaries of state have been among the more anonymous local officeholders, managing elections without taking a political side. Since the 2000 recount in Florida, however, when Republican Katherine Harris raised the post’s profile, it’s gone from political backwater to proving ground. At least 13 recent governors and 11 current members of Congress—drawn about equally from both parties—ascended from the once obscure rank, more than in any recent decade, according the National Association of Secretaries of State. But that flood of political ambition has brought charges of partisanship, and 2011 may mark a new high in naked electioneering.
This month at least seven states have replaced old-model functionaries with openly partisan secretaries, says Wayne State University law professor Jocelyn Benson, who calls the shift “one of the most concerning outcomes of the 2010 elections.” In years past, politicized secretaries (generally Republicans) have been accused of tweaking rules—invalidating votes at the wrong polling station, for example—in an effort to lower turnout.
Concerns are already rising in Kansas and Colorado, where new Republican secretaries have pledged to work toward tighter voting controls—potentially including photo-ID and “proof of citizenship” laws. They say they’re trying to reduce voter fraud. But each man’s political history—Colorado’s Scott Gessler has made his living as a conservative election lawyer—could complicate that position. It’s hard to have confidence in a partisan secretary, says Yale law professor Heather Gerken. “You’ve got a ref who’s playing the game at the same time as he’s making the calls.”