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By Karen Shanton

Colorado Secretary of State (SoS) Scott Gessler launched an effort to remove non-citizens from the state voter rolls. His Ohio counterpart, Jon Husted, came under fire for provisional ballot directives. Over the past few years, secretaries of state have regularly made national news for elections-related moves.

As the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake reports, such SoS-driven elections initiatives were the catalyst for a new political action committee, SoS for Democracy, designed to promote Democratic candidates for secretary of state.

SoS for Democracy echoes, though is not affiliated with, an earlier Democratic effort to claim SoS offices. That effort was similarly driven by elections-related concerns. The now-defunct Secretary of State Project sprang up partly in response to the 2000 presidential election and then-Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris’ alleged role in swinging her state for President George W. Bush.

That comparison, though, raises an interesting point about state elections administration.

Harris was elected to her office but she was the last Florida SoS to be elected. A 1998 state constitutional amendment changed Florida’s SoS selection process and subsequent state secretaries have been appointed. Current officeholder Ken Detzner, who helmed a noncitizen voter investigation like Gessler’s initiative in Colorado, was appointed to the position by Republican Governor Rick Scott.

Detzner is not alone. Secretaries in a handful of other states, including other loci of elections controversy such as Pennsylvania and Texas, are also appointed rather than elected. Though voters may have a say in the appointers in these states—typically the governor, legislators or some combination of both—they don’t have a direct hand in selecting the SoS him- or herself.

State-level elections administration can also be out of voters’ hands for other reasons. States divvy up administrative responsibilities differently. Though many assign elections to the secretary of state, this isn’t always the case. Some rely instead on boards, which may or may not include a prominent role for the SoS. Kentucky’s State Board of Elections is chaired by the secretary of state but other state elections boards, such as Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board, don’t even count the SoS among their members.

Of course, elections administration implications aren’t the only reasons to be interested in secretary of state races. As Blake explains, SoS campaigns can often be waged more cheaply than campaigns for other statewide offices. And, as Blake also points out, secretary of state can be a stepping stone to higher office.

But it’s worth noting that elected secretaries of state don’t always hold the reins on election administration. Some secretaries of state aren’t responsible for election administration. Some aren’t elected. The upshot in either case is that control over state-level election administration doesn’t come down to a race for secretary of state.

Karen Shanton is a legislative studies specialist and ACLS public fellow at NCSL

Posted in: Elections
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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.

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