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dated: 2022-11-20 14:48:10 .
Kari Lake attends the Republican Party’s election night in Scottsdale, Arizona
Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake acknowledges the crowd during the Republican Party’s election night on Nov. 8, 2022, in Scottsdale, Arizona. Lake is challenging Democratic candidate Katie Hobbs in today’s Arizona midterm elections. Credit – Joshua Lott – The Washington Post
Democrats and Small-D defenders of democracy across the country continue to rejoice as nearly every voter who denies voting on the 2024 election tracking ballot has been declared a loser. Stories trumpeting the wisdom of American voters in rejecting Trump-backed conspiracy theorists in the run for secretary of state dominate the national conversation, even relegating Kari Lake’s will-she-won’t-she Arizona concession story to a mere subplot.
At the risk of being a turd, we may be overstating the importance of these results to the future health of American democracy.
These results, while a huge relief, are as much a product of the Democrats’ hopeless, shock-and-awe-filled national campaign strategy as they are a rejection of vote rejection. In fact, the two most outspoken pro-choice deniers, Jim Marchant and Mark Finchem, lost far less decisively than one might expect. Consider this: they ran bogus, anti-democratic campaigns that likely drowned out their grassroots voter turnout; They faced high-profile opponents with huge fundraising and spending advantages. So why weren’t Marchant and Finchem beaten? Donald Trump can certainly deserve some praise. But it remains because of the bipartisan, nationalized nature of our politics, from which no sector of government is immune, including the traditionally apolitical issue of electoral administration.
Over the past decade, as the polarization between the two main parties has deepened, their positions on the conduct of elections have further diverged and hardened. While Republican state officials have pushed for tighter voting controls — from tougher voter ID requirements to wiping out voter rolls — Democrats in many states have responded by pushing for easier access to the ballot box. These earlier partisan battles paved the way for the Republican Party’s takeover of Donald Trump’s discredited vote-rigging allegations, which combined with the pandemic turned the secretary of state’s primarily administrative office into a lightning rod for partisan national controversies.
As Covid-19 collided with the 2020 primaries, secretaries of state across the country rushed to expand their vote-by-mail infrastructure or provide technical assistance to their colleagues with less experience voting by mail, while conducting high-profile campaigns to inform voters about their access to voting and the reliability and party neutrality of postal voting.
You did an exemplary job playing a leading role in what poll security officials called “the most secure election in US history.” But her vote-by-mail messages failed to reach millions of Republicans. Years of misinformation targeting the government, combined with an increasingly polarized and polarizing media environment, have led most Republican voters — and nearly half of the Republican candidates in last Tuesday’s midterm elections — to believe, or at least consider, the “big lie.”
Without Trump, what secretaries of state accomplished in 2020 would be widely remembered as shining examples of governance—something we desperately need at a time of record low levels of trust in institutions. Instead, the Secretary of State’s office has become another victim of the bipartisan polarization and nationalization of state and local politics.
While the interim results give hope that Trump’s fascination with his party is not final, the legacy of “Stop the Steal” will continue to haunt the election administration and administrators. For example, in 2021, Republican lawmakers introduced a whopping 148 bills that would strip elected officials of their usual powers, and even more have been introduced this year. And since 2020, the distrust of Republican voters in the electoral process, especially in mail-in ballots, has only grown. Early analysis of this year’s midterms suggests that those doubts, fueled by Republican candidates, likely dampened Republican turnout, making it all the more troubling that Marchant and Finchem were so close.
The post-2020 frenzy has also led to increased national attention on foreign ministers, which is common and unhealthy for politics. Powerful like most secretaries of state — they oversee elections and voter registration in 37 states — their responsibilities are state-focused and primarily administrative. As such, foreign ministers are more technocratic and civic minded. They are also more likely to be women than their counterparts. According to a database from the Rutgers Center for American Women in Politics, 135 women have served as secretaries of state in American history, compared to just 45 female governors and 41 attorneys general. It may not be a coincidence that secretaries of state are less likely to hold high positions than other civil servants. Before 2020, these qualities kept both the office and its residents out of the national spotlight. (Notable exceptions include Brian Kemp in 2018 and Katherine Harris in 2000.)
In some cases, this renewed attention manifested itself in threats of violence against foreign ministers and poll workers. In others, such as this year’s Midterms, attention has been drawn in the form of unprecedented campaign spending to the campaigns of foreign ministers in swing states.
Fundraising for the six secretary of state elections has more than doubled since 2018, thanks in large part to out-of-state donations, a trend the Brennan Center attributes to the increasing nationalization of those elections. Democratic groups have been particularly aggressive in their efforts to counter the threat posed by America’s first secretary of state’s coalition. All Republican members of the coalition championed “election reform” goals, such as erasing voter rolls and forcing voter re-registration, rewriting election procedures by state, decimating early voting and voting by mail, abolishing vote-tapping machines in favor of hand-counting only and refusing to certify results they don’t like. Despite their radical views and the fact that they spent almost nothing on advertising after the primaries, pre-election polls showed some of these candidates leading or close to their Democratic opponents.
In response, the Democratic Association of Foreign Ministers and affiliated groups spent more than $24 million — eight times more than in 2018 — to defeat these extremists. For TV ads alone, Democrats outspent Republicans 57-1 in defending their candidates, according to the NYT. Democratic candidates for secretary of state also had the support of celebrities such as the former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and actress Kerry Washington, and even pro-democracy Republicans like Rep. Liz Cheney chimed in. Without this unprecedented investment of money and star power in secretary of state races, it’s easy to imagine some of them would have ended differently.
It is unusual for state election races to attract such huge amounts of campaign money and media attention, but that is becoming less so as more and more state and local campaigns are brought under the national platforms of major parties and framed in existential terms. The “bipartisan fate loop,” as my colleague Lee Drutman calls it, is so great that until we make serious structural changes to our elections, these conflicts will only continue to escalate and infect new corners of democratic life. Reforms like ranked-choice voting, proportional representation, and merger voting have the potential to disrupt America’s toxic zero-sum approach to politics, which encourages negative partisanship and rewards extremism over compromise. Unfortunately, despite the steady progress, these changes are unlikely to be implemented anytime soon, especially in the ranking selection.
Secretaries of State are the silent engines that keep our democracy going. Your choices have always mattered, even when we weren’t careful. That year, however, the campaign stakes were too high to ignore, and voters across the United States took notice, defeating nearly every draft dodger who tried to get the job. That’s a good news. The bad news is that we had to work so hard for it and chances are it won’t be the last.
Many voters care about democracy. Still probably not enough.
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