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Seeking edge on voting rules, parties target sec. of state races

The fierce battle over voting rights has both sides planning to pour massive resources into a few key 2014 campaigns for secretary of state.
People cast their ballots for the US presidential election at an early voting center, Oct. 15, 2012, in Columbus, Ohio.
People cast their ballots for the US presidential election at an early voting center, Oct. 15, 2012, in Columbus, Ohio.

The fierce partisan battle over voting rights has both sides planning to pour massive amounts of money and resources into a handful of key 2014 campaigns for secretary of state.

The new-found attention for these once-obscure races is driven by an awareness on both sides that a state’s top election official can play a critical role in expanding or restricting the right to vote—meaning control of secretary of state offices in swing states could be crucial in the 2016 presidential contest.

On Thursday, a group of high-level Democratic strategists launched iVote, a political action committee that will back Democratic secretary of state candidates in four pivotal 2016 states: Ohio, Colorado, Iowa, and Nevada. All four Democratic candidates are strong advocates of expanding access to the ballot, and all are likely to face Republicans who are looking to make it harder to vote. The initiative is part of a broader move by Democrats and voting-rights advocates to push back against the wave of restrictive voting laws advanced by Republicans in recent years.

Secretaries of state are charged with administering most aspects of their state's elections, giving them responsibility for everything from maintaining voter rolls to sending out absentee ballots to counting votes.

"We’ve got to flip the script, we've got to go on the offense here," Jeremy Bird, a lead organizer of iVote and the former national field director for President Obama's 2012 campaign, told msnbc. "That should be the conversation: 'What are you doing as secretary of state to increase the number of people who are participating in the democratic process?' Not, 'what are the roadblocks you put in place today to make it more difficult for them.'"

The effort will set out to raise “in the significant seven figures,” Bird said.

To be effective, it may need to. A conservative group launched in January, SOS for SoS, has said it plans to spend $10 million on secretary of state races in Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico and Ohio. That group was created by Gregg Phillips, the former managing director of the pro-Newt-Gingrich super PAC Winning our Future.

Phillips’ group was itself a response to the similarly named SoS for Democracy, announced last month by two well-connected Democratic and labor strategists, Steve Rosenthal and Larry Scanlon.

Bird said there's a chance that, if fundraising goes well, iVote could try to match the conservative playing-field by expanding beyond the four states it's already announced. But he stressed that the group wants to avoid spreading itself too thin.

Many campaigns for secretary of state cost less than $500,000, meaning an influx of money from either side can have a major impact. "These are not multimillion dollar governor's races," said Bird. "You can have a big impact in these states with a more effective targeted amount of money."

Recent presidential elections have underscored the importance of friendly secretaries of state. In 2004, Ohio’s Ken Blackwell, a Republican, did little in advance to alleviate massive lines at the polls—some people waited over 10 hours—in predominantly Democratic areas, giving a major boost to President George W. Bush in the election’s decisive state. And during the 2000 Florida recount, Republican Katherine Harris was a crucial Bush ally.

The last two presidential elections didn’t hinge on one state. But in 2012, Obama’s campaign had to sue to stop Ohio’s Republican secretary of state, Jon Husted, from cutting early voting, which could have badly dampened Democratic turnout.

Since then, Husted has often sought to walk a more moderate line. But he's nonetheless among the Republicans that iVote is looking to defeat. “Ohio’s Secretary of State poses one of [the] greatest threats to voting rights in the nation,” it argues in an online factsheet. His Democratic opponent, State Sen. Nina Turner, an msnbc contributor, was named one of our voting-rights heroes for 2013.

In Colorado, iVote will target Scott Gessler, who has stoked fears of massive non-citizen voting (last year, he released a list of just 155 suspected non-citizen voters, which has led to zero prosecutions). Gessler also tried to stop ballots from being mailed to voters who hadn’t participated in the last election, an effort blocked by the courts.

In Iowa, Secretary of State Matt Shultz, a Republican who has made combating voter fraud a personal crusade, is stepping down. But the likely GOP nominee for the post, Paul Pate, appears to be cut from the same cloth—he’s called voter fraud the “greatest way for Iowans to become disenfranchised.” iVote is supporting Democrat Brad Anderson, who ran Obama’s re-election campaign in Iowa.

And in Nevada, iVote will work against the likely Republican nominee Barbara Cegavske, a state senator who has supported voter ID legislation in the state. Her likely Democratic opponent, State Treasurer Kate Marshall has a platform that seeks to expand access to the ballot. That race won’t be the only important voting rights contest in the state this year: Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle, who in 2010 ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate, is working to put a constitutional amendment requiring voter ID on the November ballot.

"These roles as secretary of state should be non-partisan," said Bird. "They should be fighting every day to make sure the registration process is easy and accessible, to make sure there are expanded opportunities for early voting, to make sure that locations for voting are as accessible to folks as possible, to make sure that military voters and other folks can vote by absentee, to use the current technology of the 21st century to encourage more voting. Instead, we’re seeing a group of Republican secretaries of state who are actually going in the opposite direction. And they have candidates in some of these states who are just more of the same in terms of those policies." 

The battle for secretary of state offices is just one front in a growing Democratic counter-offensive on voting rights. In Washington, two progressive Congressional Democrats last May introduced a measure to amend the U.S. Constitution to create an affirmative right to vote. In Ohio, African-American leaders and lawmakers, including Nina Turner, are pushing for a Voters Bill of Rights to be added to the state constitution. And in North Carolina, anger over a sweeping and restrictive voting law passed last year has been a key component of the progressive Moral Monday movement, which has often put the state’s Republicans on the defensive.