Democrats target state elections with focus on election security

Supporting secretaries of state offices in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi in effort to expand voting rights

Democrats are supporting secretaries of state offices across the country to try to win a majority of those offices nationwide. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Democrats are supporting secretaries of state offices across the country to try to win a majority of those offices nationwide. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 22, 2019 at 8:15am

Democrats on Thursday launched a campaign to win secretaries of state races in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi this November by pointing to their focus on boosting election security and expanding voting rights, compared with Republican officials.

“The office of the secretary of State is more important than ever,” Alex Padilla, the secretary of state for California and president of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, told CQ Roll Call. “Every election cycle is an opportunity to elect Democratic secretaries of State, but also to ensure security and accessibility” for voters.

[Election officials want security money, flexible standards]

While the immediate focus is on the three states picking secretaries of state this November, the party is also aiming for 2020 races in Missouri, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and West Virginia, as well as defending seats in North Carolina and Vermont.

“If we are successful, we can hit the milestone of achieving the majority of secretaries of state,” Padilla said.

Secretaries of state are typically the chief election officers who set the stage for voter registration, election security and conduct at polling places. Democrats hold 20 of the positions nationwide, compared with 25 held by Republicans. Two state officers are nonpartisan and the position does not exist in the remaining three states.

Democrats say that Republican officials in states such as Georgia and Kansas have restricted voting access and, in the words of Padilla, are “doing the bare minimum to hold President Trump accountable when he undermines U.S. intelligence officials on Russian interference.”

David Abrams, a spokesman for the Republican State Leadership Committee, countered in an email: “Republican secretaries of State across the country have done great work to ensure that state elections are fair and secure, and we’ll continue to support them however we can.”

Paper differences

The New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice found that 45 states use voting machines that are no longer manufactured and therefore lack maintenance support, which could leave local officials scrambling for spare parts. In 2020, as many as 16 million voters across the country are likely to cast ballots on electronic machines without any paper backup, compared with 23 million who did so in the 2018 elections, the Brennan Center said in a recent report.

Congress approved $380 million in federal grants for election security in 2018. Experts say states need more money to complete the transition to modern systems and replace old voting machines with ones that can generate a paper trail or accommodate paper ballots.

House Democrats on March 8 passed a wide-ranging bill that included several election security measures, including requirements that all states have paper ballots. Democrats including House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi and Zoe Lofgren of California, who leads the House Administration Committee, have introduced other bills to boost election security and provide more grants to states. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, a 2020 presidential candidate, has proposed similar legislation.

Such measures have stalled in the Senate, where Democrats have squabbled with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell over whether to prioritize them. McConnell has rejected suggestions that he is minimizing the need for election security, saying his position is rooted in his belief that the federal government shouldn’t tell states how to conduct elections.

[McConnell bristles at ‘hyperventilating hacks’ criticizing his blocking of election security legislation]

State Republican officials also are blocking funds for election security, Padilla said, pointing to legislators in Minnesota and Arizona. But California has approved $200 million in state funds during the last two years to boost election security, including cybersecurity training for voting officials as well as upgrading equipment, he said.

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