Democrats Suddenly Remember That They Need to Win Elections in the States

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Dec. 12 2013 3:20 PM

Democrats Suddenly Remember That They Need to Win Elections in the States

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Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris announces she will not accept any extentions on vote tabulation at a press conference on Nov. 15, 2000, at the State Capitol in Tallahassee.

Photo by Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

The Secretary of State Project was born in 2006, after two elections lost by Democrats in superficially similar circumstances. In 2000, Democrats really believed that they'd won the popular vote in Florida but that a series of executive decisions—one by elected Secretary of State and Bush campaign co-chair Katherine Harris—had taken the win away.* In 2004, Democrats didn't get as close to the presidency, but they would have won had they taken Ohio. Alas, the secretary of state there was Ken Blackwell, a rising Republican star—oh, and Bush campaign co-chair—who made a series of decisions that did nothing to alleviate voter confusion or long lines.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

So a group of well-connected Democrats huddled. They approached wealthy donors who had just blown fat stacks of fiat money on an unsuccessful and too-late 527 (America Coming Together) built to elect John Kerry. The Democrats' pitch: With less money, they could elevate progressives to wins in secretary of state races, and give the party the advantage in the sort of coin-toss decisions that come in close elections, about how long to leave polls open or how to count flawed ballots.

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It worked. Democrats took over the election chiefs' offices in Minnesota, Ohio, Colorado, and other swing states. In 2008 Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner and Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie made game-day decisions that allowed more voter registration forms to be processed and more spoiled ballots to be counted in a recount.

And then 2010 happened. Brunner ran a mystifyingly bad Senate campaign, raising less money than the average candidate for state Senate, and the SoS office went back to the Republicans. Ritchie barely held on, and conservatives from the party base all the way up to the Wall Street Journal edit board state matter-of-factly that he's an election thief. Colorado, New Mexico, and Iowa fell to the Republicans. The Secretary of State Project responded by ... falling apart. 

Now Aaron Blake reports that Democrats have remembered, oh yeah, electing chiefs of voting systems in the various states might actually be important.

SoS (Secretary of State) for Democracy... is the brainchild of longtime Democratic strategist Steve Rosenthal and former AFSCME political director Larry Scanlon... The PAC will focus its efforts on five or six key secretary of state races in 2014 -- potentially in states like Ohio, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona -- in an effort to regain some ground lost to Republicans in recent years.
The PAC will do both independent expenditures -- paid media -- and assemble a team of consultants in each state that is chosen.

The lesson of 2010, that ceding off-year races can lock a party out of power for a decade, is beginning to sink in.

*Theresa LePore, creator of the butterfly ballot, was arguably more responsible for the Gore loss.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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