In a typical election year, nobody pays much attention to secretaries of state — at least those in state capitals.
While the U.S. secretary of state travels the world as overseer of our nation’s foreign affairs, these state-level namesakes toil away in state capitals in relative obscurity. They oversee business charters, safeguard public documents and register trademarks. “Somebody competent with paperwork” is how University of Michigan law professor Barbara McQuade puts it. Their elections are generally sleepy affairs.
Not so this year.
In 2022, secretary of state races have taken on new significance, fueled by the other job most have: chief election officer for their state. That’s why so much money is flowing to many of the 27 secretary of state races on the ballot this November — and one more reason these midterm elections are more significant than the often more staid, low-turnout events of the past.
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You’ve likely heard plenty about how control of Congress is up for grabs this year. Both houses of Congress could be in store for a change in political power like those seen in 1994 and 2006, several nonpartisan election analysts were projecting early this summer. Beyond that, 36 governors will be elected, including in nine of the 10 biggest states (incumbents running include Democrats Gavin Newsom of California and Kathy Hochul of New York and Republicans Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas).
But for voters in many states, governors are always on midterm ballots, as are all representatives to Congress and a third of U.S. senators. What’s different in 2022 is how much attention is being paid to the people who help decide how those ballots are distributed and counted. “If you care about the integrity of democracy, the secretary of state races are the most important on the ballot in the fall,” McQuade says.
November’s midterm elections are important at the state level for many reasons. In addition to voting for their members of Congress, voters will select a majority of state legislators. A host of ballot measures on hot-button state issues will go before voters. And there are city and county races to decide. Kitchen-table concerns — from utility prices to broadband access to the cost of prescription drugs — will again be important, and key decisions for those will be handled in statehouses, not just in Washington, D.C.
Hanging over each state’s unique issues and priorities are national issues of unusual intensity. Inflation and the economy have emerged in the first half of 2022 as top concerns for voters, and national debates on guns, violence, abortion rights, our role in Ukraine and the world at large are playing out daily in the news. Charlie Cook, a leading expert on elections, says a midterm election is almost always a referendum on the sitting president and his party, and how President Joe Biden has handled inflation is high on voters’ minds.
But for older voters, the midterms carry heightened importance due to the recent surge in focus on the voting process. Those age 50 and over typically are the majority of those who vote; for this election, they could surpass 60 percent of total votes.
Secretaries of state are instrumental in the voting process. While their duties vary across the nation — based on powers in state laws or constitutions — most serve as their state’s chief election officer, responsible for voter registration, maintaining voter rolls and running elections. They often play an important role in certifying elections, declaring winners and advancing a state’s electoral votes in presidential contests.
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They also can advocate for changes in voting rules; more than a dozen secretary of state candidates are backed by the America First Secretary of State Coalition, which seeks to eliminate mail-in ballots and return to single-day voting. Democrats reject those measures — and in fact, many Democratic candidates want to make it easier to vote.
Of those seats up for election this November, 14 are currently held by Republicans and 13 by Democrats. Interest in these races has skyrocketed. The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute at New York University School of Law, says that in six presidential battleground states with secretary of state elections — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada and Wisconsin — fundraising is at its highest level in a dozen years. For example, in Arizona in 2018, candidates for secretary of state raised a combined $1.7 million by March 31, according to a Brennan Center analysis; in 2022, the comparable figure was $3 million.
These historically local secretary of state races are also becoming nationalized, with candidates in Georgia, Arizona and Michigan raising substantial sums from out-of-state donors, the Brennan Center says.
Where to find state election info
Looking for reliable information on the candidates and issues appearing on your ballot this year? Here are five nonpartisan election resources that can help.
AARP voter guides provide information on the voting process — from registration to Election Day poll hours. They cover 50 states, two territories and the District of Columbia.
Ballotpedia features a tool (on the left, under 2022 Elections) that allows users to enter their address to view sample ballots. It includes information on national and statewide races, as well as relevant ballot measures.
OpenSecrets rigorously details how money is raised and spent by candidates and political action committees — and who their donors are.
Vote411, from the League of Women Voters Education Fund, lets users enter an address to find information about their upcoming elections. Vote411 also offers information on statewide races, plus guides to help navigate the registration and voting process.
Vote Smart allows you to enter a politician’s name to find information, including voting record, past speeches, funding sources and interest-group ratings. Information on ballot measures and voting registration is under Navigation and then Elections & Candidates.
AARP is nonpartisan and doesn’t endorse or contribute money to candidates or political parties. But it does strongly support laws that make it easier for registered older voters to cast their ballot, such as those supporting vote-by-mail and no-excuse absentee ballots, which have been targeted for elimination in some states. AARP also advocates for voting policies designed to eliminate fraud and abuse and to ensure that voters’ personal information is protected.
“It’s unfortunate that the whole concept of voting has become a partisan issue,” says Khelan Bhatia, AARP senior adviser for voter education. “It’s the most American thing that there is.”
What happens this November is a major step toward what comes two years later, when voters select a president under rules set by the legislators and secretaries of state elected in the midterms. “This one truly is a dress rehearsal for 2024,” says Nancy LeaMond, AARP executive vice president and chief advocacy and engagement officer.
Most state legislatures also have elections this November, and Republicans hope to build on successes in 2021, which returned a GOP majority to the Virginia House of Delegates and the Virginia executive mansion from Democratic leadership. But don’t expect major power shifts, says Miles Coleman of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
One reason: Republicans did phenomenally well in 2010, picking up about 700 seats and taking control of 20 legislative chambers; they locked in many of those gains through redistricting. Today, of 98 state legislative chambers with one-party control, Republicans have the majority in 61, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Republicans could gain a lot of seats in legislatures, while flipping relatively few chambers,” says Jacob Smith, a visiting assistant professor of political science at Kenyon College.
And of course, the elections will determine the makeup of Congress come 2023. Republicans need to gain five seats to have a majority and be in control. In the Senate, things will be much closer — Republicans only need to pick up one seat to have a majority.
Also in front of voters: statewide ballot measures. According to Ballotpedia, a nonprofit research organization, more than 90 statewide ballot measures had been certified for the November election as of press time; there’s still time for more to be added as organizers gather enough citizen signatures.
Voting access also shows up as a key issue on those measures, with at least four states giving voters the opportunity to alter how or when votes are cast.
Other states will let voters weigh in on tax and health policy, including in South Dakota, where state residents will decide whether to expand Medicaid to those ages 18 to 65 with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level. And at least four states — the most since 1986 — will have voters directly address abortion access, Ballotpedia says.
Tom Scherberger, a writer from Tampa, Florida, spent 20 years as a reporter and political editor at the Tampa Bay Times.