Amid the battle for Democracy and future stewardship of elections, the role of secretaries of state has come into clear view. All but three states have a secretary of state. And in 37 states, secretaries of state serve as the chief elections officer overseeing free and fair elections.
Despite the allegations and ensuing controversy of virtually non-existent fraud and anti-democratic claims, there is no question that election officials administered the 2020 and 2021 elections fairly. Whether appointed or elected, these officials serve all voters without question and work to support the election staff and county administrators who handle day-to-day election administration and related issues.
New Jersey Secretary of State Tahesha Way and Pennsylvania Acting Secretary of the Commonwealth Leigh Chapman recently spoke with NewsOne about the importance of the role and what it means to be a steward of Democracy.
“My responsibility is to work directly with those local election officials to make sure that they have the support and guidance they need to execute a free, fair and accessible election in Pennsylvania,” Chapman explained.
Both secretaries noted that while overseeing election administration is the most high-profile portion of their work, it is only a small component of their work.
“Not only do the majority of secretaries of state serve as their chief election officer, but at the same time, there are various portfolios that dovetail into our responsibilities of all that we do,” Way explained. “The profile has been definitely raised in terms of the election space. But there’s so much more that we as secretaries do nationally, which is in tune with all aspects and quality of life.”
Secretaries of state touch many aspects of civic life
In many states, secretaries of state oversee various services, including charity business licensures and registrations, professional licensure and notaries. These components ensure that government moves effectively and works for the people as intended.
But making sure these various departments and agencies are adequately staffed and supervised relates back to the ballot box and the person serving as secretary of state.
“I’m in good company with Secretary Chapman next door and with other secretaries in just wanting to make certain that we bring out the best, not only in our Democracy but with all of the respective portfolios that we cover for our constituents and residents,” Way continued. “Of course, we always hear that the secretary of state is here to oversee free and fair elections. And for me, that responsibility is ultimately making certain that whoever is eligible to vote, no matter who you are, no matter where you come from or who you do decide to vote, that vote is cherished, and it would be guarded.”
Chapman echoed the need to protect the right to vote, particularly in the most marginalized communities within the electorate.
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen some opponents of our Democracy try to make it harder for certain communities to vote,” she shared. “Part of my role is to also protect the right to vote for all eligible Pennsylvanians who cast their ballot. But also, particularly for those marginalized communities that might be adversely impacted by certain policies.”
She gave the example of the Lehigh district attorney who mandated police officers monitor ballot drop boxes. The local League of Women Voters president also wrote a letter to the Lehigh Valley Live challenging the district attorney’s action.
“What could have been a discussion and voter education campaign regarding the proper use of drop boxes, including the use of a designated agent; became a highly charged set of actions that caused headaches for many especially our Lehigh County voters,” read the letter.
Secretaries of state have a duty to provide good information
Election denial is a significant issue in the upcoming Pennsylvania governor’s race. The winner of that race will choose the next secretary of state, meaning the person who oversees elections could be selected by someone who actively tried to undermine confidence in the process.
Chapman said an essential part of her duties as chief election administrator is ensuring voters have good verifiable information, which provides confidence in the electoral process. The same is true for election workers and volunteers.
“We understand that people have concerns, but they can be confident in the security of our elections,” explained Chapman. “There’s checks and balances. Election administrators and election officials at the county level are professionals. And so, they should be able to count every vote without any interference.”
She noted that one complaint about Pennsylvania has been the delay in election returns. But as Chapman explained, unlike in some states, Pennsylvania county election officials cannot even open ballots until Election Day.
New champions seeking office
Most states elect the secretary of state. But in a handful of states including Texas, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Florida, the secretary of state is appointed by the governor.
According to Ballotpedia, secretaries of state are up for election in 26 states. Three Black women currently serve in the role.
Last week, California Secretary of state Shirley Weber fended off challenges from several candidates advancing to the November general election. She held a commanding lead over the next top voter-getter, Rob Bernosky.
Weber assumed the position of secretary of state after Sen. Alex Padilla, was appointed to complete Vice President Kamala Harris’s Senate term. She is now running for her first full term.
Other Black women looking to join the ranks include Boston NAACP President Tanisha Sullivan announced her bid for Massachusetts secretary of state in January. According to Ballotpedia, she will challenge Secretary of State William Galvin, who is running for his eighth term.
During her speech at the Massachusetts Democratic Convention, Sullivan said the secretary of state’s office is more than ensuring people are registered to vote or have certificates of good standing. She won the party’s nomination and will face off against Galvin in the September 6 primary.
“This office must serve as a beacon for the rest of our country,” she said. “This office should be the soul and hold the promise of our Democracy…this office e for good enough it must actively work for more. So let me be clear when it comes to voting rights; you better believe I’m fighting for more.”
In Ohio, Chelsey Clark is challenging Secretary of State Frank LaRose. Clark recently tweeted an article pointing to election workers objecting to LaRose’s handling of various issues. While LaRose has flown under the national radar, non-partisan voting rights groups like the League of Women Voters and the A. Phillip Randolph Institute have sued LaRose and the state to ensure voters have fair access to the ballot.
All of these women follow in the footsteps of C. Delores Tucker. Appointed in 1971, Tucker was the first Black person to serve as secretary of state in almost 100 years. That same year Richard Austin became the first Black person elected as secretary of state in the same period.
“Years ago, I know that folks like me wouldn’t even be able to vote,” Way said. “I cherish it wholeheartedly. And want to make sure to serve as that guardian, if you will of our Democracy, ensuring that those who are eligible to vote, do vote.”
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