With a few exceptions, secretaries of state are so low-profile that most voters would be pressed to come up with their names. That was surely true of the last person elected to the post in Louisiana, Tom Schedler, at least until his sexual harassment scandal bumped him up onto the front page.
The generally low-key nature of the office has been a good thing. One of the main responsibilities of these state-level officials is to oversee elections, and when voting goes smoothly it doesn’t make news.
Lately, though, ballot access has become one more area of American life that has become politicized, in some cases weaponized. And lately, secretaries of state have been earning lots of headlines over questions of whether they used their offices improperly.
There’s Brian Kemp, the Georgia secretary of state who just won a hotly contested and extremely tight race for governor after not only overseeing his own election but employing tactics that drew credible claims of suppression. Among other things, Kemp settled a lawsuit charging that his office had been overly aggressive in rejecting registration applications by minority voters who were likely to support his Democratic, African-American opponent. When Democrats called on him to resign in order to run for the higher office, he refused.
There’s also Kris Kobach of Kansas, another secretary of state who oversaw his own gubernatorial bid. Kobach has been in the forefront of a national move to put up new hurdles to voting, all in the name of preventing the type of fraud that has rarely been shown to exist. Earlier, he’d pushed for a draconian voter ID law requiring proof of citizenship, which a judge threw out because “the magnitude of potentially disenfranchised voters ... cannot be justified by the scant evidence of noncitizen voter fraud.” Kobach was also the public face of a controversial Donald Trump-launched national panel that set out to uncover mass voter fraud and came up empty. Despite Kansas’ bright red bona fides, he lost last month to a Democrat.
Other allegations of secretary of state shenanigans have surfaced in Arizona, Indiana and Kentucky.
In all these states except Kentucky, the official in question is Republican, and that’s not a random fact. Some GOP-dominated legislatures too have been instituting tougher voting restrictions in recent years. Usually, the new rules just happen to disproportionately impact groups that tend to vote for Democrats. But that doesn’t mean that a Democrat couldn’t do something like this as well.
Nor does it mean that all Republican officials are inclined to manipulate the system. Schedler didn’t, and nor did his predecessors, Jay Dardenne and Fox McKeithen, both Republicans, and Al Ater, a Democrat. The Louisiana Legislature has also done a good and fair job on this front.
But it does mean that voters shouldn’t take their choice for secretary of state lightly, and that includes Louisiana voters who’ll go to the polls this weekend.
Two little-known candidates are in Saturday’s runoff: incumbent Kyle Ardoin, Schedler’s former top assistant, and newcomer Gwen Collins-Greenup.
There are various theories as to why these two finished atop the large primary field, but a perfectly plausible one is that Ardoin was the first Republican listed on the alphabetically ordered ballot, and Collins-Greenup the first Democrat. The best bet is that, with little else to go on, voters will pick a winner based on partisan leanings.
And indeed, both candidates have been campaigning on themes designed to appeal to their bases, with Collins-Greenup focusing on the state’s procedure for purging voters who’ve moved and Ardoin embracing the crack-down-on-fraud party line. He’s gone overboard in some cases, running an ad that features the sort of boogeymen Republicans have used in other states, from former Attorney General Eric Holder, a vocal opponent of restrictive voter rules, to big Democratic donor George Soros, whom Ardoin somehow found a way to lump in with Vladimir Putin.
It’s best to hope that he’s just saying those things to get elected, that he won’t act on them if he is. Really, it’s best to hope that whoever wins plays things straight and stays out of the paper, just as previous Louisiana secretaries of state have mostly done.
If there’s one lesson from other states, though, it’s that this office is worthy of more voter scrutiny than it generally gets. Just in case.