What Is It?
What does a Secretary of State do? That’s kind of like asking what a sandwich is – is a hamburger a sandwich? A taco? There are no simple answers.
Here’s the deal: most states have a person called the Secretary of States, and in many states, this person is the chief election official. That means they have the incredibly important job of running safe, fair elections – including registering voters, enforcing campaign finance laws, and certifying election results.
But the Secretary of State isn’t always the chief election official. In some states, it’s the Lieutenant Governor; in others, there’s a board of elections where a few people have various responsibilities.
Whether or not they’re in charge of elections, many Secretaries of State do things, like:
- Making sure companies comply with national standards (something called the Uniform Commercial Code).
- Maintaining official records, such as property deeds and marriage licenses.
- Issue professional licenses, driver’s licenses, and lobbyists registrations.
And in a few states, this person is actually called the Secretary of the Commonwealth (you do you, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Pennsylvania).
You’re not crazy: Yes, there’s a Secretary of State who works in Washington, DC at the federal level and they don’t do any of this stuff. That Secretary of State is the President’s chief foreign policy advisor.
Why It Matters to You
If 2020 taught us one thing, it’s that we can’t let politics creep into our elections. They say history is written by the victors – so it’s incredibly important that we put our elections in the hands of fair, honest, capable people.
In many states, those people are Secretaries of State. They’re tasked with implementing federal and state voting laws, registering voters, administering elections, and distributing and counting ballots. But they have a lot of latitude in how those laws are implemented, those voters are registered, or those ballots are counted – and that’s what makes secretaries of state so powerful.
Here are just a few election reforms that Secretaries of State are implementing in various states across the country
Automatic Voter Registration
In nearly half of states and the District of Columbia, eligible voters are automatically registered to vote, or automatically asked if they want to register, when they do business with the Department of Motor Vehicles or certain other government agencies (you may have heard this called the “motor voter” law).
In some states, Secretaries of State have been major proponents of automatic voter registration, and they have a major hand in making sure the process functions smoothly.
While every state offers voters the opportunity to vote by mail, a handful of them have been running their elections entirely by mail for years. During the pandemic, many states expanded mail voting – by making Covid-19 a valid reason to request an absentee ballot or by simply automatically mailing ballots or ballot applications – while other states chose not to expand mail voting.
Who was often making those decisions? You guessed it: Secretaries of State.
Same-Day Voter Registration
If you’ve ever moved to a new state and missed the voter registration deadline, this one’s for you: 21 states and the District of Columbia allow qualified residents to register at the polls just before they vote.
Whether you think this is a terrific or terrible idea, you know who’s got an opinion for sure? Your Secretary of State.
Thirty-five states have some kind of ID requirement in order to vote. Proponents of voter ID requirements say it reduces voter fraud, while opponents say it’s an unnecessary barrier to voting. Secretaries of State have a big voice in deciding whether your state will require voters to show ID and what the process will be if you don’t have one.
Hot tip: Get all the information you need to vote in your state with this handy tool from the National Association of Secretaries of State.
How to Make an Impact
Put it to a Vote
If you live in one of the 35 states that elects its Secretary of State, your vote is your voice. Check here to see if you have the opportunity to elect your Secretary of State, then be sure to register and vote!
You’ll also want to research each candidate’s positions on issues you care about – we’d recommend seeing what your local newspaper has to say and tracking your candidates on ActiVote.
If you’re talking politics on social media, remind your friends to vote for Secretary of State (a lot of people just vote for the races at the top of the ballot and then call it a day!).
I’d Like to Speak to Your Manager
Everyone has a boss. If you don’t live in a state that elects the Secretary of the State, there’s a good chance the governor is that boss and has the task of appointing someone to the job. Tell your governor what qualities and positions you want to see from a Secretary of State, and ask that they appoint someone who’s up to snuff.
Love or loathe the Secretary of State your governor has appointed? Let them know at the ballot box.
Writing an op-ed or letter-to-the-editor for your local newspaper is the perfect way to get the issues you care about in front of more eyeballs. Think your Secretary of State is making the right choice? The wrong choice? Want to prod a candidate to state their position on a particular issue? Write it up and send it in (head over here to learn how!).
Nice to Meet You
Your Secretary of State is accountable to you, just like any other public official. Want to shake up the way things run in your state? Get a meeting to discuss the things you care about and what your Secretary of State can do about it, then learn how to make it a good one.
Put in the Work
Volunteering for a campaign is a great way to really dig into the issues that matter to you, so give it a try next time there’s a Secretary of State race coming up where you live. In the meantime, you can volunteer with an organization that advocates for things you care about, and encourage it to get involved in recruiting and supporting candidates (within the limits of the law) who will fight for your issue.
Your Secretary of State doesn’t live in a sensory deprivation chamber. They talk to and work with other leaders in your state. You can leverage those relationships by asking your governor and state legislators to push the Secretary of State to do what you think is right.