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Plenty of Voters Care About Democracy. It’s Still Probably Not Enough.

Democrats and defenders of small-d democracy across the country continue to rejoice as nearly every election denier on the ballot to oversee 2024 elections in swing states has been declared a loser. Stories trumpeting American voters’ wisdom in rejecting Trump-backed conspiracists in secretary of state races dominate the national conversation, relegating even Kari Lake’s “will she won’t she” concession story out of Arizona to a mere subplot.

At the risk of being the turd in the punchbowl, it’s possible we may be overstating the significance of these results for the future health of American democracy.

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These outcomes, though a tremendous relief, are as much a product of Democrats’ go-for-broke, shock-and-awe national campaign strategy than they are a repudiation of election denialism. Indeed, two of the most strident election deniers in the bunch, Jim Marchant and Mark Finchem, lost far less decisively than one might expect. Consider: they ran unhinged, anti-democratic campaigns that likely suppressed their base’s turnout; they faced high quality opponents with colossal fundraising and spending advantages. So why weren’t Marchant and Finchem trounced? Donald Trump can surely take some credit. The rest, however, is thanks to the hyper-partisan, nationalized nature of our politics, from which no area of governing is immune, including the traditionally apolitical issue of election administration.

Over the past decade, as polarization between the two major parties has deepened, their positions on how to conduct elections have drifted further apart and hardened. As Republican state officials promoted tighter controls on voting—from stricter voter ID requirements to voter roll purges—Democrats in many states responded by pushing for easier access to the ballot box. These earlier partisan fights paved the way for the Republican Party’s embrace of Donald Trump’s discredited claims of election rigging, which, along with the pandemic, turned the primarily administrative office of secretary of state into a lightning rod for national partisan controversy.

When the Covid-19 collided with the 2020 primary election season, secretaries of state across the country rushed to scale their mail voting infrastructure or provide technical assistance to their counterparts with less mail voting experience, all the while leading highly-publicized outreach campaigns to inform voters about their ballot access options and the reliability and partisan neutrality of voting by mail.

They did an exemplary job, playing a leading role in what election security officials have called “the most secure election in U.S. history.” Yet their messages about mail voting failed to break through to millions of Republicans. Years of disinformation targeting government combined with an increasingly polarized and polarizing media environment primed the majority of Republican voters—and nearly half of GOP candidates in last Tuesday’s midterms—to believe or at least entertain the “Big Lie.”

If not for Trump, what secretaries of state pulled off in 2020 would be widely remembered as a shining example of government competency—something we sorely need in an era of record low trust in institutions. Instead, the office of secretary of state became yet another casualty of hyperpartisan polarization and the nationalization of state and local politics.

While the midterm results offer hope that Trump’s spell over his party is not absolute, the legacy of “Stop the Steal” will continue to haunt election administration and administrators. For example, a whopping 148 bills were filed by Republican state legislatures in 2021 that would strip election officials of their usual powers, and even more have been filed this year. And since 2020, Republican voters’ suspicions toward the electoral process have only grown, especially toward mail voting. Early analysis from this year’s midterms suggests that these doubts, which were egged on by GOP candidates, probably depressed Republican turnout, making it all the more unsettling that Marchant and Finchem came so close.

The post-2020 frenzy also led to a surge in national attention on secretaries of state that is both usual and unhealthy for the body politic. Powerful as most secretaries of state are—overseeing elections and voter registration in 37 states—their duties are state-centered and mainly administrative. As such, secretaries of state tend to be more technocratic and civic-minded. They’re also more likely to be women than their fellow state executives. According to Rutgers’ Center for American Women in Politics database, 135 women have served as secretary of state in American history, compared to just 45 female governors and 41 attorneys general. Perhaps not coincidentally, secretaries of state also have been less likely to go on to serve in higher offices than fellow state executives. Before 2020, these characteristics kept both the office and its occupants out of the national spotlight. (Notable exceptions include Brian Kemp in 2018, and Katherine Harris in 2000.)

In some cases, this newfound attention on secretaries of state and election workers has manifested in threats of violence. In others, like in this year’s midterms, the attention has come in the form of unprecedented campaign spending for secretary of state campaigns in swing states.

Fundraising for six close secretary of state contests more than doubled since 2018, driven in large part by out-of-state contributions, a trend which the Brennan Center attributes to the increased nationalization of these elections. Democratic groups were especially aggressive in their efforts to counter the threat posed by the America First Secretary of State Coalition. The coalition’s all-Republican members campaigned on election “reform” goals such as erasing voter rolls and forcing voters to re-register, rewriting state elections procedures, decimating early and mail voting, ditching vote tabulation machines in favor of all hand counting, and refusing to certify results they dislike. Despite their radical positions, and the fact that they spent next to nothing on advertising after the primaries, pre-election polling showed a number of these candidates leading or within striking distance of their Democratic opponents.

In response, Democratic Association of Secretary of State and affiliated groups spent upwards of $24 million—eight times what they spent in 2018—to defeat these extremists. On TV ads alone, Democrats outspent Republicans 57-1 to defend their candidates, according to the NYT. Democratic secretary of state candidates also had the backing of celebrities like former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and actress Kerry Washington, and even pro-democracy Republicans like Rep. Liz Cheney pitched in. Without this unprecedented investment of money and star power in secretary of state races, it’s easy to imagine some of them ending differently.

For state down ballot races to attract such huge sums of campaign money and media attention is uncommon, but it’s becoming less so as more state and local campaigns are subsumed under the major parties’ national platforms and framed in existential terms. Such is the “two-party doom loop,” as my colleague Lee Drutman calls it, that these conflicts will only continue to escalate and infect new corners of democratic life until we make serious structural changes to our elections. Reforms like ranked-choice voting, proportional representation, and fusion voting have the potential to scramble America’s toxic zero-sum approach to politics that fuels negative partisanship and rewards extremism rather than compromise. Unfortunately, despite steady advances for ranked-choice voting in particular, these changes are not likely to be implemented any time soon.

Secretaries of state are the quiet engines that keep our democracy running. Their elections always mattered, even when we weren’t paying attention. This year, however, the stakes of a were too high to ignore, and voters across the U.S. took notice, defeating almost every election denier who sought the job. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we had to work this hard to do it, and chances are it will not be the last time.

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