California Democrats have spent the last decade busily removing barriers between would-be voters and the ballot box — in fact, they’ve been so successful, they may be running out of strategies to drive up turnout.
So now the state’s top election official is taking the California model national. The goals: Get other states to adopt vote-boosting policies, and boot Republican secretaries of state out of office.
On Aug. 22, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla announced a new campaign to unseat his Republican counterparts in Oregon, Washington, Montana, Missouri and West Virginia in 2020. He also wants to protect two Democratic Secretaries of State, in North Carolina and Vermont.
Padilla’s isn’t leading the charge in his official capacity of California’s election regulator, but as chair of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State.
In a campaign video, Padilla said the association will take on Republican Secretaries of State who are “helping Trump wage a Jim Crow-style assault on our voting rights, targeting students, seniors and people of color.”
“When Secretary Padilla took over in February (of 2018), he came in with big ambitions, saying its just not enough that we’re pushing for reform in California,” said David Beltran, a consultant for the association.
“Things can be great here in California, but we have a vested interest in how things are playing out in the quote-unquote battleground states across the country,” Padilla told CalMatters in the lead-up to last year’s election.
The new effort taps into a renewed Democratic Party focus on both voting rights and the mechanics of elections.
Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost her run for governor of Georgia last year, recently announced a 20-state “voter protection” campaign aimed at helping voters get to the polls and advocating for reforms that would remove barriers to voting.
Likewise — in the wake of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that gives state governments free rein to draw electoral maps that favor one party over another — many would-be reformers are holding up California’s example of creating a citizen’s redistricting panel. Both former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, a Democrat, and former California Gov. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, are pushing other states to take redistricting away from self-interested politicians.
But the politicization of what was once a quiet, bureaucratic office of chief election regulator is not new, said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at UC Irvine.
“People realize that the rules of the game matter,” he wrote in an email, “and in many states Democratic Secretaries of State would run elections in different ways than Republicans.”
That may be an understatement. While Padilla and many of his Democratic counterparts across the country have championed legislation to allow teenagers to pre-register before they turn 18, to permit voters to register on Election Day, and to encourage voting by mail, Republicans have focused on strategies to keep ineligible voters from participating in elections.
That partisan split has been amplified by President Donald Trump, who has claimed — repeatedly and without evidence — that his dismal margins in California and his loss of the popular ballot by about 3 million votes in 2016 were due to rampant voter fraud by undocumented immigrants.
Founded in 2008, the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State is a nonprofit political committee that receives its biggest donations from a combination of organized labor groups (the California Nurses Association, the Service Employees International Union, and the teamsters, for example) and business interests such as Disney and large pharmaceutical companies.
Paul Nolette, a political scientist at Marquette University in Milwaukee who has studied the politicization of state attorneys general, “is consistent with polarization across the country in general.”
“Secretaries of state are in the crosshairs because voter rights have risen much more on the agenda both for Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “These state level positions are just much more tied to national politics now.”
CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.