Unexpected Heroes: Secretaries of State & State Supreme Courts

by Barbara Head, Feb. 17, 2022. With federal voting rights legislation stalled, all eyes are turning to the states. In a previous Letter From the Editors, we talked about the critical roles of Democratic governors as firewalls for our democracy. Through their veto powers, Democratic governors fight against radical GOP legislatures and their attempts to strip our voting rights from us.  

But governors are not the only players in our defense against extremist Republican agendas. Enter Secretaries of State and state Supreme Court justices. Who are these unexpected heroes? 

Secretaries of State

In most states, the Secretary of State serves as the Chief Elections Officer, whose responsibilities include voter registration, maintaining voter rolls, and making voting safe and efficient. In 2020, Democratic Secretaries of State nationwide also expanded voter access through absentee ballot applications and improved election security. Meanwhile, Republican-controlled legislatures in states like Wisconsin are attempting to take charge of the voting process – putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop.

Take the case of Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, after the 2020 presidential election. Raffensperger, citing his oath of office, resisted Trump’s pressure to change the state vote count in favor of Trump. Raffensperger’s refusal played a major role in the presidential election and infuriated Trump. In 2021, Governor Brian Kemp and state lawmakers passed a bill that transferred control of elections from the Secretary of State to the GOP-controlled legislature. This bill removed election safeguards to make sure no future Secretary of State could stand in the way of election subversion and abandoned any pretense of ethics in Georgia’s election process. 

This cautionary tale shows not only the immense power wielded by Secretaries of State to control elections, but also the urgency of electing and protecting Democrats in these critical positions. Raffensperger’s fate could easily happen to Democratic Secretaries of State who block election interference by radical GOP legislatures.

How You Can Help: Democratic Secretaries of State are critical to preserving our democracy and our right to free and fair elections. The Democratic Association for Secretaries of State (DASS) is the only organization dedicated to electing and protecting Democratic Secretaries of States. We will alert you to individual Secretary of State races in battleground states as the 2022 election cycle progresses.  In the meantime, please support DASS with your donations here.

Supreme Court Justices 

A major line of defense against Republican voter suppression and gerrymandering is the state court system, particularly the Supreme Courts. Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice observed, “The war against gerrymandering has always been a multifront war, and state Supreme Courts have been a part of that.” (The Hill, state court battlegrounds)

As quickly as voter suppression laws and unfair maps are introduced by Republicans, lawsuits are filed by Democrats, putting pressure on the state court system. Important redistricting cases eventually reach the state Supreme Court. The buck stops at the state level since the US Supreme Court will not hear cases involving partisan gerrymandering. Now State Supreme Court justices find themselves at the frontlines of the battleground that will determine the future of the US House of Representatives. So the stakes are very high. 

State Supreme Courts who have made the news recently for their rulings on gerrymandering include:

👍 North Carolina, where the legislature was ordered to draw new boundaries more favorable to Democrats. The Court split 4-3 along party lines with the 4 Democratic justices all finding the Republican-drawn districts unconstitutional and overly partisan. 

👍 Ohio, where drawing of new boundaries was ordered. The Supreme Court ruled against the GOP-drawn maps that would have favored Republicans over the next four years. The vote was 4-3 with the Republican Chief Justice joining the 3 Democrats for a majority. 

👎 Wisconsin, where the conservative majority Supreme Court voted to keep the highly gerrymandered Republican-drawn map from 10 years ago rather than redraw fairer maps. 

Why did their decisions vary so much? All three of these states have red legislatures – the source of the gerrymandered maps. But Democratic or liberal Supreme Court justices consistently ruled against GOP-drawn gerrymandered maps, while leaning toward more equitable maps. This is why Democrats must prioritize filling high court seats as the Republicans have been doing for many years.

How You Can Help: When state Supreme Court justices run for a seat on the court in 2022, we will let you know how you can help. Take North Carolina as an example, where two Democratic justices will run to retain their seats on the state Supreme Court. If they lose their seats, Democrats will lose the court majority, and conservative thinking will prevail in future court decisions. So closer to the election, we will reach out to All in for North Carolina. This group keeps in close touch with grassroots North Carolina organizations and knows which have programs for out-of-state volunteers. In the meantime, you can donate to help these  grassroots groups and those in other states with key Supreme Court elections coming up this year (see Recommended Groups).