August 17, 2006 - Top vote counter becomes prize job
Copyright 2006 Gannett Company, Inc.
All Rights Reserved
August 17, 2006 Thursday
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 1A
LENGTH: 1319 words
HEADLINE: Top vote counter becomes prize job;
Democrats focus on key state post
BYLINE: Jill Lawrence
The political battle for control of the federal government has opened up a new front: the obscure but vital state offices that determine who votes and how those votes are counted.
The state post of secretary of State was a backwater until 2000, when Florida's Katherine Harris became a central figure in the presidential recount controversy. Now national Democratic groups and White House prospects, unhappy about Harris' decisions and those of Republican Kenneth Blackwell in Ohio two years ago, are pouring resources into contests for the job.
At least three Democratic political action committees are spotlighting secretary of State candidates, most of them in states where they expect the presidential vote to be close. Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada and Ohio top their lists.
Secretaries of State control most voting regulations and influence state purchases of voting machines. Looking ahead to 2008, Democrats say they want people they trust in those offices.
"There's a growing concern about whether votes are cast and, if so, whether they're properly counted. We have to restore people's confidence in the system," says Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a 2008 presidential prospect whose Heartland PAC is helping several secretary of State candidates.
Heartland and the new San Francisco-based Secretary of State (SOS) Project are focused on swing states, where close races pose "the greatest likelihood of abuse and the greatest consequences," SOS strategist James Rucker says. His project aims to raise several hundred thousand dollars from liberals online for candidates in six states.
The 21st Century Democrats PAC, which raised nearly $7 million for the 2004 election, has endorsed four secretary of State candidates, including a California Democrat and one of two Democrats in a Massachusetts primary. Early last year, the liberal group set a goal of 98% voter participation by 2024 and targeted secretary of State races for the first time since its founding in 1985.
While serving as secretaries of State, Harris and Blackwell were also top officials in George W. Bush's campaigns. Democrats alleged that their rulings on matters from recounts to the weight of registration forms thwarted voters and helped put Bush in the White House.
Harris and Blackwell say they were following state laws and regulations and did not suppress votes.
Vilsack and other Democrats say their goal is to increase voter participation, not gain an advantage. But some acknowledge that when it's easier to vote, more minorities and low-income people turn out -- and often vote Democratic. "The cause of opening up elections has partisan consequences," Rucker says.
At least four Democrats with presidential aspirations -- Vilsack, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and former Virginia governor Mark Warner -- have donated to secretary of State candidates. Among Republicans, Arizona Sen. John McCain has helped candidates in Michigan, South Carolina and New Mexico; national party Chairman Ken Mehlman also helped out in New Mexico.
Overall, however, the Republican Party is not highlighting these contests. "Our strategic imperative of 2006 is to maintain control of the ( U.S.) House and Senate," national party spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt says. "We've got a massive turnout operation designed to help Republicans up and down the ballot."
Top secretary of State races targeted by Democrats:
* Colorado (open seat)
* Iowa (open seat)
* Michigan (GOP incumbent: Terri Lynn Land)
* Minnesota (GOP incumbent: Mary Kiffmeyer)
* Nevada (open seat)
* Ohio (open seat)
Sources: Heartland PAC, 21st Century Democrats, Secretary of State Project