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COLUMN: Suddenly, an important job

David Shribman, Universal Syndicate
Posted 4/13/22

SAGUARO LAKE, ARIZ. -- This is the country of the far horizon. Even with all the growth Arizona has experienced -- this was the fastest-growing state in the last decade -- the desert seems to reach …

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COLUMN: Suddenly, an important job

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SAGUARO LAKE, ARIZ. -- This is the country of the far horizon. Even with all the growth Arizona has experienced -- this was the fastest-growing state in the last decade -- the desert seems to reach on forever, the mesas and buttes turning red and blue and, reflecting the state’s new political profile, purple.

But right now, the state -- and a nation that understands the impact Arizona has on modern American politics -- is concentrating on nearer horizons: the Aug. 2 primary, the Nov. 8 general election and the 2024 presidential election.

But for all the drama in the state’s gubernatorial, congressional and legislative contests, Arizona -- a hothouse even when vast political implications aren’t at stake -- the struggle that may matter most is for the lowly position of secretary of state, in most places an afterthought, in Arizona perhaps the key to the nation’s political future.

“This is probably the most important race we face,” said Pinny Sheoran, president-elect of the Arizona League of Women Voters. “Whoever is elected to this must be committed to the idea that all voters can vote, that the state doesn’t make it hard for people to register and that there should be no effort to purge voting rolls. We will hold the secretary of state accountable.”

For generations, the public paid little mind to elections for secretary of state, a position generally more clerical than political.

“For years hardly anyone spent a moment thinking about secretaries of state,” said retired New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner, whose 45 years in the office made him the longest-serving person holding that title. “This controversy is part of where the country is now. No one ever raised much money for this job. I never raised a cent. But we are at the center of how elections are conducted and how votes are counted. That was never a big deal until recently. Everything now is trying to make sure your party wins.”

The office in Arizona is unusually powerful because the state has no lieutenant governor, and the secretary of state ascends to that office if, as has happened before, the governor is impeached (as Evan Mecham was in 1988) or is forced from office after being convicted of a crime (as J. Fife Symington was in 1997).

“The job all of a sudden became a steppingstone to become governor,” said Brooks Simpson, an Arizona State University historian. “Republicans are divided, but the party has moved to the right and three of the Republican candidates were involved in trying to overturn the 2020 result. Meanwhile, Democrats are petrified by the thought of a Republican managing the 2024 election.”

That is the real prize here -- the chance to manage, or to mangle, the next presidential election.

The result: Voter mechanics has emerged as an important element of American politics.

“Only people involved in elections paid much attention to these races in the old days,” said Benjamin Ginsberg, who was involved in Republican legal efforts during the Florida recount in the deadlocked 2000 election. “Since the accuracy of elections was called into question in 2000, the people who count and certify the votes have become more important. Having honest people in these jobs -- umpires calling balls and strikes -- is essential to the peaceful transfer of power that is a part of our democracy.”

“Now that there are so many efforts around the country to make voting more cumbersome, this job is more important than ever,” said Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin, the senior non-appointed Democratic election official in the country.

(c) 2022 DAVID SHRIBMAN 

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