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YOUR MOST IMPORTANT CHOICE ON THE 2022 BALLOT? AN OFFICE ‘AT THE VERY HEART OF OUR DEMOCRACY’

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To launch our coverage of Indiana’s election of a new secretary of state, the following report was written by Indiana journalists Barb Berggoetz and Steve Hinnefeld for The Indiana Citizen.

Sept. 20, 2022

Indiana will elect a new secretary of state in November as a fresh spotlight glares on these once-obscure offices across the nation — with most of the officeholders, as in Indiana, elected to serve as their state’s chief elections officer in a time of deepening concerns over continuing threats to democracy.

State-level elections for secretary of state are typically routine affairs in which voters reliably cast ballots for the standard bearer of their preferred party. But not this year.

Unprecedented attention already is on Indiana’s three still-unfamiliar candidates — one candidate in particular — and their views on how elections should be run and on who really won the 2020 presidential election.

Diego Morales, the Republican nominee, has expressed views on both questions that are at times inconsistent. He is opposed on Nov. 8 by Democrat Destiny Wells and Libertarian Jeff Maurer.

“Ordinarily, secretary of state is a sleepy race,” said Robert Dion, a University of Evansville political scientist, “but the national environment really makes election administration very, very important.”

***

“January 6 explains everything,” Dion added, referring to the attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump.

Many Republicans think the 2020 election was stolen, polls find, and they want to change voting rules and elect like-minded secretary of state candidates to administer them.

Many Democrats believe the Capitol invasion showed democracy at risk and want to keep “election deniers” out of office.

Evan Bayh, a Democrat who served as secretary of state before becoming governor and later a U.S. senator, said the office at times “touches on the very heart of our democracy and that makes it a very important position the public should pay attention to.

“Our democracy is only as healthy as the integrity of its elections. If the will of the voters is not reflected in the outcome of the elections, then what is the meaning of democracy?”

A recent NBC News poll found “threats to democracy” to be voters’ top concern going into November’s elections — a result Dion said stunned him.

“If you pitch the election as one in which the future of democracy is at stake,’’ he said, “you can’t get a stronger incentive to vote than that.”

In fact, that’s how the races are portrayed by both sides.

On the right, the Trump-allied America First Secretary of State Coalition says the contests are “our most important elections because they are predominantly responsible for the election process in each state.”

On the left, MoveOn, a national California-based progressive public policy advocacy group and political action committee, is targeting secretary of state races for the first time in its 23-year history to defeat Trump-supported candidates and elect “Democrats who will protect our democracy and count every vote.” It’s raising funds for Democrats in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Nevada.

A Washington D.C.-based nonpartisan organization, States United Democracy Center, also is raising alarm bells over some candidates for secretaries of state — including Morales — as well as attorney general and governor potentially interfering with election outcomes and voters’ rights.

The national organization has issued several reports pinpointing key political races, identifying candidates they deem “election deniers,” and tracking election-related legislation. Its sister advocacy non-profit bipartisan group, States United Action, advocates for policies to protect election integrity and prevent threats to the democratic process.

“Election deniers are running for office, including for secretary of state roles, all over the country,” said Joanna Lydgate, CEO of both groups.

“If they win, that would have a huge impact on voters’ experience and their access to the ballot. Although there are checks and balances built into our system, it’s critical that our states’ chief election officials believe in free, fair, and secure election.”

State GOP chairman Kyle Hupfer said he believes Morales will uphold the Republican Party’s long-standing support of maintaining election integrity.

“As a party, we’ve stood for free, fair and transparent elections,” he said, pointing to the Indiana GOP’s successful legal battle to require voters to show IDs at the polls.

“I’m convinced that Diego will continue to ensure that Hoosiers have faith in our election system,” Hupfer said. “I think we’ve got a pretty robust system now. But we always need to be vigilant.”

Historically, said the Democrat Bayh, the office of the Indiana secretary of state facilitates voting and makes sure the laws are enforced.

But the secretary of state doesn’t write election laws about such issues as voter registration or absentee voting, stressed Bayh, an executive in residence for the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs who also serves on several corporate boards of directors.

The role of the Indiana secretary of state in certifying elections, Bayh said, is a clearly defined ministerial role to determine facts and count the legitimate votes. Those who claim these officials have wide discretion to influence election results are misinformed, he added.

“There is not a lot of discretion if you are honorable,” said Bayh, who added his comments should not be seen as reflecting on the current Indiana candidates for the office.

“But there is room for manipulation if you have a secretary of state whose character places a higher priority on partisanship than honoring the intent of the voters.”

***

Republican-leaning Indiana isn’t seen among the battleground states most subject to manipulation in the 2024 presidential election, but its secretary of state race nonetheless is getting outsized attention.

Morales, who lives in Indianapolis and grew up in Clark County after immigrating from Guatemala in high school, won the nomination at the Republican state convention, defeating the incumbent, Holli Sullivan, who had been appointed by Gov. Eric Holcomb in 2021 to fill a vacancy in the office.

Morales’ nomination came despite scrutiny of his previous employment in the very office he wants to hold. Under previous Secretaries of State Todd Rokita and Charlie White, he served two short stints as a junior staff member that both ended amid criticism of his performance, according to personnel documents widely reported in Indiana media.

Morales has countered that the criticisms were unjustified or personally motivated. He more recently has been prompted to defend his portrayals of his military service.

As of mid-September, the States United Democracy Center identified “election deniers” on the ballots of 44% of secretary of state races in November, as well as half of the governors’ races and a third of attorneys general races. In Alabama, Arizona and Michigan, the center identified election deniers running for all three top statewide positions.

The center defines “deniers” as those who have claimed Trump won the 2020 election, publicly spread lies or promoted conspiracies about its legitimacy, called for an election audit after results were certified, or took action to undermine the election’s integrity.

Morales, who owns Ventures USA, a property management services and staffing company, disputes the group’s contention he is an election denier.

“As I have said before, Joe Biden is the legitimate president,” said Morales in an email response in mid-September. “My sole focus now is on visiting all 92 counties in Indiana to listen and learn from voters so I can best serve them.”

Yet several times earlier this year he expressed doubts about the outcome to different media outlets and in a column he wrote in the online publication Hoosier State Today. He has said the vote was “tainted,” the election was a “scam,” and that while the 2020 election was “obviously a legitimate election,” inappropriate “shenanigans” occurred in some states, such as unilateral, last-minute changes in election procedures.

Hupfer said he doesn’t give much credence to characterizations of Morales as an election denier and doesn’t believe the issue will turn away voters from the GOP or Morales.

“I think he’s been clear in what he’s said. I think there were a lot of irregularities in 2020 (presidential election). That isn’t to say results would have been any different.”

But, Hupfer contended, in some states election rules weren’t being followed and people weren’t allowed to see as much of the election process as they should.

“I think the vast majority of Americans support that we have transparent, fair and accurate elections and will support candidates who want to ensure that happens.”

***

Maurer, the Libertarian candidate for secretary of state, is the development director for Students for Liberty, a national libertarian advocacy organization. He says he wants to improve training for election workers, provide voters with a receipt that says they voted, and require audits of election results in all counties.

Wells, the Democrat, is an attorney and a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve. She wants to promote “free and fair elections,” reduce barriers to voting and ensure a customer service mentality at the secretary of state’s office.

Wells said Trump and his supporters, including Morales, are making a partisan play to pick off secretary of state offices as if they are pieces in a chess game to control the direction of U.S. government.

“I’m gravely concerned about the future of democracy, and the best thing we can do right now, at this point in time, is to take Indiana off the chess board as a possible piece in the game.”

Morales may have walked back his earlier statements that the presidential election was fraudulent, she said, but only because “he knows he has to appeal to a moderate part of the electorate to win.”

She challenged Morales to renounce his affiliation with the America First Secretary of State Coalition. He is one of 14 secretary of state candidates endorsed by its political action committee.

“Until he leaves that PAC,” she said, “he is beholden to the big lie” — the unsupported claim that Trump won in 2020.

Morales did not respond to questions about the coalition or Wells’ challenge. He has focused his campaign on his top priority of election integrity and perfecting and securing elections. He previously proposed cutting in half the current 28 days for early voting and limiting the reasons for absentee mail-in voting but has backed away from those ideas.

He said in an email response his views on those topics have changed since he’s been listening to voters and meeting with county clerks.

“Based on those conversations, I believe the current 28-day early voting timeline is working,” he said. He also said those conversations have led him to believe “it appears that the current list of reasons to request an absentee ballot strikes a good balance.”

People can vote absentee if they are 65 years and older, disabled, have election day duties outside their precincts, are scheduled to work 12 hours, or are in the military or serve as a public safety officer.

Morales has said he would push for legislation requiring those wishing to vote absentee to attach copies of their photo IDs or driver’s licenses, implement statewide audits after every election, and create an election task force to investigate cases of potential mishandling of elections.

Earlier this year, the Republican-led Indiana General Assembly passed a law, to go into effect in 2024, requiring a paper trail of all ballots cast that will be auditable in the state, party chairman Hupfer noted, saying Morales’ proposal to require people voting absentee to attach a copy of their photo IDs is another step forward to ensure a secure election.

Hupfer recognized increased attention to secretary of state races nationally.

“I think certainly when you look across the country, there were opportunities taken to use COVID to weaken protections around election integrity,” he contended.

While Indiana kept “all of its safeguards in place,” he said, it’s important protections enacted by legislators across the country are strengthened going forward.

***

While election policies have taken center stage, the officeholder’s responsibilities are much broader, and results of elections for the secretary of state are often a bellwether of a state’s political leanings.

The office, which dates from Indiana’s 1816 constitution and is considered the state’s third-highest ranking office, is also responsible for chartering businesses, regulating the securities industry, registering trademarks and licensing motor vehicle dealers.

Historically, voters have tended to vote for the party with which they affiliate, not the candidate, in those elections, said Marjorie Hershey, an emeritus professor of political science at IU Bloomington.

“It gives you a good idea of what the underlying partisanship is,” Hershey said.

As Indiana has grown more solidly Republican, the GOP has dominated the office. Republicans have won the last seven secretary of state races.

Andy Downs, director emeritus of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue University Fort Wayne, said all the secretary of state’s duties are important, and some of them — like business regulation — might be carried out differently by a Republican, Democrat or Libertarian.

“Those sorts of things can hinge a little bit on whether you are a free-market enthusiast or somebody who believes business needs to be regulated more heavily,” Downs said.

But the focus this year is on the secretary of state’s role as chief election officer.

“This is a battle across the country right now,” Downs said. “Secretary of state offices right now are highly sought after.”

That’s especially true in states like Georgia where Biden had close victory margins in 2020. Trump pressured Brad Raffensperger, Georgia secretary of state, to “find 11,780 votes” to reverse that state’s election result.

In Indiana, the secretary of state is responsible not only for certifying final election results but for calling and chairing meetings of the state’s electors, whose members cast the state’s votes for president in the Electoral College.

But more important on a day-to-day basis, observers say, is the “bully pulpit” the secretary occupies, both for local officials who perform election operations and legislators who pass election laws. County clerks and election workers routinely encounter questions about how to interpret guidelines, enforce the law, and manage voter registration rolls and voting machines. When they do, they’re likely to call the secretary of state’s office for advice.

“That means there’s the opportunity for putting the secretary’s thumb on the scale,” Hershey said.

According to Downs, research has long shown higher election turnout benefits Democrats and lower turnout helps Republicans. Thus, guidance that makes it easier or harder to register and vote will have partisan ramifications.

Indiana laws on elections and voting tend to be restrictive, but they could be made more or less so by the General Assembly.

And lawmakers, most of whom aren’t experts in election law, may well defer to recommendations from the secretary of state, said Dion, the University of Evansville professor.

“Ultimately, it’s the legislature’s decision, but you would expect that kind of expertise would have some weight,” he said.

Bayh, too, recognized some checks and balances exist in dealing with election policies and outcomes, including the judicial system, state legislature and Congress, that can help counteract people who put partisan politics first.

 “Ultimately,’’ he added, “you can put into place all the laws and rules, but it’s hard to protect against politicians who are willing to not follow those laws or rules,” he said. “If you have someone in office who is willing to lie and cheat and make things up, it’s hard to safeguard against that.”

Bayh said most officeholders are honest, but he is concerned about meddling with fair elections.

“It’s a growing threat,” he said. “We need to be vigilant because when you look around the world, democracy is the exception, not the rule. My point is, democracy is hard.”

Barb Berggoetz is a freelance writer based in Bloomington. She was a longtime government, education and health reporter for The Indianapolis Star and other Midwest daily newspapers and formerly an adjunct instructor at The Media School at Indiana University Bloomington.

Steve Hinnefeld is a freelance writer based in Bloomington. He formerly was an adjunct instructor at the Media School at Indiana University, a media specialist at Indiana University and reporter for the Bloomington Herald-Times.

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