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States' Secretaries of State Are Tipping Balance of Power

Katherine Harris

Katherine Harris, Florida's secretary of state in 2000, helped seal George W. Bush's presidential election.

In 2000 it was Katherine Harris, the secretary of state of Florida, who made critical decisions that helped swing the state Republican.

In 2004 it was Kenneth Blackwell, Ohio's Secretary of State, who earned democratic wrath for ensuring a close Republican win.

In 2008 it was the Secretary of State of Minnesota, Mark Richie, who handed that state's Senate seat to Al Franken and control of Congress to the Democrats.

In every major election since 2000 Secretaries of State have emerged as key, often decisive, and partisan figures in the outcomes of those ballot battles.

And just last week in Massachusetts there was cause of concern that the upset victory by Scott Brown could be compromised by that state's Secretary of State, who has to certify the results.

According to Professor Robert Pastor of the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University, the situation has gotten so bad that the partisan roles of the secretaries of states in the election process are undermining the faith of Americans in the election process.

"After the 2000 election, partisanship in the office accelerated. It has skewed enough elections since then that a sufficient number of Americans should be concerned," he said. "We are worse than many third world countries" in holding fair and nonpartisan elections.

And now there is a quiet, below-the-radar but major effort to target secretary of state offices in order to influence the outcome of upcoming elections.

Since 2006 the Democracy Alliance, a left leaning influence group funded by George Soros among others, has had remarkable success in targeting and claiming Secretary of State's offices in 11 of 13 critical states they targeted, including Ohio, Minnesota and Iowa.

Called the Secretary of State Project (SOSP) its aim is to target and capture the obscure, often overlooked office and implement election rules changes that give democrats a better chance of winning a plurality. Among those changes that SOSP calls "election protection," are a loosening of voter registration requirements and a lessening of efforts to prevent fraudulent voting, according to Matthew Vadum, a political analyst with the Capitol Research Center.

'The thing that is amazing is that they can get the office for as little $100,000 in campaign funding because no one pays attention to it, and they get to control election opportunities in a state. It is cheap," Vadum said.

He said SOSP is currently targeting three states in the 2010 election: California, Michigan and Minnesota. In total they count for 82 electoral votes.

Vadum says that because of chaos and demoralization the Republican Party has not formulated a response to the SOSP or tried to match their efforts.

Perhaps nowhere is the impact of the new influence of the Secretary of State had a more profound than in Minnesota, where Mark Richie defeated incumbent Republican Secretary of Sate Mary Kiffmeyer in 2006.

Ritchie, a former community organizer, said at his inauguration that he owed his upset victory to the Secretary of State project.

According to Kiffmeyer, as soon as Ritchie took office he began dismantling much of the framework that had been assembled to ensure honest voting in the state. It was that loosening of election controls, she argues, that lead to the eight month standoff between incumbent Senator Norm Coleman and challenger Al Franken in what was one of the closest Senate race ever.

Kiffmeyer is "absolutely sure" that Ritchie's efforts to eliminate voting regulations ensured Franken's victory.

"The first thing he did when he got into office was to dismantle the ballot reconciliation program we started. Under that program districts are required to check that the number of ballots issued by matching them with the number of ballots cast," she said, "that way we know immediately that the vote count is accurate."

But that isn't what happened, she said. We now have 17,000 more ballots cast than there are voters who voted and no way to determine what went wrong. Why anyone would eliminate that basic check, I don't know," she said.

Months after the election was finally settled, two activist/ computer experts have pieced together the consequences of what they say was the loosening of the rules.

In a telephone interview from Minneapolis, Dan McGrath and Jeff Davis, who have formed a small research-watchdog group called the Minnesota Majority, say that their computer assisted-examination of the voting records from the 2008 election show that Al Franken's 312 vote margin of victory can be attributed to Ritchie's dismantling election rules. Specifically they charge that Franken's victory can be attributed entirely to illegally cast votes by convicted felons.

"We used an algorithm that cross-checked voting records against criminal records using first name, last name and date of birth and found that 1400 convicted felons had voted illegally in Minnesota," Jeff Davis explained. "Most of those came from Ramsey and Hannifin counties (i.e. Minneapolis)," he said explaining that they were heavily Democratic strongholds and, by almost any measure, would have been predominantly Democratic votes.

The two said they had forwarded 460 names of felons who records show voted in the last election to the Ramsey County prosecutor's office.

Paul Gustafson, spokesman for the Ramsey county prosecutor's office, said that the office was looking into the claims. "To date 26 felons have been charged with vote fraud and investigations were continuing in 186 cases submitted by the group," he said. He also said that 243 cases had been determined to be unfounded.

"These cases can be time consuming and difficult," Gustafson said, "because felons often don't stay at the same address and can be hard to find."

McGrath said he was surprised at the number of "unfounded" cases and wondered if politics might have played a part in the outcomes. "The prosecutor is running for governor and may not want to look too closely at the figures," he said.

Mark Aiken, spokesman for Ritchie's office declined comment on the voting discrepancies and the SOSP involvement in the state.

While the founders of the SSOP have failed to respond to interview requests, they have been quoted as saying that the project was begun in response to actions by the Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell.

They were convinced that Blackwell's decisions in 2004 not to count some provisional ballots and other actions had cost John Kerry the election. In an article after the election Robert F. Kennedy Jr. argued that Blackwell "had prevented more than 350,000 voters in Ohio from casting ballots or having their votes counted -- enough to have put John Kerry in the White House.

Blackwell's office was one of the first and most critical offices claimed by SOSP. He was succeeded in 2006 by Jennifer Bruner, who received $167,000 in campaign contributions from SOSP, and immediately began a complete overhaul of Ohio's voting system. Among the changes she made were allowing election day registration and the failure to purge election rolls of ineligible and dead voters.

Her most memorable moment was when a federal court judge ruled that she had violated federal law for "not taking adequate steps to validate the identity of newly registered voters." At the time she admitted that there were "discrepancies" in about 200,000 new registrations but refused to allow polling workers to take action on the questionable ballots.

In Massachusetts, concern that Secretary of State William Galvin, who had been cited by federal courts for failing to count absentee ballots in earlier elections would withhold certification of upset winner Scott Brown to allow Democrats to salvage the health care effort rattled observers

However a spokesman for Galvin said he would file the papers "probably on Wednesday."

"Having partisan oversee elections officials makes election decisions suspect," Pastor said.

"Virtually no other country in the world allows partisan political figures to run their elections, except the United States," he said.