The normally low-key secretary of state’s office has suddenly moved to the center of the political debate as the result of a swirl of intensely controversial election reforms and rising concerns of about the impact of mysterious “dark money” on the political system.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the office has surprisingly often proven a stepping stone to governor with no lieutenant governor and an unnerving number of Arizona governors not finishing their terms.
In a recent appearance in Phoenix, former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said he decided to run yet another statewide campaign to win the open secretary of state’s office as a result of fierce struggles over voting requirements plus court rulings that allowed donors to pour millions in “dark money” into political campaigns without revealing their identities.
“Dark money does get people excited — people are getting very upset,” said Goddard. “The devil’s in the details when it comes to disclosure laws.
“These groups all sound like motherhood and apple pie, but you need more than the name.”
As an example, he cited the current investigation into the Phoenix-based Center to Protect Patient Rights. Political consultant Sean Noble set up the group to funnel anonymous, multi-million-dollar contributions into political campaigns. The group reports fundraising and contributions, but doesn’t have to reveal where it got the money.
Noble collected some $127 million for conservative candidates in the 2012 election. The group put $11 million into a California ballot measure campaigns that would have curbed union spending and opposed a tax approved by the governor and Legislature. Those contributions have triggered an investigation by the California Attorney General’s Office, since state law requires the disclosure of donors to ballot campaigns.
“We don’t have a Legislature that’s in favor of full disclosure,” said the former Phoenix mayor who has also staged two, unsuccessful bids for governor, “and corporate donors who don’t want their fingerprints on anything.”
Goddard has no opposition in the Democratic primary and so will face whoever wins the contested Republican primary.
If an Arizona governor resigns, dies, gets removed or incapacitated, the secretary of state takes over as governor. That’s how current governor Jan Brewer first got the job after then-governor Janet Napolitano resigned to take a federal cabinet job.
But mostly the secretary of state oversees the state’s election system and the once quiet job has moved into the center of an increasing number of election controversies.
Incumbent Republican Secretary of State Ken Bennett is now running for governor, but gained national attention as secretary of state by demanding that President Barack Obama’s campaign provide proof of citizenship before he would list the president on the ballot. Bennett later backed down, but said the questions about whether Obama had been born in Kenya instead of Hawaii prompted his request.
Michele Reagan, one of the Republicans running for the job, also recently appeared at an event in Payson. She said she’s focused on election reforms to clean up the mail-in voting process. She wants to get rid of the provisions that would let a third person turn in sealed, signed mail-in ballots. Republican groups say the practice leaves the system open to fraud and manipulation. However, the Hispanic groups that have boosted turnout by collecting ballots from people who did not remember to fill them out or turn them in say the proposed changes are intended to suppress voter participation.
The other candidates on the Republican side include Wil Cardon and Justin Pierce.
Recent efforts to pass a whole bundle of election reforms have injected a large measure of controversy into the secretary of state’s race.
A year ago, Republicans passed a bundle of election law changes in the final days of the Legislature in the form of strike-all bills that had not undergone normal committee hearings. The bills included a host of changes, many making it harder to vote by mail. Republicans said the bills would protect the system from fraud and abuse. Democrats — backed by many Hispanic groups — said the changes would suppress voter participation, especially among minority groups with historically much lower turnout rates. Those groups generally vote overwhelmingly Democratic.
Critics of the measures promptly gathered 140,000 signatures for a referendum that would have repealed the whole package of bills. The Republican Legislature then repealed the bills themselves, making the referendum moot. Legislative leaders have said they want to bring back some of those measures separately, including the changes to routinely purge the mail-in ballot measures and bar any third party from turning in or mailing someone else’s signed and sealed ballot.
“I was a little astonished when I looked at the bills,” said Goddard. “For instance, if a husband took his invalid wife’s ballot to the mailbox, he’d be breaking the law. It was statutory over reach. But the Legislature quickly ran back into its hole” by repealing the measures when the referendum qualified for the ballot.
He also said he would push for measures that would make it easier for voters registered as Independents to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primaries, where most legislative seats are decided.
Currently, Independents can vote in either primary — but if they’re voting by mail, they have to request one of the other parties ballots. As a result, while about half of registered party members participate in primaries, only about 7.5 percent of Independents vote in primaries. This year for the first time in state history, more voters registered as Independents than for either political party.
“I love the idea of Independents voting in the primary. One of the reasons we’ve gotten so radical is the smaller and smaller base in the two parties. You have only about 24 percent of the voters really participating.”
He also criticized the Legislature’s increasing control of local elections. For instance, the Legislature this year has required school districts and cities to have local elections on the same day as the statewide party primaries. Backers of that change said it would prevent schools districts and cities from scheduling purely local elections, which usually have much lower turnouts than general elections. However, local officials worry that many of the voters that turn out for things like the governor’s and president’s race won’t pay much attention to the local issues. Moreover, they’re worried that putting things like the Payson Unified School District’s budget override and Payson’s Home Rule measure on a primary ballot will unintentionally exclude Independent voters.
He said he decided to run again for statewide office because the Legislature repeatedly got involved in political sideshows that made the state look bad nationally — like a bill to allow business owners to refuse service to someone based on religious beliefs widely considered an open door to discrimination against gays.
“I just got so angry about the missteps by the state Legislature,” said Goddard, whose father once served two terms as governor. “I want to get back to the moderate state I grew up in. The office most responsible for getting people to the polls is the secretary of state. So I couldn’t just sit on the sidelines. What we have now is a group of politicians trying to pick their voters — rather than the voters picking the politicians.”