What does a state’s secretary of state do? Most run elections, a once-routine job facing increasing scrutiny

John J. Martin, University of Virginia, The Conversation on

Published in Political News

They may be the most important government officials you can’t name. Their decisions have the potential to alter election results. Scholars have referred to them as the “guardians of the democratic process.”

Who are these unknown, but essential, officials?

State secretaries of state.

You probably know only one person with the title “secretary of state,” Antony Blinken, who conducts foreign policy for the U.S. The others serve their individual states, overseeing numerous crucial state functions. In Michigan, the secretary of state provides motor-vehicle services, such as driver’s licenses and auto registrations. In California, the secretary of state heads the public archives that document California history. And in many states, such as Pennsylvania, the secretary of state manages the process for business registration.

Perhaps the most vital role that state secretaries of state play is that of chief election official.

In 38 states, the secretary of state supervises elections. This power is not confined simply to state and local elections, as the position title might suggest, but includes those on the federal level too.


Despite their importance, secretaries of state have historically managed to avoid being the center of attention during election seasons. Times are changing, though.

Disputes over election results and ballot access have become more prominent over the past half-decade. In turn, secretaries of state have faced newfound scrutiny and are likely to become more central figures in coming elections.

The basis for secretary of states’ comprehensive authority is found in the text of the U.S. Constitution: Article I gives states the power to regulate the “times, places, and manner” of holding congressional elections. Under Article II, the states get to choose how they pick their electors in presidential elections.

The administration of federal elections is thus largely a state affair. Secretaries of state derive their power over state and local elections from the 10th Amendment, which reserves to the states all powers not expressly delegated or prohibited by the Constitution.


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