The Secretary of State Project (SoSP) was established in July 2006 as an independent “527” organization devoted to helping Democrats get elected to the office of secretary-of-state in selected swing, or battleground, states; these were states where the margin of victory in the 2004 presidential election (between George W. Bush and John Kerry) had been 120,000 votes or less. One of the principal duties of the secretary of state is to serve as the chief election officer who certifies candidates as well as election results in his or her state. The holder of this office, then, can potentially play a key role in determining the winner of a close election.
SoSP’s co-founders were Becky Bond (who also had affiliations with the New Organizing Institute and Working Assets); Democracy Alliance member Michael Kieschnick (who also founded Working Assets and served as a board member of the leftist evangelical group Sojourners); and James Rucker (who co-founded Color of Change and formerly served as director of grassroots mobilization for MoveOn.org Political Action and Moveon.org Civic Action).
The idea for SoSP germinated shortly after the 2004 election, when the Project’s co-founders blamed then-Ohio secretary of state Kenneth Blackwell, a Republican, for presidential candidate John Kerry’s defeat. To their chagrin, Blackwell had ruled that Ohio — where George W. Bush won by a relatively slim 118,599-vote margin — would not count provisional ballots, even those submitted by properly registered voters, if they had been submitted at the wrong precincts. Though the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ultimately upheld Blackwell’s decision, SoSP’s founding members nonetheless received Blackwell’s ruling with the same bitterness they had felt regarding former Florida (Republican) secretary of state Katherine Harris’s handling of the infamous ballot recount in 2000, when Bush defeated Al Gore in the presidential election. Wrote political analyst Matthew Vadum, SoSP’s leaders and foot soldiers alike “believe with a religious fervor that right-leaning secretaries of state helped the GOP steal the presidential elections in Florida in 2000 (Katherine Harris) and in Ohio in 2004 (Ken Blackwell).”
Moreover, in 2006 SoSP accused Blackwell and Republicans of conspiring to suppress Democratic voter turnout in Ohio. “We were tired of Republican manipulation of elections,” said Michael Kieschnick. “It seemed like lots of decisions were made by people who were pretty clearly political operatives.” “Any serious commitment to wrestling control of the country from the Republican Party must include removing their political operatives from deciding who can vote and whose votes will count,” added Becky Bond. As Matthew Vadum pointed out, Bond’s statement was a paraphrase of Joseph Stalin‘s aphorism: “The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.”
To establish “election protection” against similar disappointments in subsequent political races, SoSP in 2006 targeted its funding efforts on the secretary-of-state races in seven swing states: Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, and Ohio. As USA Today reported at the time: “The political battle for control of the federal government has opened up a new front: the obscure but vital state offices that determine who votes and how those votes are counted.” Democrats emerged victorious in five of those seven elections, all except Colorado and Michigan. Politico.com would later characterize SoSP as “an administrative firewall” designed, “in anticipation of a photo-finish presidential election,” to protect Democrats’ “electoral interests in … the most important battleground states.”
Because few Americans recognize the importance of the secretary of state’s duties, candidates for that office tend to draw fewer (and smaller) donations than do most state-level campaigns. Consequently, even a modest injection of cash from just a handful of generous donors can make an enormous difference in the comparative financial resources of rival campaigns, and thereby tip the scales decidedly in favor of the better-funded candidate. Among the more notable contributors to SoSP were Democracy Alliance members Anne Bartley, Patricia Bauman, Susie Tompkins Buell, Gail Furman, Tim Gill, Nicholas Hanauer, Blair Hull, Megan Hull, John R. Hunting, Michael Kieschnick, Barbara Lee (not the congresswoman), Rob McKay, Sanford Newman, Drummond Pike, William J. Roberts, Paul Rudd, George Soros, Rob Stein, Pat Stryker, and Scott Wallace.
In 2006, SoSP raised a total of $500,000 for the secretary-of-state candidates whom it supported, a small sum by traditional political fundraising standards, but a weighty total in comparison to the sums that such candidates had typically garnered in the past.
One beneficiary of SoSP funding in 2006 was Democrat Jennifer Brunner, who defeated incumbent Republican Kenneth Blackwell in Ohio. Said Brunner, “I received significant support from the SoS Project, which helped me toward the election.” Brunner went on to make her influence felt in several significant ways two years later, during the 2008 election cycle:
Another early beneficiary of SoSP support was Democrat Mark Ritchie, who, with SoSP’s help in 2006, defeated a two-term incumbent Republican in the race for Minnesota secretary of state. Ritchie acknowledged his debt to SoSP when he said, “I want to thank the Secretary of State Project and its thousands of grass-roots donors for helping to push my campaign over the top.” Other contributors to Ritchie’s campaign included Heather Booth, Drummond Pike, Deborah Rappaport (wife of venture capitalist Andrew Rappaport), and George Soros.
A former community organizer with close ties to the notoriously corrupt community organization ACORN, Ritchie in the 1990s had been a member of the now-defunct socialist New Party. Moreover, he has ideological ties to the Communist Party USA and has been described by communist Tim Wheeler as a “friend” of the Party.
Ritchie went on to play a major role in a crucial state election in 2008, when George Soros personally gave $10,000 to SoSP. In October of that year, a conservative watchdog group exhorted Ritchie to order “a thorough review and verification of all voter-registration records,” citing some 261,000 duplicative registrations and 63,000 voter listings with invalid or nonexistent addresses. But Ritchie dismissed those pleas as politically motivated attempts “to create a cloud over an election so people don’t accept the outcome.”
Then, in Minnesota’s November election for U.S. Senate, Republican incumbent Norm Coleman finished 725 votes ahead of Democratic challenger Al Franken; the thin margin of victory, however, triggered an automatic recount. With Mark Ritchie presiding over the recount process during the ensuing weeks, Coleman’s lead gradually dwindled due to what journalist Matthew Vadum describes as a long series of “appalling irregularities” that invariably benefited Franken.
For example, during the recount process a number of ballots were found in an election judge’s car; one Minnesota county suddenly discovered 100 new votes for Franken and claimed that a clerical error had caused them to previously go uncounted; another county tallied 177 more votes than it had recorded on Election Day; and yet another county reported 133 fewer votes than its voting machines had tabulated. “Almost every time new ballots materialized, or tallies were updated or corrected, Franken benefited,” wrote Vadum. In addition, at least 393 convicted felons voted illegally in two particular Minnesota counties.
By the time the recount (and a court challenge by Coleman) ended in April 2009, Franken held a 312-vote lead. In June, Franken was officially declared the victor.
In 2008, SoSP supported Democratic secretary-of-state candidates in Missouri, Montana, Oregon and West Virginia; all four Democrats won. These results represented yet another large return on a relatively small financial investment for SoSP. As of September of that year, SoSP had raised $280,000 for the campaigns it was targeting — not a large sum by any means, but enough to have a profound effect on the lightly funded Secretary of State races.
Just prior to the 2010 elections, SoSP claimed credit for having helped to elect 11 of the 18 left-wingers it had endorsed and funded since 2006. But in the midterm congressional elections of 2010, when Democrats suffered historic losses in the House of Representatives, five out of seven SoSP-backed candidates went down to defeat; only incumbents Debra Bowen of California and Mark Ritchie of Minnesota emerged victorious.
These lackluster results caused SoSP’s funding to dry up, and the organization became virtually inactive. In May 2012, Matthew Vadum reported: “The Secretary of State Project’s website, secstateproject.org, is currently offline after vanishing from the Internet in July of last year…. [I]ts Facebook page, YouTube channel, and Twitter account [have not] been updated since 2010. The group hasn’t endorsed any candidates for the 2012 election cycle and its most recent IRS filings show almost no financial activity since the 2010 election cycle.” Then, at the June 2012 “Take Back the American Dream” conference in Washington, D.C., SOSP co-founder Michael Kieschnick stated in an interview that while the organization “still exists” on paper, “2010 was terrible so we’ve switched our efforts.”