Elections are Run by the States: A Guide to Statewide Offices and Election Power
Last updated: June 3, 2022
While we think about elections as big national events, they’re run by the states. The governor, the attorney general, and the secretary of state are in charge of making sure elections are free, fair, and secure. They’re the guardians of our democracy.
It really matters that your secretary of state believes in free and fair elections. It really matters that your attorney general is committed to defending the will of the voters, no matter the political outcome. It really matters that your governor believes in counting every legal vote. These are the people who set the rules, run the elections, supervise the counting of ballots, certify the results, and protect those results.
The quick guide below provides some detail on each statewide office and the role it plays in our elections. While not a fully comprehensive analysis, this information is designed to illustrate the power and influence each of these positions has when it comes to election administration.
- The governor can sign or veto legislation and state budgets that shape the contour of state election procedures and financial resources for administering elections.
- The governor can issue executive orders to improve intergovernmental coordination on election issues or address emergency situations impacting elections.
- The governor can be a part of litigation impacting a state’s election and voting laws or redistricting process.
Examples of pro-democracy actions a governor can take: sign legislation that expands or preserves the freedom to vote; veto legislation that undermines the right to vote or facilitate election subversion; draw fair district maps as part of the state’s redistricting process; propose state budgets that invest in election infrastructure and administration; appoint state officials who will advance pro-democracy policies; and issue certificates to presidential electors that reflect the official winner of the state’s presidential race.
Examples of anti-democracy actions a governor can take: veto (in full or part) state budgets that fund state election administration and enforcement; sign legislation that adds barriers to voters’ access to the ballot box; increase partisanship in election administration or audits; underfund election officials; subvert official election results; draw district maps that constitute a political gerrymander or that deprive communities of equal democratic participation; and issue certificates to presidential electors who do not represent the official winner of the state’s presidential race.
In 2022, 30 states have elections for state attorney general. Attorneys general have key roles and responsibilities in several aspects of election administration, election law enforcement, and voting procedures.
- The attorney general defends state voting laws and election results in court.
- The attorney general is often the state’s chief law enforcement officer and can take legal action to prevent or address voter intimidation or election misconduct.
- The attorney general can be involved in the ballot initiative process to ensure voters receive nonpartisan, accurate information about ballot measures.
Examples of pro-democracy actions an attorney general can take: defend the state’s official election results and pro-democracy voting procedures from legal challenges; defend the privacy of voters’ personal information from disclosure in election investigations; defend voters from intimidation and suppressive conduct; investigate and prosecute illegal attempts to suppress the vote; and issue robust guidance to local law enforcement detailing their role in safeguarding free, fair, and secure elections.
Examples of anti-democracy actions an attorney general can take: pursue unsubstantiated lawsuits seeking to invalidate other states’ official election results; fail to defend the state’s pro-democracy voting laws and procedures from legal challenges; and fail to work in good faith with other state constitutional officers to approve election guidance materials.
In 2022, 27 states have contests for secretary of state. Many, but not all, secretaries of state serve as the state’s chief election official. Secretaries of state have key roles and responsibilities in several aspects of voting procedures and election administration and certification.
- The secretary of state administers and oversees state election administration, including:
- Voting systems certification and logic and accuracy testing.
- Voter registration procedures and databases.
- Vote by mail applications.
- Voter education materials and hotlines.
- Guidance and support to local election officials.
- Certification of election results.
Examples of pro-democracy actions a secretary of state can take: defend the state’s official election results from legal challenges; request and advocate for legislation to expand voter access and voting options; robustly implement state voting right laws to ensure voters have access to the franchise and that election results are accurate and secure; issue election guidance to local election officials detailing how they can safely and securely administer elections in accordance with state law; perform rigorous, methodologically-sound election reviews and professional audits; and certify election results that reflect the official winners of the election.
Examples of anti-democracy actions a secretary of state can take: engage in unprofessional or partisan reviews of election results; fail to issue election guidance or issue guidance that restricts voter access in contravention of applicable laws; advocate for legislation that adds barriers to voter access and voting options; and certify election results that do not reflect the official winners of the election.