On Sept. 8, Ms. recorded a “fireside chat”-style discussion with Secretaries of State Shenna Bellows (Maine), Leigh Chapman (Pa.) and Tahesha Way (N.J.). The full recording is available here; here are our favorite highlights of that conversation.
On the Path to Becoming Secretary of State:
New Jersey Secretary Tahesha Way: I am so privileged to serve alongside these two phenomenal, dynamic leaders who are on the front lines ensuring that eligible voters can cast their ballots safely, and of course, with integrity.
We should understand there’s no cookie-cutter approach to this. I was not that little girl saying, “When I grow up, I want to be secretary of state or president or even mayor of my town.” I became a state judge overseeing election contested cases, and I ran for public office years ago, so that inspired me to pursue the office of secretary of state.
Pennsylvania Acting Secretary Leigh Chapman: I am an attorney by background and have dedicated my career to civil rights, racial justice, and just making sure that every eligible American in this country can register to vote, cast their ballot, and have it counted. It’s an honor to be on the front lines fighting for democracy at a time when there’s so much at stake.
Maine Secretary Shenna Bellows: My path was a little bit different. I’m not an attorney. I grew up poor without electricity or running water until I was in the fifth grade. I thought politics was fascinating and I loved the Constitution and Bill of Rights. I literally had a poster of the Bill of Rights on my bedroom wall! One of the highlights of my childhood was when my dad took me to a state convention, and I got to meet then-Senator George Mitchell and run an errand for him.
I decided to run for elected office—first for U.S. Senate in 2014 against Susan Collins, and then I ran successfully for my state Senate seat in 2016. In 2020 I was elected Maine’s first female secretary of state.
It’s an honor to be on the front lines fighting for democracy at a time when there’s so much at stake. … I’ve met people who have been impacted by voter disenfranchisement. I carry that with me, and I make decisions that will make our democracy better for everyone.Pennsylvania Acting Secretary Leigh Chapman
On Barriers for Women of Color Seeking Office:
Bellows: As a woman, sexism, unfortunately, is still alive and well. I think that sometimes when we aspire to higher office, for example, when I was considering running for secretary of state, one of the charges against me was, “You’re just doing this because you’re so ambitious”—as if ambition is a bad thing, or aspiration to make positive policy change is a bad thing. But that is something that is used to denigrate and undermine female candidates.
Chapman: One thing that grounds me every day, is just knowing what my background is, knowing where my morals and values are, and really just showing up and being my authentic self. That’s reflected in the decisions I make every day.
I bring my life experience with me—the fact that I was a voting rights attorney and saw firsthand people who were shut out of the ballot box because of their race or their gender or their age or their income status. I’ve put people on the witness stand—like a woman in Wisconsin who was 90 years old and her daughter had to spend $2,000 in legal fees for her to get a birth certificate in order for her to get an ID to vote. So I’ve met people who have been impacted by voter disenfranchisement. I carry that with me, and I make decisions that will make our democracy better for everyone.
Way: I have seen being underestimated. I’ve looked back at even when I was an attorney, walking into legal proceedings, and everyone looked and said, “Who are you?” And I would even say, “Tahesha Way for plaintiff such and such,” and they still would ask me, “So are you the attorney on this case?”
Even when I was a state judge and I donned my robe, walking into the legal proceedings I would get those looks. And we know how to juggle, we know how to organize—I’m a mom of four girls!
I thank the two of you for voting for me in as National Association of Secretaries of State president. That organization was founded 118 years ago and I was the first African American president, secretary of state, to land this role. I know there will be many more, but to be female and have done that is significant and important. I know that a female secretary of state put me in the pipeline of leadership and that, too, is meaningful.
When I was considering running for secretary of state, one of the charges against me was, ‘You’re just doing this because you’re so ambitious’—as if ambition is a bad thing.Maine Secretary Shenna Bellows
What Secretaries of State Do:
Chapman: I am the person who oversees the election for the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. We provide support to the counties, we issue guidance and directives and make sure that they are operating elections in accordance with the law in Pennsylvania.
I also have a whole other portfolio of work, as well—including professional licensure in Pennsylvania, everyone from real estate agents to nurses to doctors to barbers, 900,000 people in total. I oversee charities and corporate registration, lobbying disclosure, and campaign finance; I advertise constitutional amendments, which we have frequently now in Pennsylvania; and I oversee mixed martial arts, professional wrestling and kickboxing, as well.
Bellows: So, I’m sitting actually at Bureau of Motor Vehicles office because I oversee that agency for the state of Maine. As Secretary of State of Maine, I am responsible for all of the state records of Maine, both archival records and then also records that may be, at some point, destroyed because they don’t have archival value, so there’s that history piece there that I really love.
And then, of course, elections, which is so fundamental to everything else that we care about. Maine, like many of the New England states, in contrast to much of the rest of the country, administers elections at the municipal level, so our little tiny towns are running the federal elections this year, and so we need to train those 500+ clerks and deputy clerks and warden and registrars to make sure that they understand their responsibilities.
We do ballot design. We approve polling locations. We secure a statewide lease for all of the voting equipment. There is a lot that goes into being the chief elections official and protecting democracy.
Way: The secretary of state position is very essential because it touches upon the overall quality of life of our residents in terms of culture, arts, history, economy, and of course, our elections.
Democracy is indeed a team sport, and we all have to work together.New Jersey Secretary Tahesha Way
What’s Jeopardizing Election Administration Right Now?
Chapman: Misinformation and disinformation. That’s something that we’ve seen frequently since the 2020 election in all different forms, especially on social media platforms from TikTok to Twitter to Facebook to YouTube.
The other thing I would say is our threats to election workers, and also just staffing. In Pennsylvania, we’ve had over 35 election workers leave their posts since the 2020 election, and some of it has been because of planned retirements or just changes in roles, but some of it has actually been because of threats.
Bellows: I could not agree more, and the disinformation, misinformation and malinformation is so dangerous because when people believe lies about the elections, when they believe that election officials do not have integrity, which they do.
The other trend that we’re seeing on account of disinformation and lies is Freedom of Information Act requests being weaponized. Someone recently called it a denial-of-service attack. Essentially, every hour that election officials are spending responding to cut-and-paste, ridiculous queries is an hour they can’t spend on election administration.
We do ballot design. We approve polling locations. We secure a statewide lease for all of the voting equipment. There is a lot that goes into being the chief elections official and protecting democracy.Secretary Bellows
Way: Another concern is our bench of poll workers is decreasing, too. I feel for all of these election workers because they’re the front lines of our democracy. I don’t think that anyone realizes the hours they come in, and how exposed they are to these threats. It’s not a good feel for our society and indeed for our nation.
Solutions Going Forward: ‘Democracy Is a Team Sport’
Bellows: We just passed legislation in Maine to protect election workers to make it a state level election crime to threaten election workers. We’re also doing de-escalation training for clerks. And we are doing some of the things that we do every election, so really trying to stay focused on our values, our morals and our goals—to make sure that every Maine citizen, 18 years or older, can register to vote, cast their ballot, and have it be counted.
We just implemented automatic voter registration at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, so when people come to get their license or update their license, they can register to vote automatically in that moment. We have an online absentee ballot tracking system, so that if people want to request an absentee ballot, they can then track its progress. We’ve long had same-day voter registration and a 30-day period of no excuse absentee voting.
In short, we want to make voting convenient, accessible and secure for everyone.
Chapman: Secretary Bellows has a wish list of everything that we would like to implement in Pennsylvania! We are continuing to push for more election reform, but in Pennsylvania, we didn’t even get universal mail-in voting until 2020.
What we are doing now—the first thing I would say is countering misinformation and disinformation. We have a campaign that we are about to deploy, and it’s really about meeting voters where they are, so we are using every method to get information out about how to register to vote, how to cast a ballot and have it counted. That includes text messages, radio ads. We have ads at each of the rest stops on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. We are doing digital ads on Facebook and Twitter, and different social media platforms. We are really trying to do everything we can to get the accurate information out there so voters are armed with what’s true.
And because there are many court decisions in Pennsylvania—there’s a lot of litigation, so rules are constantly changing—we make ourselves available to ensure counties have guidance.
Way: In New Jersey we gathered a coalition of trusted voices—faith-based, education and business communities—who meet on a daily basis with eligible voters. All of this is to say that democracy is indeed a team sport, and we all have to work together.
On How and Why Representation Matters:
Bellows: One of the very first things that I did in my office was redecorate: Instead of hanging portraits of the white male leaders who came before me, I chose inspirational leaders throughout history who inspired me—Frederick Douglass and Congressman John Lewis and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Chapman: Outside of my office, there’s a portrait of C. Delores Tucker, the first African American woman secretary of state, and she came from Pennsylvania, so it’s such an honor to follow in her footsteps.
Way: One of my sheroes was Laura Wooten in New Jersey, who was the longest serving poll worker, and she was African American. She did so for 79 years straight, through the Civil Rights era, so if she can do it, then all of us can—and continue to be the guardians of our democracy.
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