Why no one should sleep on the 2024 race for NC secretary of state

NC Secretary of State

NC Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, in 2010 following her race for the US Senate. Her 2024 re-election campaign for secretary of state could be significant for NC. (Corey Lowenstein/Raleigh News & Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

By Billy Ball

May 29, 2024

Elaine Marshall, one of the state’s longest-serving elected officials, is facing a Republican who’s promoting his campaign with a gun raffle and by talking a lot about abortion—though the NC secretary of state has no power over that.

Here’s the weird thing about Republican secretary of state candidate Chad Brown’s campaign page.

Brown, a local elected official in Gaston County, promises to “protect our elections and ensure that every vote is counted.” Which isn’t really something the NC secretary of state does. That’s more or less the duty of the NC State Board of Elections.

So why the pledge? It could just be pure politics, since “election integrity” is a buzz phrase among modern Republican voters. And the Republicans they’ve elected have used “election integrity” to justify hundreds of voter reforms—like limiting early voting hours and vote-by-mail— that have advocates for democracy worried.

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But it could also have something to do with the push among MAGA party folks to put election “deniers” (people who support former President Donald Trump’s false claim that the 2020 election was “stolen” from him) into top positions of election oversight.

So let’s all get a little bit smarter about how this office works before the election happens.

What the Secretary of State Does And Does Not Do

In NC, the secretary of state performs a lot of under-the-radar jobs like overseeing corporate records, authenticating important documents like adoption papers, and regulating investment advisors.

But in 38 other states, the office oversees elections. It was Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, for example, who reportedly “stood up to Trump” in 2020 when the former president pressured Georgia officials to overturn his defeat in that state.

Trump has repeatedly attacked the legitimacy of any election he doesn’t win, so you can see why the secretary of state could be an important office in this context.

That said, NC’s secretary of state doesn’t play a very big part in elections. That power’s been with the state Board of Elections for a century, a board appointed by the governor and the state legislature. (It’s worth emphasizing that the people we elect to the governor’s and state legislature’s offices are the people who choose who sits on the NC Board of Elections. That’s an important connection to make if you’re worried about election security.)

Our secretary of state acts instead like a sort of administrative assistant in the process. So while they don’t certify election results like in other states, they oversee paperwork for our electors, they notify the governor about who the people of NC voted for in the presidential election, and they make all of the arrangements for our Electoral College’s meeting—including what goes on the agenda.

There’s no indication at this point that anyone is trying to change the office’s duties, but it’s not inconceivable that if an election-denying MAGA supporter wins the election this fall for NC secretary of state, our Republican state lawmakers could try to change the powers of the office.

It would not be out of character for them. When the governor’s office flipped from a Republican to a Democrat in 2016, those same Republicans rushed a December vote (under the guise of an emergency hurricane relief session) to limit the powers of the governor.

And they’ve tried to curb Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s election oversight since then, including changing the way the state Board of Elections is appointed—but so far they’ve been rebuffed by NC courts.

These days, the NC Supreme Court, which has the final say on state law, leans hard to the right, so we shouldn’t be surprised if lawmakers look to change our election laws or oversight again.

With that in mind, here’s what voters need to know about this fall’s secretary of state election.

Who’s On the Ballot

Back in 1996, Democrat Elaine Marshall made history by becoming the first woman to be elected to a statewide executive office in North Carolina. Now, nearly 30 years after she was elected secretary of state, she’s hoping to win the office again this fall.

The office, which is a part of the Council of State (10 elected officials in the North Carolina executive branch—including the governor, lieutenant governor, state auditor, state treasurer and others), is elected by a statewide vote every four years, which means you’ll see it on your ballot this November.

Marshall’s a former public school teacher and community college instructor in Lenoir County who’s become one of the state’s longest-serving Democrats. She’s also an attorney who specialized in defending victims of domestic violence and opened a local rape crisis center. Marshall held a seat in the state Senate from 1993 to 1995. One of her signature bills made marital rape a crime in 1993—NC was the last state in the country to do this.

When she first ran for secretary of state in 1996, her opponent was legendary stock car racer Richard Petty. Marshall won the election and has served ever since. She also ran for the US Senate in 2002 and 2010. Marshall lost the Democratic primary in 2002, but did advance to the general election in 2010, losing to former Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican.

This year, Marshall’s campaign has focused on streamlining business registration processes and small business incubation in rural communities.

Her opponent in the Nov. 5 election is Republican Chad Brown. Brown’s a Gaston County native who says his campaign will focus on “government transparency and efficiency.” Brown’s a Gaston County native who’s served as mayor of Stanley, and on the Gaston County Board of Commissioners.

His campaign page talks multiple times about his anti-abortion stance, although the secretary of state does not have any power in this arena. It also promotes a gun raffle to support his campaign and, as we noted earlier, it promises a focus on election security.

Tell your friends that this race will be on everyone’s ballot on Tuesday, Nov. 5. To check your voter registration or to register, go here.

 

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Author

  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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