Big-money corporate lobbying has reached into one of the most obscure corners of state government: the offices of secretaries of state, the people charged with running elections impartially.
The targeting of secretaries of state with campaign donations, corporate-funded weekend outings and secret meetings with industry lobbyists reflects an intense focus on often overlooked ballot questions, which the secretaries frequently help write.
The ballot initiatives are meant to give voters a direct voice on policy issues such as the minimum wage and the environment. But corporate and other special interests are doing their best to build close ties with the secretaries because a difference of even a few words on a ballot measure can have an enormous impact on the outcome.
The influence campaign has intensified, with more citizen-driven ballot initiatives to be decided on Election Day this year than at any time in the past decade.
Secretaries of state from Washington, Ohio, Colorado and Nevada – all Republicans – participated in closed-door meetings in May with representatives from Reynolds American, the nation’s second-largest tobacco company; the National Restaurant Association; and the National Rifle Association, while ballot initiative signatures in those states were still being collected, documents obtained through open records requests show.
The Koch brothers out with the Republican secretaries of state – that’s a news story I don’t need.
Allen Richardson, a Koch lobbyist, joking to secretaries of state
At a weekend retreat last month at a hunting lodge in Kansas, Republican secretaries of state mingled with donors, including a representative from Koch Industries, as they shot pheasant and clay pigeons. The owners of Koch Industries – Charles G. and David H. Koch – have funded groups involved in several ballot initiative fights this year, including over a solar energy measure in Florida.
“The Koch brothers out with the Republican secretaries of state – that’s a news story I don’t need,” Allen Richardson, a Koch lobbyist, joked, unaware that a reporter was in attendance.
Groups aligned with Democrats have also targeted secretaries of state, mobilizing during the 2014 campaign to try to elect more officials sympathetic to their causes.
“With so many important issues being decided through ballot initiatives (increases in the minimum wage, gay marriage, environmental protections, etc.), increasing our involvement in electing secretaries of state who will stand with working families is vital,” said a strategy memo co-written by Steve Rosenthal, a veteran political strategist for labor unions.
The May meetings between industry officials and the Republican Secretaries of State Committee, a fundraising group, were set up to give the industry players a chance to weigh in on ballot initiatives that the secretaries were overseeing, emails show.
In an email with the subject line “Ballot Initiative Private Meetings in DC,” Emily Keech, the committee’s executive director, invited Barbara Cegavske, the Nevada secretary of state, to join the sessions by phone, noting that the others were flying in.
“I know that the National Rifle Association has some concerns in NV so it would be helpful to get your insights,” Keech wrote, referring to a Nevada initiative that would more broadly require background checks for gun sales, a measure opposed by the NRA.
She assured Cegavske that the meetings would be kept confidential.
“I don’t want that listed anywhere since it is a sensitive topic for some secretaries,” Keech wrote in the email. In briefing papers she later sent, she detailed the ballot initiatives the industry groups were concerned with – and just how much the groups had donated for Republican election efforts.
Some former secretaries of state said the new fundraising tactics could hurt the image of the offices as impartial referees of state elections.
“It is extremely important that the public trust their elections and have confidence they are going to be handled in a fair and impartial way,” said Sam Reed, a former Republican secretary of state in Washington. “And ballot issues in particular are very sensitive.”
Twenty-six states allow citizens to enact or repeal laws through a popular vote. The initiative process began over a century ago as a way to circumvent state legislatures, considered at the time to be dominated by powerful corporate interests.
There are 71 citizen initiatives this year, according to Ballotpedia, a nonprofit group that tracks state elections, and spending on those initiatives has reached at least $821 million.
With billions at stake, major corporations routinely hire consulting firms to help them influence ballot initiatives.
“The key to any ballot measure is the right language,” Nathan Sproul, the managing partner at Lincoln Strategy Group, whose client list has included Wal-Mart, Philip Morris International and Wynn Resorts, told a roomful of lobbyists in September at a closed-door strategy session in Alexandria, Virginia. “In Arizona, you write the concept, and then the secretary of state writes the language.”
Another Lincoln executive, Ulrico Izaguirre, told attendees, as he ran through a long list of Election Day items before voters this year: “The clouds of ballot measures threaten business on a daily basis. Thunderous clouds.”
Republicans have turned to initiatives to push their agenda as a counter to liberal activists, according to an internal party memo.
“Ballot initiatives will not be the left’s mechanism for gaining power and advancing their agenda when voters have already rejected them,” said the memo, from the Republican State Leadership Committee, in February 2015 as the group prepared fundraising efforts. “It’s time for conservatives to take back that power by rejecting their efforts and promoting our own.”
Robert Faturechi is a reporter at ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit investigative journalism organization, which collaborated on this article with The New York Times.