A small tax-exempt political group with ties to wealthy liberals like billionaire financier George Soros has quietly helped elect 11 reform-minded progressive Democrats as secretaries of state to oversee the election process in battleground states and keep Republican "political operatives from deciding who can vote and how those votes are counted."
Known as the Secretary of State Project (SOSP), the organization was formed by liberal activists in 2006 to put Democrats in charge of state election offices, where key decisions often are made in close races on which ballots are counted and which are not.
The group's website said it wants to stop Republicans from "manipulating" election results.
"Any serious commitment to wresting control of the country from the Republican Party must include removing their political operatives from deciding who can vote and whose votes will count," the group said on its website, accusing some Republican secretaries of state of making "partisan decisions."
SOSP has sought donations by describing the contributions as a "modest political investment" to elect "clean candidates" to the secretary of state posts.
Named after Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code, so-called 527 political groups — such as SOSP — have no upper limit on contributions and no restrictions on who may contribute in seeking to influence the selection, nomination, election, appointment or defeat of candidates to federal, state or local public office. They generally are not regulated by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), creating a soft-money loophole.
While FEC regulations limit individual donations to a maximum of $2,500 per candidate and $5,000 to a PAC, a number of 527 groups have poured tens of millions of unregulated dollars into various political efforts.
SOSP has backed 11 winning candidates in 18 races, including such key states as Ohio, Nevada, Iowa, New Mexico and Minnesota.
"Supporting secretary of state candidates with integrity is one of the most cost-efficient ways progressives can ensure they have a fair chance of winning elections," SOSP said on its website, adding that "a relatively small influx of money — often as little as $30,000 to $50,000 — can change the outcome of a race."
SOSP was formed in the wake of the ballot-counting confusion in Florida during the 2000 presidential election and a repeat of that chaos in Ohio in the 2004 presidential election. Democrats accused Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris and Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, both Republicans, of manipulating the elections in favor of GOP candidates — charges Mrs. Harris and Mr. Blackwell denied.
"Does anyone doubt that these two secretaries of state ... made damaging partisan decisions about purging voter rolls, registration of new voters, voting machine security, the location of precincts, the allocation of voting machines, and dozens of other critical matters?" SOSP asked on its website.
SOSP said it raised more than $500,000 in 2006 to help elect five Democratic secretaries of states in seven races.
The Commission on Federal Election Reform, co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, recommended in 2005 taking away the administration of elections from secretaries of state and giving it to nonpartisan election officers.
"Partisan officials should not be in charge of elections," said Robert Pastor, co-director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University. "Both Democrats and Republicans not only compete for power, they try to manipulate the rules to get an advantage.
"We want to make sure that those counting votes don't have a dog in that game," said Mr. Pastor, who served as executive director and a member of the commission.
One of the SOSP's financial backers is Mr. Soros, the billionaire hedge-fund operator who spent $27 million in 2004 in an unsuccessful effort to defeat President George W. Bush. Mr. Soros spent $5.1 million in the 2008 election supporting Democratic candidates and causes. In 2008, he gave $10,000 to SOSP.
A spokesman for Mr. Soros downplayed the financier's role in the project.
"He supports the organization," said Michael Vachon, who manages Mr. Soros' political donations. "He was in favor of electing Democrats secretary of state. George was not a founder of the project, and he never had an operational role or helped plan strategy."
But many of SOSP's founders and supporters have long-standing ties to Mr. Soros and the organizations he founded or helped fund, including Democracy Alliance, a liberal-leaning group whose membership includes some of the country's wealthiest Democrats. Created in 2005 with major financial backing from Mr. Soros and millionaire Colorado businessmen and gay-rights activist Tim Gill, Democracy Alliance has helped direct nearly $150 million to progressive organizations.
SOSP's founders include Michael Kieschnick, a Democracy Alliance member who also is president of a telecommunications company that donates to progressive nonprofit groups; James Rucker, former director of Soros-supported MoveOn.org, a stridently anti-Bush group known for its ads comparing Mr. Bush to Adolf Hitler; and Becky Bond, former director at ActBlue, a political committee that bills itself as "the nation's largest source of funds for Democrats," whose contributors include Mr. Soros.
Mr. Kieschnick, Mr. Rucker and Ms. Bond did not respond to emails and telephone messages seeking comment.
Democracy Alliance members who gave to SOSP include furniture company heir John R. Hunting; computer company executive Paul Rudd; medical-supply firm heiress Pat Stryker; venture capitalist Nicholas Hanauer; ex-Clinton administration official Rob Stein; Tides Foundation founder Drummond Pike; real estate developer Robert Bowditch; charitable foundation co-chairman Scott Wallace; clothing executive Susie Tompkins Buell; real estate developer Albert Dwoskin; child psychologist Gail Furman; and Taco Bell heir Rob McKay.
Ms. Furman also is president of the Furman Foundation, a major donor to the Soros-backed Tides Center, which has provided more than $300 million to "progressive" causes.
Mr. Dwoskin also is chairman of Catalist, a Soros-funded political consultancy in Virginia that, according to its website, "brings easy to use web-based tools and a high quality voter database of all voting-age individuals in the United States to progressive organizations and campaigns."
Other SOSP donors include Daniel Berger, who helped create Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, whose donors include Democracy Alliance and Mr. Soros' Open Society Institute; and Chris Findlater, chairman of the Florida Watch Ballot Committee, whose funding comes from America Votes, a Soros-supported get-out-the-vote group.
The SOSP also used ActBlue to help raise funds for itself and its candidates from Democratic donors nationwide. ActBlue says it has raised more than $190 million online for Democratic candidates since 2004.
Mr. Soros and several SOSP contributors also are part of a small group of wealthy liberals who have been among the top donors to 527 organizations set up to mobilize Democratic voters in recent years.
In 2004, Mr. Soros was the largest individual donor to America Coming Together (ACT), a 527 group he helped create along with Mr. McKay, the Taco Bell boss, to defeat Mr. Bush. Mr. Soros gave $7.5 million. Mr. McKay, now chairman of Democracy Alliance, gave $245,000 to ACT, and he and his family foundation donated $35,000 to SOSP.
Alida Messinger, a Rockefeller heiress, gave $2.25 million to ACT and $25,000 to SOSP, according to records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group that monitors campaign finances. She and other top SOSP donors also were major donors to America Votes 2006, another Soros-backed liberal group that sought to elect Democratic candidates, records show.
Mr. Soros also gave $3.5 million and was the largest donor to a short-lived political group called the Fund for America, set up in late 2007 to do voter outreach and finance attack ads for the 2008 election. Four of the fund's nine donors who gave $200,000 or more also contributed to SOSP, including Mr. Soros, Mr. McKay, Mr. Hunting and Lee Fikes of Bonanza Oil, who gave $600,000 to the Fund for America and $22,500 to SOSP.
In addition to his SOSP donation, Mr. Soros in 2006 also supported the project's candidates in Ohio, Jennifer Brunner, to whom he gave $2,500, and in Minnesota, Mark Ritchie, who got $250. Both won.
In 2006, SOSP helped elect Democratic secretaries of state in Ohio, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada and Iowa while its candidates lost in Colorado and Michigan. In 2008, the group backed winning candidates in Montana, West Virginia, Missouri and Oregon. SOSP raised $280,316 and spent $278,224 in that two-year election period. It could not be determined how much the project raised additionally in donations for the candidate's individual campaign funds.
In 2010, just two of the group's seven candidates won in a Republican year — in Minnesota and California. It lost in Ohio, Colorado, Iowa, South Dakota and Michigan. The group said it raised $193,767 and spent $243,112. It could not be determined how much it raised in additional donations for individual candidates.
Minnesota is the prime example of the project's success. Helping to elect Mr. Ritchie in 2006 and 2010, Democrats had one of their own making key decisions when the extremely close U.S. Senate race between incumbent Norm Coleman, a Republican, and his challenger, former comedian Al Franken, went to a recount in 2008.
Mr. Ritchie headed the canvassing board that conducted the recount. Mr. Coleman initially had a lead of 206 votes out of 2.9 million cast, but after the recount, the board decided Mr. Franken had won by 225 votes. Republicans criticized Mr. Ritchie and the canvassing board, but the Minnesota Supreme Court unanimously upheld the finding.
Republican Mary Kiffmeyer, who lost to Mr. Ritchie in 2006, said SOSP's involvement contributed to her defeat.
"They absolutely had an effect," said Ms. Kiffmeyer, now a GOP state representative. She said she was leading by 17 percentage points the week before the election, when SOSP and its allies spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on targeted television ads and mailings. She said she had no time or money to respond to the last-minute attack ads, which linked her to Mr. Bush.
Ms. Kiffmeyer said she was limited to raising no more than $500 from an individual and spending just $250,000, but the SOSP had no such limits.
Mr. Soros, who lives in New York, did not donate directly to SOSP in 2006, but he was a serious donor to other important groups in Minnesota during the 2006 campaign. He gave $200,000 to America Votes-Minnesota, which led a get-out-the-vote drive just before the election — more than half of what it raised in 2006. He also gave $10,000 to the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party on whose ticket Mr. Ritchie ran.
"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," Mr. Ritchie wrote. "Your wonderful support — both directly to my campaign and through generous expenditures by the strategic fund — helped me get our election reform message to Minnesota voters. And the voters overwhelming cast their ballot to protect our democracy on election day."
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