How politics and government really work, and why they don’t.
This story was co-published with The New York Times.
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.
See the Documents
Emails and internal memos show top election officials soliciting industry groups for contributions specifically because they are facing unfavorable ballot initiatives. Read more.
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.
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.
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 Walmart, Philip Morris International and Wynn Resorts, told a roomful of lobbyists in September at a closed-door strategy session in Alexandria, Va. “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.”
The Republican organization that hosted the closed-door meetings in Washington is an arm of the Republican State Leadership Committee, a political group dedicated to electing candidates to state government posts.
In a July 2015 memo, the leadership group said, “The diverse set of responsibilities held by Republican Secretaries across the country presents previously unidentified opportunities for significant growth and expansion,” and then discussed “the importance of ballot initiatives” as a fundraising tool.
And money has poured in. Reynolds American has contributed $990,000 in the past two years to the Republican State Leadership Committee, and Altria, the nation’s largest cigarette company, has given at least $540,000 — making them the second- and third-biggest donors to the organization, behind the United States Chamber of Commerce. The NRA has donated at least $160,000.
Ellie Hockenbury, a spokeswoman for the Republican State Leadership Committee, said the meetings and other conversations with donors were simply informational.
And secretaries of state said their efforts to raise money had no impact on their actions as government officials.
“When you are trying to raise money, you try to work with people who have an interest in the subjects,” said Wayne Williams, the Colorado secretary of state. He added, “I will meet with anybody on any side of the subject at any time.”
But Christin Fernandez, a spokeswoman for the restaurant association, acknowledged that the organization, at its headquarters in Washington, had expressed concerns to the secretaries of state about the minimum-wage ballot initiatives.
“As a membership organization, the National Restaurant Association and our state partners meet with many different organizations on both sides of the aisle to voice the concerns,” she said in a statement.
Email records from Nevada show that the Republican fundraising efforts are linked to ballot initiatives. A spreadsheet obtained from Cegavske includes a “contact list” prepared by Keech, the Republican Secretaries of State Committee’s executive director.
“I would ask for $25k due to the gambling and gaming initiatives all across the country,” Keech wrote to Cegavske, referring to Wynn Resorts, along with a list of other possible donors, and their ties to ballot initiative efforts.
Another target for a solicitation was NV Energy, which is facing a proposed constitutional amendment, requiring voter approval, to end the company’s monopoly over much of the state’s electricity market.
Cegavske’s executive assistant wrote back to Keech, reporting that the effort had generated some cash return.
“Barbara has contacted NV Energy and they are good for a contribution,” the executive assistant, Jennifer Russell, wrote in April.
“What great news!!!!” Keech wrote back. “The Secretaries’ contacts are ALWAYS better than ours.”
In a statement, Cegavske said the suggestion that she had sought money from NV Energy because of the pending ballot initiative was “categorically false.”
Democrats have also attracted large donations from labor unions and activists with an intense interest in ballot agenda items. Michael R. Bloomberg donated $250,000 this year to an Oregon candidate who as a state legislator had helped push through a law on background checks for gun sales.
A spokesman for Bloomberg said the donation was not related to any effort to influence future ballot measures.
Labor union and abortion rights groups, however, were more explicit. The confidential memo drafted by veteran labor union organizers before the 2014 election — published last month by WikiLeaks as part of the cache of emails stolen from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John D. Podesta — said those groups were prepared to support the effort.
“The office of Secretary of State is playing an increasingly important role for progressives,” the memo said, noting its “pivotal roles in the ballot initiative process.”
The impact of these donations and private gatherings on actions by secretaries of state is difficult to gauge, given the dozens of small language changes as the ballot measures are being prepared for Election Day. But there are hints of possible benefits.
For example, a gun control initiative on the Nevada ballot next week was framed by the secretary of state as a measure that would “prohibit” firearm transfers without background checks, rather than as a required additional step before a gun sale could take place.
This is a seemingly small but important difference that gun control supporters say makes the ballot item less palatable to voters.
Cegavske said the ballot language she used fairly reflected text submitted to her office by those advocating the measure.
“There was no input from the gun industry in the writing of the ballot question,” Gail J. Anderson, the deputy secretary for Southern Nevada, said in a statement.
After a minimum-wage campaign accelerated last year in Ohio, emails show, Jon A. Husted, the secretary of state, communicated with an Ohio Chamber of Commerce affiliate as the business group discussed plans with the restaurant industry to “meet and strategize” about its opposition effort.
A spokesman for Husted said that “the amendment and referendum processes can be cumbersome” and that “the secretary is often asked to come explain precisely how it works.”
Minimum-wage advocates chastised Washington’s secretary of state, Kim Wyman, who is in the midst of a re-election campaign. She has benefited from a blitz of radio advertisements paid for by the Republican group that sponsored the May meetings with industry representatives. Wyman declined requests to comment.
At the three-day hunt — where corporate donors and secretaries of state from Kansas, Mississippi, Georgia and Arkansas shared a one-story, wood-frame hunting lodge, with stuffed deer and elk antlers mounted on the walls — there was little discussion of formal election matters.
Instead, it was an opportunity for the corporate executives to cement personal connections. Together, they set loose Labrador retrievers on acres of prime high-grass hunting grounds, flushing pheasants and quail from their hiding spots.
“I was 60 yards away,” Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state, said as he showed off two prairie chickens he had shot earlier in the day.
After a dinner of shredded beef, the state officials and political contributors, some in pajamas, drank beers. The only apparent disappointment the next morning, after their first hunting outing together as a group, was that they had bagged only 58 birds, two short of their legal limit.
“The two that got away,” Kobach said.
“We’ll get ’em tomorrow,” said one of the corporate executives.
Eric Lipton is a Washington-based correspondent for The New York Times, where he writes about government relations, corporate agendas and Congress.