Oregon Secretary of State race is critical

Sen Doug Whitsett

by Sen. Doug Whitsett

Oregon’s 2016 primary election is scheduled to take place on May 17. Voters should be receiving ballots in their mailboxes this week.

The results of that election will determine which candidates the Republicans and Democrats choose to represent their respective parties for various races to be decided in the November general election. Of those contested statewide races, one of the most important is the selection of our next Secretary of State.

Our current Secretary of State, Jeanne Adkins, was appointed to her position by Governor Kate Brown early last year following the resignation of former Governor John Kitzhaber. His resignation led to Brown’s appointment as governor, which caused the Secretary of State position to become temporarily vacant. Adkins came out of retirement to fill that position, but is not running for another term. Because of that process, it will be an open seat.

There are two Republicans and three Democrats vying for their parties’ nominations for that office.

The Secretary of State’s duties are spelled out in Article VI, Section 2 of the Oregon Constitution. Under the state Constitution, those duties are limited to maintaining archived records of legislative and executive branch actions and being the Auditor of Public Accounts.

The Secretary of State has also been assigned as a voting member of the State Land Board since statehood in 1859. The Board consists of the Governor, the Secretary and the State Treasurer. It is directed to manage lands under its jurisdiction to obtain the greatest benefit for the people, consistent with resource conservation and sound management. This important Board sets policy and oversees management of all lands controlled by the state.

The Oregon Constitution further states that the Secretary “shall perform such other duties as shall be assigned to the Secretary of State by law.” Over time, those duties have been greatly expanded through laws enacted by the Legislature.

Chapters 246 through 260 of the Oregon Revised Statutes (ORS) address the Secretary of State’s duties to oversee Oregon election laws. They have been amended over time to include provisions related to our unique vote-by-mail system, and include sections on management of initiative and referendum, the voters’ pamphlet, Oregon Blue Book, vote recounts, campaign finance and regulation, as well as many other areas.

Moreover, the Legislature is charged with the duty of creating the boundaries of legislative districts each ten years. In the event that lawmakers fail to agree on how to draw those boundaries, the duty is delegated to the Secretary of State. The candidate elected to the position this November very well may be given that responsibility.

Another function of the Secretary of State’s office is its Corporate Division. Those duties are described in ORS chapters 58 through 80, and entail laws involving professional and private corporations, securities regulation, nonprofit corporations, limited liability companies, limited liability partnerships, general provisions for the Uniform Commercial Code. Several other sections are devoted to banking, mortgage, investment and other related issues.

ORS chapters 56 and 177 further codify the duties of the office as they’ve been amended over time by the Legislature.

Under Oregon Law, amendments to the state Constitution must either be approved by a majority of voters or by a two-thirds majority of both the House and the Senate. It was deliberately structured that way to ensure that the foundations of our state governance cannot be changed without a vote of the people or a super majority vote of the Legislature.

However, the Legislature does have the ability to create or amend statutes. The preponderance of the duties of the Secretary of State’s Office has already been created by statute. Any of those laws can be enacted or amended by a simple majority vote in both chambers because they do not affect the state Constitution. Therefore, the majority party may enact new statutory duties for the Secretary of State on party-line votes.

Each of the five major candidates for the Secretary of State’s office brings with them a different set of experiences and philosophies.

All three of the Democrats running for that position in this election cycle have served in the Legislature. One is still a member of the House, another is a Senator, and the third is a former legislator who now serves in the statewide office of Labor Commissioner.

At least one of those candidates has promised to greatly expand the statutory duties of the Secretary of State through the investigation and prosecution of wrongdoers. The unprecedented new duties would include auditing private corporations, policing equal pay among men and women and holding polluters accountable.

Of the two Republicans seeking the position, one is a former longtime House member, and the other is one of five elected county commissioners in Lane County.

Voters will have the next few weeks to examine the candidates’ positions on the issues to help determine what approach they would each take if elected Secretary of State. The person who is selected by the voters will have direct supervision over every election held within the state’s boundaries, corporate and business registration, audits of public agencies, and control of the state archives, as well as one of three votes on the State Land Board.

The importance of that position cannot be overstated. It has the potential to affect many aspects of Oregonians’ lives throughout the next several years.

Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls