FRANKFORT — The Kentucky secretary of state's office has one of the smallest budgets and smallest staffs of all elected officials in state government.
Yet it might have more interaction with the public than any other constitutional office in the Capitol. The office of 35 people with a budget of $2.8 million handled more than 345,000 business, land and election filings in 2010.
Two Democrats and two Republicans are vying for the job of overseeing the office in two of the most-watched races of the May 17 primary.
In the Democratic race, former Bowling Green Mayor and current Secretary of State Elaine Walker faces Lexington attorney Alison Lundergan Grimes. Gov. Steve Beshear appointed Walker to the position in January after Republican Trey Grayson resigned to take a job at Harvard University.
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Republicans must choose Todd County businessman and teacher Bill Johnson or Hilda Legg, the former director of the Center for Rural Economic Development in Somerset.
Although Walker is running as the incumbent, Grimes has an edge in fund-raising and endorsements, winning approval from U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, Attorney General Jack Conway and a host of other elected officials and unions.
Grimes, the daughter of former Kentucky Democratic Party chairman Jerry Lundergan, has out-raised Walker nearly 3-1. The latest campaign finance reports show Grimes raised $303,283 from Jan. 1 to April 15 and had $256,347 on hand. Walker had taken in $100,420 and had $78,769 on hand.
"I have an uphill battle," Walker conceded during an interview last week.
Still, Walker said she has faced and beaten a better-funded candidate in the past. During her first run for elected office, in 2004, Walker beat the incumbent mayor of Bowling Green, who had outspent her 8-1.
"The people who have endorsed me have endorsed me because they know what I can do," Walker said. "Not because of any debt to my father."
Grimes counters that people support her because of her qualifications for the job — not her family tree.
"People who have endorsed me because they know me, some of them have known me my entire life. ... They know that I have the talent and the skills to do this job," Grimes said.
Walker said her experience working with county and local officials makes her the better candidate. She has been secretary of state for less than four months and said she already knows the office well.
Walker said she would like to do an assessment to determine whether the entire state should move to paper ballots or electronic voting. Many county clerks are split on the issue, she said.
Walker said her office is working on bringing other state agencies that deal with businesses into one Web portal called "One Stop," a move that was part of a Senate bill passed earlier this year.
Walker said she would like to see more online training for county clerks, who oversee local elections, as a way to save money. Walker said she also would like to modernize the office's civic education program, which teaches kids about voting and the election process, to incorporate more social media.
Grimes counters that she can unite Democrats across the state this fall and can get the support of independents and Republicans. As an attorney who works in corporate litigation, Grimes said she understands business law and wants to streamline business filings.
Grimes also would like to improve voter turnout, particularly among younger voters.
"It's about re-engaging" that population, Grimes said.
Both she and Walker said the secretary of state's office can do more to help local counties collect business taxes. Corporations file with the secretary of state's office, but many don't know they also have to register and pay taxes in their counties and cities.
Grimes said she would like to see polling places in care homes for veterans and supports allowing victims of domestic violence to use the secretary of state's office as their primary address. Some victims of domestic violence are reluctant to register out of fear that their address will become public to their abusers, Grimes said.
"I think we need someone who knows the laws inside and out," Grimes said of choosing a secretary of state. "We need someone who knows about business."
In the Republican race, Legg has out-raised Johnson 6-1.
Johnson raised $13,146 for the latest reporting period — from Jan. 1 to April 15. Total contributions for the election amount are $23,116. Johnson reported having $3,389 on hand.
Legg, who has worked for U.S. Sen Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, filed a report with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance on Thursday showing she has raised $144,000 since entering the race. The report showed she has $117,000 on hand.
Legg missed the first filing deadline for her campaign finance report in April. She said the blown deadline was an oversight.
Johnson, who sought the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 2010 but bowed out before the primary, said his background in business and education makes him a good fit for the office.
A Navy veteran who spent much of his career in information technology, Johnson now teaches math at a high school in Hopkinsville.
As the state's top election official, Johnson said, he would be supportive of requiring voters to present photo identification at the polls.
"You have to show an ID to get on an airplane or drive a car or to buy liquor, why not show ID to vote?" Johnson said.
Johnson also pledged to help streamline business filings. "We need to create more jobs," he said. "Just making us a more business friendly state will help."
Johnson said Legg campaigns on her "lifetime experience in public service. I think we need more private-sector experience and more private-sector ideas in government."
Legg spent much of her career in education, the federal government or politics. She has held positions with the U.S. Department of Education, and was co-chairwoman of the Appalachian Regional Commission and director of the Rural Utilities Service. She has spent the last few years as a consultant, mainly helping expand broadband Internet access to rural communities.
"I think we need experience," Legg said of the secretary of state's office. "We need someone who can bridge the gap between government and the private sector and someone who knows how to lead government organizations."
Legg said she would like to see voters show proof of citizenship when they register to vote. "We need to make sure that only legal voters are given the privilege of voting," Legg said.
But Johnson counters that showing a birth certificate would not not decrease voter fraud and would add another layer of bureaucracy that would discourage people from registering to vote.
"You don't need to be born here to vote in this country," Johnson said.