What is the Secretary of State?

The Secretary of State refers to either the cabinet-level position in the federal government that leads the U.S. Department of State, or an executive branch office at the state level of government. The U.S. Secretary of State performs very different duties than state-level Secretaries of State.

The U.S. Secretary of State, as the head of the Department of State, is the senior foreign affairs official for the nation. The Secretary of State advises the President on matters of foreign policy, negotiates treaties with other nations, and represents the U.S. in international conferences and organizations. The Secretary of State is nominated by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Secretaries of State at the state level are state constitutional positions with three primary areas of responsibility. Secretaries of State maintain and authenticate state records and other documents, act as the chief elections officials for their states, and register businesses and non-profit organizations. As part of their record-keeping duties, Secretaries of State record and provide access to a wide range of public records and documents that pertain to state government. These include executive orders and documents issued in the administration of state government, as well as actions of the state legislature. They also establish processes and requirements for posting notices of public meetings for both state and local government entities, issuing minutes of meetings, and ensuring public access to records.

As the chief elections officials for their states, Secretaries of State set statewide policies for conducting elections and provide support in administering elections. Secretaries of State establish guidelines for registering to run for office, manage deadlines for ballot questions and preparing ballots, and set training requirements for election workers.

Secretaries of State register and authenticate businesses and non-profit organizations that operate in their states. They register and maintain business names and trademarks, and they typically serve as the administering agency for the Uniform Commercial Code. Secretaries of State are responsible for qualifying and registering notary publics and certifying or authenticating a variety of private documents, including bond and signature registrations and living will declarations.

All but three states have a Secretary of State. In most states, the Secretary of State is elected. Either the governor or state legislature appoints the Secretary of State in the other states.