In 4 swing states, GOP election deniers could oversee voting
By Jennifer Medina, Reid J. Epstein and Nick Corasaniti
With Tuesday’s primary victories in Arizona and Michigan added to those in Nevada and Pennsylvania, Republicans who have disputed the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election and who pose a threat to subvert the next one are on a path toward winning decisive control over how elections are run in several battleground states.
Running in a year in which GOP voters are energized by fierce disapproval of President Joe Biden, these newly minted Republican nominees for secretary of state and governor have taken positions that could threaten the nation’s traditions of nonpartisan elections administration, acceptance of election results and orderly transfers of power.
Each has spread falsehoods about fraud and illegitimate ballots, endorsing the failed effort to override the 2020 results and keep former President Donald Trump in power. Their history of anti-democratic impulses has prompted Democrats, democracy experts and even some fellow Republicans to question whether these officials would oversee fair elections and certify winners they didn’t support.
There is no question that victories by these candidates in November could lead to sweeping changes to how millions of Americans vote. Several have proposed eliminating mail voting, ballot drop boxes and even the use of electronic voting machines, while empowering partisan election observers and expanding their roles.
“If any one of these election deniers wins statewide office, that’s a five-alarm fire for our elections,” said Joanna Lydgate, the chief executive of the States United Action, a bipartisan legal and democracy watchdog organization. “It could throw our elections into chaos. It could put our democracy at risk.”
In Arizona, Republicans nominated Mark Finchem, who marched at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, to protest Biden’s victory, for secretary of state, the top election official in the state. They also elevated Abraham Hamadeh, who called his opponents and other Republicans “weak-kneed” for supporting certification of the 2020 election, as their nominee for attorney general.
And with votes still being counted, Kari Lake, who has said she would not have certified Biden’s 10,000-vote victory in her state, held a slight lead in the GOP primary for governor.
Both Lake and Finchem have made their willingness to flout some democratic norms and their promotion of conspiracy theories central to their campaigns. Lake has said she doesn’t believe the state holds fair elections. Even before votes were cast, Finchem was preparing for a recount of his race “if there’s the slightest hint of impropriety.”
“Ain’t going to be no concession speech coming from this guy,” he said in June.
On Tuesday, both Lake and Finchem claimed that there was fraud in the state’s primaries.
In Michigan, Tudor Dixon, who has at times falsely argued that Trump won the state in 2020 (he lost by more than 150,000 votes), clinched the Republican nomination for governor, while Kristina Karamo, who has called the 2020 election fixed and baselessly claimed that Dominion voting machine software flipped votes to Biden, is the party’s presumptive nominee for secretary of state. Matthew DePerno, the presumptive GOP nominee for attorney general, was a central player in 2020 election challenges in Michigan and has pledged to investigate current state officials.
They join Jim Marchant, the Republican nominee for secretary of state in Nevada, who has said he would not have certified the 2020 election and wants more sheriffs at the polls, and Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee for governor in Pennsylvania, who led the push to overturn the state’s 2020 results. If he wins, Mastriano would appoint Pennsylvania’s top elections official.
Though state legislatures write the laws governing how elections are conducted, secretaries of state have significant power over how elections are run, often determining how resources are distributed and what rules local officials must follow. During the pandemic, secretaries of state ordered absentee ballot applications to be mailed widely in an effort to make voting safer.
As top election officials, secretaries of state could also use their power to discourage voting and erode trust. In several states, they can order investigations or expansive audits, potentially legitimizing bogus election claims or pressuring local election officials to conduct unnecessary recounts and hunt for fraud.
Secretaries of state and governors also play a central role in formally certifying election winners, a largely ceremonial act but one by which allies of Trump have sought to block results. Though many legal experts say the courts would most likely disagree, the prospect of a rogue governor or secretary of state refusing to certify an election could create the atmosphere for a constitutional crisis.
In Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Nevada, Republican nominees for secretary of state (or governors who would appoint them) have indicated, or outright declared, that they would not have certified the 2020 election.
“They could tilt the counting, casting and certification of ballots, and that is really harmful,” said Benjamin Ginsberg, a prominent Republican election lawyer who has been critical of efforts to undermine the electoral process. “They have said that they’ll check registration harder, they could reduce polling places in non-Republican friendly areas, they could put up a wide variety of barriers to voting — which would be harmful to the basic principle of every legal voter gets to vote.”
Governors who reject lies about the 2020 election have halted Republican-controlled state legislatures from enacting new laws that would restrict voting or grant partisan lawmakers greater control of election administration. Over the past two years, governors in Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania vetoed nine bills that would have added restrictions to voting, according to Voting Rights Lab.
Many of these proposals were part of a push for “election integrity,” responding to Republicans voters’ unfounded worries about fraud. (Despite Trump’s claims, there was no fraud in the 2020 election that would have affected the outcome, and nearly all of his allegations have been repeatedly debunked by local election officials, law enforcement and the courts.)
With an agreeable Republican governor or secretary of state, such far-reaching policies could become a reality.
Steve Bannon, a former adviser to Trump, wrote on social media that when Lake, Hamadeh and Finchem took office in Arizona, “then the actual count will happen, and the Biden Electors decertified.” He was referring to the theory that the 2020 election can still be decertified, which has no legal basis in the Constitution. Bannon added that once this happened, “Arizona will be FREE.”
Both Lake and Finchem have made bold plans for overhauling elections in the state. They recently filed a lawsuit seeking to ban the use of electronic voting machines, and Finchem has previously tried to undo Arizona’s long-established and widely popular vote-by-mail system.
Should they win, they would probably find support for their election proposals in the Republican-controlled Legislature. One potential hurdle fell Tuesday, when Rusty Bowers, who as the Republican speaker of the House blocked the most extreme efforts to overturn the 2020 results, lost his primary bid for a state Senate seat.
Some Democrats are preparing to portray these candidates as dangerous extremists.
“We are going to focus on a return to stability and predictability,” said Adrian Fontes, who is leading the Democratic primary for secretary of state in Arizona, and said he would focus on the “wild-eyed fanaticism” of Republicans, including Finchem. “They have gotten themselves so far down this rabbit hole, I don’t think they can see the light of day.”
It is unclear just how much leading Democrats will try to appeal to voters on threats to democracy in the fall. Some top party officials believe that while the issue may motivate committed Democratic voters, it is unlikely to persuade swing voters who are more focused on gas prices, inflation and health care. These Democrats believe that painting Republicans as extreme on abortion, for example, may be more effective than focusing on the mechanics of elections.
Still, money has poured into some races for bureaucratic posts. Fundraising by candidates for secretary of state in six battleground states has already topped $16 million, more than double that in the same time period of the previous cycle, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. The analysis found that the fundraising race so far appears to slightly favor candidates running against election deniers.
The next big test comes next week in Wisconsin, where Republican candidates for governor have vowed to overhaul the state’s election system in response to unfounded claims about problems in 2020. All of the major GOP candidates in the race have pledged to eliminate the Wisconsin Elections Commission, a bipartisan agency that oversees state elections. It was created by Republicans in 2015, but the party turned on it after commissioners issued guidance that made voting easier during the pandemic.
Republicans are trying to oust Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat who since the 2020 election has vetoed more than a dozen bills advanced by the Republican-controlled Legislature to change how Wisconsinites vote. The legislation would have, among other things, allowed legislators to withhold money for the elections commission, made it harder for voters confined to their homes to vote remotely and prohibited private organizations from donating funds to help with elections.
The biggest debate among the candidates running to take on Evers, however, is largely a symbolic one. The candidates are split on whether to pursue decertifying Biden’s 2020 victory in the state — a legal impossibility that nonetheless has become an obsession of Trump and his most devoted followers.
Trump’s preferred candidate, Tim Michels, a construction magnate, has said he’ll consider it. “When I’m sworn in, in January, I will look at all the evidence and everything will be on the table,” he said this week. One rival, Tim Ramthun, has said he would sign decertification legislation “in a nanosecond.”
Only Rebecca Kleefisch, who has sought to present herself as the candidate of the Wisconsin Republican establishment, has said she is more focused on establishing new voting rules than revisiting the 2020 election.
“As the governor of a state, you must be you must be grounded in reality,” she said in an interview on Tuesday in Sheboygan. “You make decisions based on data and facts, statistics and truth. And you can’t live in a land of your own imagination.”