Republicans who have embraced baseless claims about the 2020 election being stolen are now running to serve as the chief elections officials in several states, a move that could give them significant power over election processes.
The campaigns, first detailed by Politico last week, underscore a new focus to take control of election administration. Secretaries of state, who are elected to office in partisan contests that have long been overlooked, wield enormous power over election rules in their state, are responsible for overseeing election equipment, and are a key player in certifying – making official – election results.
Winning secretary of state offices across the country would give conspiracy theorists enormous power to wreak havoc in the 2024 presidential election, including potentially blocking candidates who win the most votes from taking office.
“This is an indication of wanting, basically, to have a man inside who can undermine,” said Sylvia Albert, the director of voting and elections at Common Cause, a government watchdog group. “Clearly these are not people who believe in the rule of law. And people who run our government need to follow the rule of law. So it is concerning that they are running.”
In Arizona, Mark Finchem, a Republican in the state house, is seeking the GOP’s nomination to be secretary of state, the top election official in Arizona. Finchem, who was at the US Capitol on 6 January, has repeatedly voiced support for the “Stop the Steal” movement, falsely claimed the election was stolen from Donald Trump, and backed efforts to overturn the 2020 election results. He is also a staunch supporter of an ongoing Republican effort to review 2.1m ballots cast in Arizona’s largest county, an exercise experts say is designed to try to undermine the election results.
Jody Hice, a Republican Georgia congressman who voted to try to block certification of the electoral college, is also running to serve as the top election official in his state and Trump has already endorsed him. He is trying to unseat Brad Raffensperger, an incumbent Republican, who drew Trump’s ire after refusing to “find” votes for him there.
In Nevada, Jim Marchant, a former Republican congressional candidate who alleged fraud and tried to overturn his loss last year is running to serve as secretary of state there. Kristina Karamo, a Republican who made baseless claims about fraud in Michigan, is also running to be the top elected official there.
Finchem, Hice, Marchant and Karamo all did not respond to interview requests.
Jena Griswold, Colorado’s top election official and the chair of the Democratic association of secretaries of state was blunt in her assessment of the four candidates. She said it was concerning many of them were running in swing states where there were attempts to overturn the 2020 election.
“People who spread lies about our elections to try to help their own political parties are not fit to protect elections,” she said in an interview. “They should not be elected to these offices.”
Michigan’s secretary of state, Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, said she was “deeply worried” about the prospect of people who spread lies about elections becoming top state election officials.
“We’re seeing now an escalation of the tactics and a proliferation of the tactics that we’ve experienced over the past year to undermine democracy,” she said. “And they’ve now taken on this focus on who has the authority over our elections in 2022 and 2024 really. And using the time now to change the rules of the game and the people who oversee it.”
The role of a secretary of state can vary in each state, but in many places they wield enormous unilateral authority to create voting regulations and interpret election rules. That power was on display in 2020, when secretaries across the country made key decisions on access to drop boxes and sending out mail-in ballot applications, among other measures. After election day, Republican and Democratic secretaries of state in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Nevada stood as bulwarks against Trump’s efforts to overturn the results, both by dispelling accusations of fraud and refusing to stop the certification of elections.
Benson, Michigan’s top election official, noted that secretaries of state were often one of the most trusted sources of information around election processes.
In March, Benson’s office released a detailed report dispelling claims of abnormalities in Antrim county, which had become a major focus of those who believed the election was stolen. She also beat back claims there was wrongdoing in Detroit, where Trump used baseless accusations of fraud to try to stop certification of the result, and released a statement in March noting more than 250 audits had confirmed the results of the election.
The Nevada secretary of state, Barbara Cegavske, a Republican, investigated GOP claims of fraud and publicly said in April there was no evidence for the claim – a move that earned her a censure from her own party. Raffensperger was one of the most prominent voices to defy Trump last year and say there was no fraud in his state and championed audits and hand recounts that backed him up.
“You have inherent in the position of bully pulpit to amplify truth, or in the cases of bad actors, perhaps amplify misinformation,” she said. “That’s another pernicious aspect of individuals who would seek to occupy this office as the state’s chief election officer who are not committed to telling the truth … they are instead committed to spreading the big lie or other misinformation that create chaos.”