Huge threat to democracy lurks in local races
Election deniers running for statewide offices could imperil all future balloting
One of the strengths of American democracy since its founding has been the decentralization of election administration to state and local officials.
In 2022, however, this could also turn out to be its biggest vulnerability.
While most attention has been focused on Congress, the outcome there – and in all future elections – could depend much more on who wins dozens of races at the state level for governor, attorney general and, especially, secretary of state positions.
In three large states —- Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas — whoever wins the governor’s race will appoint a new Secretary of State. Voters pick the winner in 46 others.
These officials control the machinery of elections and exert enormous power over ballot access, vote tabulation and certification of results.
Many of the candidates for the top three slots however, have publicly denied that the 2020 presidential election was legitimate. They say it was “stolen” through non-existent “voter fraud” – and vow to make sure the result in 2024 is more to their liking.
The willingness of “Election deniers” to subvert free and fair elections, and the likelihood that at least some will win, poses a clear and present danger to American democracy that cannot be ignored.
Until this week, state level races had not received much national attention, but that changed with the results of primaries is some crucial swing states where election deniers won their races. The victory of Doug Mastriano in the GOP primary for governor of Pennsylvania got widespread attention.
One reason local races had not received much national coverage is because aggregate data is difficult to come by. But it’s not impossible.
One group that is keeping tabs is the States United Democracy Center which describes itself as “a nonpartisan organization advancing free, fair, and secure elections.
“We focus on connecting state officials, law enforcement leaders, and pro-democracy partners across America with the tools and expertise they need to safeguard our democracy,” the group says. “[W]e are committed to making sure every vote is counted, every voice is heard, and every election is safe.”
One way it hopes to accomplish this is to monitor what it calls “election deniers” running for statewide offices that direct, oversee and certify elections – including governors, attorneys general and secretaries of state.
According to the group, to be designated as an “Election Denier,” a candidate must meet one or more of five criteria which, crucially, include:
Falsely claiming former President Trump won the 2020 election instead of the legitimate winner, President Joe Biden; and
Spreading lies about the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election in public fora, including in social media, press statements, and/or comments to press.
In announcing a recent update to its tracking project the group reported that “there are still nine states with Election Deniers running for all three top statewide positions.
“As of May 4, in two out of three governor and secretary of state contests, there is an Election Denier running. This is true for nearly half of attorney general contests as well,” it said.
The group aimed to draw attention to its updated database called Replacing the Refs – a tool tracking the numbers of Election Deniers running for Governor, Secretary of State, and Attorney General.
“Since 2020, lies and conspiracy theories have continued to fuel efforts to undermine our free and fair elections,” the group says. “The anti-democracy playbook is simple: Change the rules, change the referees, in order to change the results.
“Politicians who continue to deny the results of the 2020 election want the power to overturn the will of American voters in the future if they don’t like the results.” (emphasis added)
The survey of all states with contested elections reveals some alarming statistics about the 2022 ballots:
36 states have contests for governor. As of May 4, at least 50 Election Deniers are running for governor in 24 states;
30 states plus the District of Columbia have contests for attorney general. At least 15 Election Deniers are running for attorney general in 14 states;
27 states have contests for secretary of state. As of May 4, at least 22 Election Deniers are running for Secretary of State in 17 states.
It does not take much to compute the danger: In the 93 races for the three most significant state elected offices, 87 candidates have openly embraced the “stolen election” conspiracy theory based on non-existent “voter fraud.”
The States United effort includes all three statewide offices that could affect the conduct of statewide elections. But others are focusing more closely on the one position — Secretary of State – that potentially has the biggest impact in the largest number of states where they are the top election official.
An excellent analysis of the overall situation appeared May 12 in The New York Times in The Most Pivotal Elections in 2022 Are Not the Ones You Think by Barbara McQuade.
She sounded the alarm in no uncertain terms.
“The fate of our democracy doesn’t hinge on the battle for the House or the fight for control of the Senate, but on state elections for a once sleepy office: secretary of state,” she wrote.
McQuade is uniquely well qualified to make such an important observation. She oversaw voting rights cases while serving as U.S. attorney for Michigan’s Eastern District from 2010 to 2017. She is currently a professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School.
“No elected officials will be more pivotal to protecting democracy — or subverting it — than secretaries of state.
“Secretaries of state own the bully pulpit on voting, and they control the machinery of elections.”
While most are honorable public servants, McQuade outlines ways they can also cause a great deal of mischief. They can spread misinformation (like disparaging voting by mail); decrease ballot access (by eliminating voting locations); limit staffing and budgets (causing long lines to discourage turnout); and, most importantly, refuse to certify legitimate results in specific locations or even an entire state.
It is this last point that poses the most danger, McQuade says. In the 27 states where elections will be held this year, “in 17 of those states, at least one of the Republican candidates for the office actively denies that President Biden won the 2020 election.”
Denying the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election has become a litmus test for Republican candidates up and down the ballot. For most other elected offices it is not hugely consequential; for Secretaries of State, however, with their pivotal responsibility for how future elections will be conducted, it is crucial.
“If [election deniers] win office, Republicans will control the voting process in five crucial swing states where the 2024 election may be decided,” McQuade writes.
While keeping tabs on just how many Secretary of State candidates are election deniers is not that easy, there is a proxy by which we can assess it.
In the states with elections this year, 14 candidates have signed on as members of the America First Secretary of State coalition.
If the name of the group does not give you a clue, its website explains the obvious:
“We are coalition of America First constitutional conservative Secretary of State candidates,” it says.
A cursory reading of the goals of the group sounds almost civic minded, if you ignore the obvious inference of repeated references to “America First” (a slogan first used politically a century ago but with new resonance in the past seven years).
The web site says the group wants to “build a new America First campaign model from which America First candidates for SOS throughout the country can benefit.”
It also aims to implement “conservative America First election reforms” for Secretaries of State throughout the country.
Without any irony, it concludes the “Secretary of State elections all across the country are a priority … because they are predominantly responsible for the election process in each state.”
Couched in this language, the group sounds relatively benign; but when one reaches the specific reforms its candidates will implement if elected, the real agenda is revealed.
They will promote and enforce strict voter ID laws; they will require paper ballots (no computerized voting); eliminate mail voting; end early voting; institute unspecified “poll watcher” reforms; and “aggressively” clean up voter rolls.
These are all items on the wish lists of those who have been complaining the loudest that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” because of non-existent voter fraud. They all aim to decrease access to the ballot, make voting more difficult for millions – and potentially refuse to certify elections when the outcome is not to their liking.
“This will result in electing America First state leaders with a meaningful and effective plan to achieve ‘election integrity,’ ” the group admits, using another buzzword of those who claim the 2020 election was “stolen.”
If it all sounds civic minded and harmless, a glance at the states where the candidates affiliated with America First SOS are running is more revealing: they are concentrated in states that, in surprising swings, provided President Joe Biden with the winning margin in 2020.
The first three listed on the web site are Nevada, Arizona and Michigan. Further down are Georgia, Pennsylvania and Ohio – all pivotal in 2020.
For further emphasis, in its mini biography of the group’s leader, Nevada SOS candidate Jim Marchant, it states: “Jim Marchant has been fighting voter fraud in Nevada since 2004 … most recently as the President Trump endorsed Republican candidate for Congressional District Four in the 2020 election. Jim is convinced he only lost because of election fraud and widespread election irregularities.” (emphasis added)
This is a familiar refrain. Despite over 60 court decisions and intensive media investigations, there’s been no evidence whatsoever to support Marchant’s position – and those of the other candidates in his coalition.
It has become so discredited it serves only one purpose: to prepare the way for future efforts to subvert legitimate election results that are not to their liking.
For more valuable – and definitely more credible – information about Secretary of State races, an April 30 article from Associated Press on ABC News GOP election-deniers elevate races for secretary of state gives a much more credible analysis of the situation:
“Add one more group of contests to the white-hot races for Congress and governor that will dominate this year’s midterm elections: secretaries of state,” AP reports.
“Former President Donald Trump's attempts to reverse the results of the 2020 election and his subsequent endorsements of candidates for state election offices who are sympathetic to his view have elevated those races to top-tier status. At stake, say Democrats and others concerned about fair elections, is nothing less than American democracy.” (emphasis added)
Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat seeking a second term, captured the essence of the threat when she said:
“Americans are going to have a very simple choice – do we want people overseeing elections who believe in upholding the will of the voter regardless of how they voted? Or do we want extremist politicians who will do anything it takes to tilt elections in their favor and claim victory regardless of how the American people cast their ballot?”
The outcome of all these races will not be known for almost six months. But the top level results this year may be less important than those for statewide offices which could impact the 2022 results – and all future elections thereafter.
In a worst-case scenario, a secretary of state who refuses to certify the legitimate presidential result in 2024 in just one pivotal state like Pennsylvania could cause an unprecedented constitutional crisis.
The threat to democracy is very real, and troubling.
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