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Across the U.S., 2020 election deniers seek to run the polls
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Across the U.S., 2020 election deniers seek to run the polls

What have typically been quiet races centering on competency & efficiency have heated up over the issue of election integrity

  • Erik (HASH) Hersman/Flickr

When Nevada holds its primary election on June 14, GOP voters will consider candidates for secretary of state, typically a sleepy contest over who can out-administrate the other. One thinks Nevada voters have not actually elected anyone for the last 16 years.

Appearing on a podcast in January, Jim Marchant claimed that because of a conspiracy financed by billionaire George Soros, “we haven’t in Nevada elected anybody since 2006. They have been installed by the deep state cabal.”

Merchant’s failed 2020 campaign for Nevada’s 4th Congressional District ended with him filing a lawsuit alleging election irregularities that asked the judge to order a new election. The judge dismissed his claims, saying she lacked jurisdiction. Ever since, Marchant has claimed he was the victim of election fraud and has vowed to “overhaul” the election system in the state.

Election experts and officials say that baseless claims of rigged elections could lead to eroding trust in the nation’s democratic institution. Marchant, who did not respond to requests for comment, is not the only candidate seeking to become their state’s chief election officer who has advanced false claims of a stolen presidential election — claims that have been rejected time and time again by courts across the country.

In May 2021, Marchant held a meeting in Las Vegas to convene fellow candidates gunning for other states’ secretary of state offices.

They dubbed themselves the America First Secretary of State Coalition, a group made up of Marchant, Kristina Karamo of Michigan, Mark Finchem in Arizona, California’s Rachel Hamm, Jody Hice of Georgia.

While speaking at a conference in October 2021, Marchant said attendees at the meeting also included Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO behind several lawsuits challenging the 2020 election that were later tossed by the courts, according to PolitiFact.

The coalition’s website claims a years-old conspiracy by the “globalist establishment,” not just in Nevada but nationwide, has undemocratically decided elections via digital voting machines.

“In order to win, we have to play their game better,” the website says.

According to the nonpartisan States United Democracy Center, voters in 27 states will decide who heads their secretary of state offices this year. About two-thirds of those races featured a candidate that denied the results of the 2020 elections in social media posts or helped file lawsuits seeking to overturn the election.

At the same time, candidates in secretary of state races are seeing an influx of cash. The Brennan Center for Justice found in February that secretary of state races around the nation — particularly in battleground states — have seen a spike in the rate of funding not seen in previous contests, with some of the money coming from out-of-state donors.

Just two years ago, then-President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign pushed a narrative that the changing rules around voting during the COVID-19 pandemic would lead to voter fraud, even before poll workers around the country opened precincts for the 2020 general election.

It was a narrative that played with fire, said Dan Lee, a political science professor at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.

“Our democratic institutions work so long as we have trust in them, and that people see them as legitimate,” Lee said.

In the fallout of the 2020 elections, secretaries of state across the union, Republican and Democrat alike, worked to defend their states’ election infrastructure. In Arizona, election officials rebutted point-by-point a review of the state’s 2020 election results by Cyber Ninjas, a now-defunct firm paid by pro-Trump sources to to audit the numbers, Lee said.

But Marchant’s campaign also comes as Nevada’s outgoing Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, a Republican, faced censure from her own party last April for refusing to launch an investigation into allegations of fraud surrounding the 2020 election.

Lee said that, for candidates jockeying in the primary to fill Cegavske’s seat, name recognition is a significant factor. Merchant’s election claims give the former state legislator an edge.

“That’s another thing that contributed to his name recognition. It’s just how much he’s been in the news as pushing these claims of voter fraud,” Lee said.

Historically, races for secretary of state have been about competency, efficiency and effectiveness, with races revolving around how easy is the process to renew RV licenses or how to get a boat license, said David Dulio, a political science professor at Oakland University in Michigan.

However, Kristina Karamo in Michigan seemed to change that. The candidate got the nod from the state’s GOP to run for secretary of state against Democratic incumbent Jocelyn Benson in late April.

In the aftermath of the 2020 elections, Karamo’s name appeared in a filing before the U.S. Supreme Court in an affidavit alleging voter irregularities. The document was wrapped up in a complaint-in-intervention attempting to attack the results of the elections in four states.

During the primary, Karamo stressed that she netted the endorsement from Trump, who called her “strong on crime, including the massive crime of election fraud.” It was a message intended to net votes at the party’s state endorsement convention.

“That requires an entirely different strategy than appealing to a statewide electorate. I think w e’ll have to see if and how things change in the next couple of months,” Dulio said.

For Karamo, that means spending time and money to introduce herself to voters when polling suggests she struggles with name recognition, Dulio said.

Meanwhile, Benson has not yet paid much attention to Karamo in her messaging, Dulio added, seemingly “keeping her nose to the grindstone” while also responding to other critics.

Last year, the Michigan legislature attempted to pass a handful of law aimed at tweaking the state’s election law. But Governor Gretchen Whitmer vetoed the four bills, saying they gave legitimacy to “the big lie” and furthered vote suppression.

Meanwhile, the candidacy of a secretary of state hopeful who denied the results of the 2020 elections fared differently down in Georgia.

Days before the Jan. 6, 2021, violence at the U.S. Capitol as Congress sought to certify the election, Trump called the state’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

“I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have,” Trump told the Peach State’s chief election official at the time.

But history bore out differently than the twice-impeached president’s wishes: President Joe Biden swept up a narrow victory while Georgia’s election officials spent days defending their process as they counted the last few thousand votes and then audited the results.

As Raffensperger sought reelection, Trump threw his endorsement behind congressman Jody Hice. Hice also worked to undermine the results of the 2020 elections, signing an amici curiae filed with the U.S. Supreme Court that sought to toss the results of the 2020 election and allow state legislatures to name presidential electors instead.

Hice, however, ultimately did not prevail in his bid to unseat Raffensperger. Following the primary, Hice posted a message to social media on May 25 where he urged supporters to vote Republican.

Charles Bullock, political science professor at Georgia University, said there may have been several factors to Raffensperger’s primary performance, such as the more than 37,000 voters who crossed party lines from voting in the Democrat primary in 2020 to participate in the Republican primary. And then there were the typically Republican voters who either did not know that Trump had endorsed Raffensperger’s opponent or who bucked the former president’s recommendation.

Despite being a congressman, more than half of voters had not formed an opinion about Hice trailing against Raffensperger, according to a poll conducted by the Atlanta Journal Constitution in April. At that time, about a third of likely primary voters had not made up their mind about the secretary of state race.

During the primary, Raffensperger published a 30-second video that pointed to how the Heritage Foundation had rated the Peach State’s election laws as the most trustworthy in the nation according to the conservative think tank. Raffensperger, according to the ad, had pushed the Georgia legislature to ban ballot harvesting. Democrats in the state have described the law as an attempt at voter suppression.

Bullock predicts, as the races in Georgia start looking towards the general election, Democrats may argue voter suppression as a way to attack the GOP’s policies in the state.

“They made the claim four years ago and it seems that it is a kind of claim which mobilizes Democratic voters,” Bullock said.

Garrett Bess, vice president of Heritage Action — sister organization to the conservative Heritage Foundation — said his organization helped the Georgia legislature and governor establish its most current election polices. Every voter, regardless of political views, wants to trust their vote counted, Bess said.

“As various partisans have sought to leverage every single avenue of power to accomplish their own goals, it’s causing everybody to increasingly have to focus on even what should largely be ministerial roles, such as secretaries of state and supervisors of election,” he said.

At the same time, there are valid concerns about election practices picked up and adopted during the pandemic, Bess said.

According to Mark Lindeman, director of Verified Voting, some of the policy questions raised are subjects on which reasonable people can disagree, such as whether a state should hold a period of early voting.

“What’s not normal is the frame of some of these campaigns of rejecting the legitimacy of the 2020 election. That is radical,” Lindeman said.

Lindeman said democracy depends on election officials acting impartially, and if officials say they have the right to overturn the election, the election cannot be free and fair.

In the leadup to the 2020 elections, states and election officials navigated unique circumstances: conducting an election during a pandemic and explaining those changes to the voters so new procedures would be trusted. Plus they had to contend with Trump’s claims of election tampering.

But overall, the 2020 elections were very secure, Lindeman said, because voters in some states were switching to hand-marked paper ballots, a method that can be verified.

That’s what happened in the nail-biting race in Georgia, where election officials ordered a risk-limiting audit that required county election officials to count every ballot cast in the presidential race by hand.

Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill, a Democrat who co-chairs the nonpartisan National Association of Secretaries of State Election Committee, said the group of chief election officials respect each other’s work.  

“I would say most of the people I know, regardless of party, just want to do a good job,” Merrill said. “And I think the hardest thing to watch has been the Republican secretaries of state, struggling with how they can defend their work, and at the same time respond to this public outcry.”

Merrill, who has been Connecticut’s secretary of state since 2010, said election law has gone from decades of few changes following the 1965 Voting Rights Act to allegations of voting fraud and calls for voter ID laws in 2010. In 2016, there was the first cybersecurity incident that led to election systems being designated as critical infrastructure. At the same time, individuals began questioning the mechanics of elections.

In the face of baseless claims of fraudulent elections that could shake faith in democracy, Merill tries to remain optimistic.

“Hopefully, we can combat it with the truth. That’s all I can think of to do,” Merrill said.

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