Voters push back against election deniers in key states
Election conspiracy theorists who echoed the lies of former President Donald Trump lost several key races Tuesday, though some others in Republican-dominated states will now be tasked with running elections.
While secretary of state races are too close to call in Arizona and Nevada, Republican candidates who openly questioned the validity of the 2020 presidential election lost their bids in Michigan, Minnesota and New Mexico.
In Pennsylvania, where the governor nominates the secretary of state, gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, defeated Republican Doug Mastriano, who also spread election falsehoods. Mastriano has not yet conceded.
The outcomes are a massive victory for voting rights advocates, who spent months before the midterms warning that if conspiracy-spreading candidates took office, they could hand-pick winners in future elections. Still, advocates caution, with some results yet to come in key states, election deniers may still try to cause chaos and sow doubt in the voting system.
“The truth is, in the swing states, [election deniers] haven’t won very much,” said Paul Smith, senior vice president at the Campaign Legal Center, a national voting rights organization. “It turns out that most of the American people want this democracy to remain a democracy, which I think is encouraging.”
In more solidly Republican states, most of the hundreds of election deniers who ran this year are expected to win their races, including for secretary of state of Alabama, Indiana, South Dakota and Wyoming. Although concerning, Smith said this is unlikely to have a major impact on election results, since the states skew heavily Republican.
On Election Day, some candidates tried to use election administration errors to inject doubt into the integrity of elections.
In Arizona, there were problems with a third of Maricopa County’s ballot tabulators. Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake echoed far-right media personalities by using those mishaps to spread misinformation about potential fraud in the voting process, falsely claiming it was a plot to suppress conservative votes. Republicans already filed lawsuits Tuesday in Arizona, citing these issues.
“We need honest elections and we’re going to bring them to you, Arizona, I assure you of that,” Lake told supporters Tuesday night. “The system we have right now does not work.”
Stephen Richer, the county’s Republican recorder, assured voters earlier in the day, “Every legal vote will be tabulated.”
The attack on Maricopa County election officials was not about the process, but about sowing doubt, confusion and chaos in the election just in case election deniers lost the election, said David Becker, executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, a nonpartisan group that supports election officials. Human error is normal in elections, he said. But these comments could potentially incite violence, he warned.
“We’ve never had a perfect election, and we never will,” Becker said. “For them, it is all about outcomes. The only elections that are secure for the election deniers are the ones where their candidate wins.”
In at least three other parts of the country, voting rights advocates blamed disinformation for instances of voter intimidation and harassment, according to the Election Protection Coalition, a group of 300 voting rights groups that monitor election interference.
In Cooper City, Florida, a large crowd blocked the entrance of a polling location, yelling racial slurs at voters. In La Marque, Texas, a man wearing a T-shirt with images of firearms filmed voters’ cars and posted images on social media. And in Portage, Michigan, a group gathered outside a polling place, yelling racial slurs and antisemitic language.
Overall, however, these incidents were isolated and were handled “properly and quickly” by local officials, said Marissa Liebling, director of policy at State Voices, a nonprofit network working toward civic engagement in a multiracial democracy.
“By and large, the election went really smoothly,” she said, “and we’re really excited that voters were able to make their voices heard.”
Election deniers in office
Republican candidates for secretary of state who rejected the results of the 2020 presidential election will now run elections in Alabama, Indiana, South Dakota, Wyoming and potentially in Arizona and Nevada, where votes are still being counted.
The country is in the midst of a national, multi-tiered, multiyear effort to discredit elections and cause Americans of different political backgrounds to lose faith in the security of the process and the sanctity of their vote, said Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat who won reelection this week against an opponent who questioned the results of the 2020 presidential election.
It is deeply concerning that some candidates who espoused election conspiracy theories will now take over offices in charge of running elections, Benson said.
“In 2024, we’ll have to assume that some people holding these offices in other states will use those offices to sow seeds of doubt about our processes and spread misinformation,” she said. “My hope is that we can minimize that through collegial partnerships.”
Benson predicts that the newly elected officials who choose the partisan route of election administration will work ahead of the 2024 presidential election to make voting rules more difficult and confusing to voters and local election officials. They also may potentially block or not certify election results with which they disagree.
Election officials, especially those in battleground states such as Michigan, will have to get together and do some scenario planning ahead of 2024, she said.
Fair election offices come down to personal integrity and giving voters the facts, said Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who stood up to Trump’s efforts to “find” the votes to overturn the state’s election results in 2020. Raffensperger was reelected Tuesday.
“This office is really about the law and the truth,” he said. “So, we follow the facts. I have made a pledge that I will abide by the results of this election. Win or lose, I abide by the results. And I would encourage anyone that’s particularly at the rank of office of secretary of state to hold to that standard. And it’s really not a high standard. It’s just abiding by the election results.”
With a potential runoff between Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican rival Herschel Walker for Georgia’s U.S. Senate seat, voting rights advocates expect election deniers to potentially cause disruptions and spread doubt about the Peach State election process.
Nationwide, the election deniers who did win Tuesday will find that the job’s realities will hit as soon they take office, said Tammy Patrick, senior adviser to the Election and Voting program at Democracy Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based foundation that works to improve the voting process.
“[They’ll] find that, one, the job is not an easy job and, two, they have made some very fickle partners in this election denial endeavor because there’s only so much that will satisfy them,” she said. “And if you do not satisfy them, they will turn on you very quickly.”
Conspiracy theories are pervasive throughout the country and are directly affecting election officials, said Patrick. A quarter of the nation’s local election officials faced abuse, harassment and threats over the past two years, according to a national survey of local election officials by Democracy Fund and Reed College released this month.
Nearly 1 in 5 local election officials plan to leave their positions before 2024, the survey also found, which also worries Patrick. Not only will the election system lose nonpartisan officials with deep institutional knowledge, but they may be replaced by people who espouse conspiracy theories, she said.
Some election experts are still optimistic, regardless of the successes of some election deniers this week. The echo chamber ends once they get into office, said Pamela Smith, CEO of Verified Voting, a nonprofit that works to ensure the country’s election systems are secure.
In those positions, she said, officials will understand the strength of existing audit and recount processes, as Verified Voting highlighted in a paper released this month. Running elections is complex work, involving unforgiving deadlines and technical know-how; it’s not just directing traffic, she said.
“There’s a lot to know and a lot to do,” she said. “Once you’re in the job, there is a reality to it that must set in. I feel like people will wake up.”
Voter intimidation at the polls
The disinformation that drove election deniers to vie for office also drove voter intimidation and confusion at the polls this year, election experts observed.
On Election Day, the Election Protection Coalition reported voter intimidation in parts of Florida, Michigan and Texas. The coalition ran the Election Protection Hotline, where voters could call to report instances of election intimidation at the polls. The hotline was available in Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, English, Hindi, Korean, Spanish, Tagalog, Urdu and Vietnamese.
In Arizona, where state Republican leaders spent the past two years denouncing the widely used vote-by-mail system, many voters waited until Tuesday to cast their ballot, causing some long lines at polling places. Those lines were exacerbated by technical issues, including glitches with vote tabulator machines.
“It’s really unfortunate that these bad actors who are spreading the lies that mail-in voting isn’t safe and secure have now hurt the people they’ve been pushing these lies on,” said Taylor Moss, election protection director of Arizona Democracy Resource Center, a voting rights organization. “Now a lot of people have come out to vote on Election Day who don’t normally and now they’re going to have to wait longer.”
In the weeks leading up to the midterms, far-right activists in states such as Arizona harassed voters who turned their ballots in at drop box locations, or blocked voters from entering early voting locations.
Some of the activists showed up in military fatigues, carrying weapons. Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Michael Liburdi banned ballot drop box monitors in Arizona from taking photos of voters.
In Beaumont, Texas, a federal judge had to intervene the night before Election Day to stop local election officials from intimidating and discriminating against Black voters, including hovering around voting machines to see voters’ selections, refusing to assist voters in turning in their ballots and forcing voters to publicly recite their addresses even after they were checked in.
That came after a Travis County Republican Party official in Austin, Texas, went door-to-door and told voters they were not eligible to vote by mail, even if they were.
This election interference added to the disinformation and threats that many voters, especially those of color, faced in the run-up to the midterms. Several voting rights groups trained volunteers and poll workers in de-escalation and peacekeeper training to prevent violence.
Bob Sakaniwa, the director of policy and advocacy at Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, a civic participation group, said he noticed aggressive behavior toward Asian American election workers and volunteers “ticking up” during the early voting process. He added that Asian Americans also faced targeted disinformation about the voting process in their native languages. The Arab American Institute also reported targeted misinformation sent to voters in Arabic in parts of Michigan.
At the same time, officials in Florida and Missouri tried to block U.S. Department of Justice monitors from going to polling places to ensure federal compliance of voting laws, including around disability access and language translators.
Election disinformation efforts are not going away, said Liebling, at State Voices. But heading into the 2024 presidential election, she hopes voting rights organizations will continue working with voters and local election officials to ensure the voting process remains secure.
“The election was really successful,” she said. “We need to be able to continue this momentum.”
Stateline is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts that provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.