Meet the election deniers on the cusp of controlling U.S. elections
The 2022 midterms are days away. At issue: Who administers voting in 2024
Let's try imagining what the next U.S. presidential election might look like. It's 2024. It's been a bitter, hard-fought campaign. Votes are being counted.
Now consider a scenario where these are the people in charge of administering elections: the people who set rules, issue guidance to poll workers, or confirm the winner.
In Arizona, imagine it's Mark Finchem. He was in Washington during the Jan. 6 insurrection. A member of the Oath Keepers
militia, he introduced a bill this year
– 597 days after the last election – to cancel
Joe Biden's 2020 win.
In Pennsylvania, it's the candidate appointed by
a governor who was also there
on Jan. 6, and who led Donald Trump's efforts to invalidate the results in his state.
In Michigan, it's Kristina Karamo who on Jan. 6 insisted it must have been left-wing radicals attacking the Capitol. She has since referred to police officers there that day as crisis actors.
In Nevada, it's Jim Marchant who said his state's elections have been illegitimate for two decades and that the winners have been imposed by a deep-state cabal
In Minnesota, it's Kim Crockett who has called the last presidential vote rigged
and who dragged her feet
before saying she would accept
this year's midterm results.
In Wisconsin, imagine there's a governor who still won't say
whether he wants to decertify the 2020 presidential election; his party's candidate for elections chief wants him to sign a bill stripping
the state's bipartisan elections body of its powers.
Those are the people running as Republican candidates to become secretary of state, a state's chief elections official.
The coming days will determine whether these candidates win office: it depends on outcomes of the Nov. 8 midterm elections.
If the polls are accurate some of these people, maybe even most, will win, along with more mainstream Republicans as in Ohio
'Existential' threat to democracy: Vote administrator
More than 60 per cent
of U.S. jurisdictions have an election-denier on the ballot this fall. In pivotal swing states, that could result in election-deniers running elections.
The woman who led Wisconsin's elections commission in 2020 was deluged with threats and abuse
and she said she's trying not to be alarmist now.
But it's not easy.
"You don't want to be a Chicken Little, right? You don't want to be crying wolf," said Ann Jacobs, a Democrat who still sits on the Wisconsin elections commission, a bipartisan and previously non-controversial outfit now upended
by Trump's election denialism.
"But I do think the threats to the fabric of our democracy are real. They do have the potential to be somewhat existential."
The details vary from state to state. That's because they all have different rules
; secretaries of state have more power in some places than others; the candidates also vary in their commitment to conspiracies.
But these candidates generally want four things
: To restrict mail-in voting
, which became more popular with Democrats during the pandemic; to limit the days mail-in ballots can be counted; to ramp up vote audits and investigations; and to give partisan politicians more power over the process.
These candidates say: We're the good guys
In their view, they're the reasonable ones.
They say elections are shoddily managed and absentee ballots are a problem. They say ballots need tighter controls. And they say Democrats are the ones who played fast and loose with the rules in 2020.
Here's an example from Minnesota.
Kim Crockett, the Republican candidate for secretary of state, said in a one-candidate debate
, boycotted by her opponent, that Democrats rushed to embrace absentee voting during the pandemic.
Democrats tried making absentee voting easier; Trump tried making it harder
. It was the result of the pandemic itself becoming another partisan political issue, with Democrats in cities more worried about congregating in public places.
It became obvious by the middle of 2020
that the stage was set for a brutal post-election battle over the legitimacy of ballot counts.
In Minnesota, the Democratic secretary of state amicably settled a lawsuit
from a pro-Democratic group that sued to make absentee voting easier.
Minnesota extended the deadline for counting absentee ballots, and waived security requirements, including the need for a witness.
Crockett said those changes were illegitimate – that they required a vote in the legislature. She noted that a court later agreed
with her, though that finding was also disputed
In that same one-person debate, she brushed off questions about whether Joe Biden won the presidency fair and square.
Opponent tells Finchem: You're unhinged and violent
An Arizona debate got more combative, with both candidates there.
The militia member, Mark Finchem, cast himself as a defender of the law: he said the votes were irredeemably compromised in some counties and should not have counted.
As evidence, Finchem said people in Yuma County pleaded guilty
to illegally depositing other voters' ballots in drop boxes.
What he didn't say: this was two women, accused
of dropping off four ballots
each; it happened in the 2020 summer primary election, not the general election involving Trump, and resulted in a 30-day jail
sentence for a former mayor and school-board official.
Finchem also referred to people stuffing ballot boxes.
He was alluding to a film, 2000 Mules
, that relied on methodology that has been challenged
in numerous reports
and triggered a defamation lawsuit
. Now, a book based on the movie has deleted key details
The conspiracies run deep with Finchem, his critics say.
He recently accused Google and the deep state of suppressing searches for his campaign website; a journalist later found an elementary coding error
committed by his own campaign.
On the eve of the Jan. 6 insurrection, Finchem delivered a speech where he said 74 million Trump voters would never accept the result. When it began raining during the speech, he said: "This is God washing the stench off Washington, D.C."
His Democratic opponent called him a dangerous person peddling corrosive lies.
"What [Finchem] did was engage in a violent insurrection," Adrian Fontes said in the debate.
"He is a part of an organization [Oath Keepers] that has called for the violent overthrow of our government. He has supporters, and [he] himself has, called for civil war in this country. [For] the stockpiling of ammunition
for this very war. It is … unhinged and violent."
Finchem easily won
his primary. He has a real chance
of winning the general election.
In Michigan, Kristina Karamo claimed she witnessed fraud
in 2020. She signed an affidavit saying a spoiled ballot, marked for both parties, was unfairly counted for Biden.
A longtime election official
said Karamo was ignorant of election vocabulary and misinterpreted an order – "push it through"
– to cancel the ballot.
'The Holy Spirit told me'
She hosted a podcast on the day of the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol attack and immediately blamed the attack on Antifa.
In that same podcast, she said her faith prevents her from using the language she'd like about those doubters who refuse to accept she witnessed fraud.
"If you want to say I'm a liar, the Holy Spirit told me that I can't say what I want to say," she said.
"But you can just kick bricks."
Scholars who study election administration have expressed alarm.
"Just shockingly toxic," is how Kenneth Mayer, a professor
at the University of Wisconsin, describes the emerging partisanship in vote certification.
at the University of Michigan says the fair administration of elections is absolutely an election issue this fall.
Yet it's unclear how many Americans care: Ivacko noted polls
70 per cent view democracy as under threat – but only 7 per cent
see it as a top election issue.
"Which is very frightening," Ivacko said.
The checks in the system... for now
One thing academics agree on is that the decentralized responsibilities over American elections could limit the damage caused by a single rogue actor.
Secretaries of state don't set rules alone. Local officials wield great power in some states: more than 3,500 different entities run elections in Wisconsin and Michigan
There's also the justice system. If an official goes rogue, Ivacko said: "The courts can step in. … We still have kind of a failsafe."
said her fears are mitigated by memories of local elections officials she's met in her work as a researcher and author at Auburn University. She said they are professional, skilled, and honourable. She hopes that continues.
These officials are, however, retiring, and quitting
, at an unusual pace. They are being threatened and demoralized and their operations are so often under-funded, Hale said, that many resort to bake sales and corporate donations
"Good people are leaving," she said.
Some are being forced out. Like one man
on a board in Michigan that nearly stalled
Biden's election certification in 2020. The Republican
who voted to approve it was forced out
Now that same board nearly interfered in this election: it tried blocking
an abortion referendum from the ballot even after the pro-abortion side collected enough signatures.
It had to be forced by a court
So will these checks in the system actually keep working?
Ivacko said he hopes so. But, at the end of the day, he said, people are not all equally committed to fair play.
And, he said: "Our systems are based on people."