Election officials and democracy experts are sounding the alarm, as Republicans who deny the 2020 election results have now moved closer to overseeing the voting process in almost a dozen different states.
The high-profile swing state Arizona joined the ranks in early August, when GOP voters there decided to nominate state Rep. Mark Finchem, an election conspiracy theorist, as their candidate for secretary of state.
"These are the people who set the rules, who count the votes, and ultimately who are responsible for defending the will of the people," said Joanna Lydgate, the CEO of States United Action, a nonpartisan organization that has been tracking election-denying candidates running for governor, attorney general and secretary of state nationwide. States United shared its most recent findings exclusively with NPR ahead of their release.
"In 2020, when we had a sitting president try to overturn an election, we saw all across the country state and local officials who stood up and who protected our freedom to vote," Lydgate said. "So if we want to see that happen again in the future we have to make sure that we are putting people in these positions who believe in free and fair elections."
The duties of a state secretary of state vary, but in most cases, they are the state's top voting official and have a key role in carrying out election laws.
Across the country, numerous Republican candidates for these positions — and others with some role in election administration, like governor and attorney general — have embraced the lie that widespread fraud affected the 2020 election results.
Of the 16 Republican secretary of state primaries held prior to August this year, 12 featured at least one candidate who questioned the legitimacy of Joe Biden's win in 2020, according to States United.
And four of those candidates won spots in November's general election: in Alabama, Indiana, Nevada and New Mexico. A fifth candidate, Kristina Karamo in Michigan, won a party vote to become the Republican nominee there during an endorsement convention in April.
Since the beginning of August, another five election deniers have won secretary of state primaries, including Finchem in Arizona, who beat out three other candidates, including another election denier.
Should any of those candidates win in November and be elected a state election head, that could present two fundamental issues, says Rick Hasen, director of the Safeguarding Democracy Project at UCLA.
"One: Are they going to administer elections fairly? And two: Even if they do, are others going to believe that they administer elections fairly?" said Hasen, speaking with NPR's 1A. "It really can lead to a massive decline in both experience on the ground and confidence that our elections are going to be fairly conducted."
Many election deniers have used the false narrative that the 2020 election was stolen as justification to strip back voting access measures like ballot drop boxes and other forms of early voting, as well as election security tools like the Electronic Registration Information Center or ERIC.
Finchem, for instance, says he wants to get rid of early voting and pull Arizona out of ERIC, despite bipartisan agreement that the system is among the best tools states have to detect and prevent voter fraud.
Tammy Patrick, a former election official in Arizona and now a senior adviser at Democracy Fund, called the trend "deeply troubling."
"We can debate policy issues, like what's the right timeline for voter registration or proper security protocols," Patrick said. "But I never thought we would be talking about individuals governing our election system ... who felt that they should put their fingers on the scale."
Patrick said she speaks to election officials in other countries who look to the U.S. for leadership, and she doesn't know what to tell them. "They say to me things like, 'We turn to you to set the standard ... and if you're struggling after having been a democracy for hundreds of years, what hope do we have?' "
An epicenter of election lies
Two of the four Republican candidates running to oversee voting there made a name for themselves by embracing election conspiracies.
Finchem introduced a resolution to decertify 2020 election results in the state. And Shawnna Bolick, another GOP state representative, proposed a bill last year that would have allowed the legislature to override the will of the voters in choosing presidential electors (a tactic embraced by Donald Trump's team following the 2020 election).
Finchem — a longtime member of the Oath Keepers, a far-right extremist group — was at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and in an interview with NPR earlier this year he declined to call what happened there a riot or an insurrection.
"What happens when the People feel they have been ignored, and Congress refuses to acknowledge rampant fraud. #stopthesteal," he tweeted that day, with a photo of people waving Trump flags on the Capitol steps.
Trump endorsed Finchem in the race last September.
Two Republicans who are not election deniers also ran for secretary of state in Arizona: Michelle Ugenti-Rita and Beau Lane.
Where Republican voters stand
Even though polling data indicates a majority of Republican voters still believe fraud impacted the 2020 election, primary results this year suggest a more complicated picture, as a number of prominent election deniers have lost races running against more moderate candidates who did not spread misinformation about the 2020 results.
Overall, in contests held before August, States United found that election deniers have actually lost more GOP primary contests than they've won in races for governor, attorney general and secretary of state.
That includes in Georgia, which saw Trump-endorsed Rep. Jody Hice lose in the Republican primary for secretary of state to incumbent Brad Raffensperger, who has spent the past two years arguing that the 2020 election was free and fair.
Also notable was Colorado, where election denial hero and Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, who is facing charges for allegedly tampering with election equipment, lost in her bid for the Republican nomination for secretary of state.
Peters finished second, and the winner, former Jefferson County Clerk Pam Anderson, told Colorado Public Radio that it was a sign that voters want professionals elected to these sorts of offices.
"We want free, accessible and fair elections, and will push back on political hyper-partisan rhetoric around elections administration," Anderson said.
Lydgate, of States United, however cautioned against focusing too much on where election deniers have lost. She pointed back to Georgia in 2020, when Trump called Raffensperger after the election and pushed him to "find" votes, and said even one election denier in a position of power is too many.
"If somebody else had been in that position and had been willing to go along with that, we might have seen a different outcome," she said. "The truth is that a single election denier in a single state could throw our elections into chaos, could put our democracy at risk."
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