In Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania, where Joe Biden beat then president Trump in 2020, several Republican candidates who have loudly echoed Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen are trying to win jobs as secretary of state, attorney general or governor in November.
The distinct prospect of some winning top state posts has triggered alarms from election watchdogs, Democrats and some GOP officials, who also worry about what could happen during the 2024 presidential election – especially if Trump is the nominee.
Prominent election deniers Kari Lake, a former Fox News anchor, and Mark Finchem, a state legislator, are vying to become Arizona’s next governor and secretary of state respectively. Lesser known is Abraham Hamadeh, the GOP candidate for attorney general, who reportedly boasted about committing voter fraud in 2008.
Michigan’s conspiracy-pushing candidates include the far-right lawyer Matthew DePerno for attorney general, and part-time community college instructor Kristina Karamo for secretary of state. Trump-backed Tudor Dixon is vying for the governor’s seat.
And in Pennsylvania, state Senator Doug Mastriano who was a key Trump ally scheming to block Biden’s win hopes to become governor, an office that, unlike certain states, has special power to name the secretary of state.
Election officials and watchdogs see these election deniers as part of a larger national phenomenon of about 290 candidates running for state and federal positions who have denied the 2020 presidential election results, as the Washington Post reported.
The secretary of state positions, which twelve election deniers are seeking, pose particular concern. If Karamo, Finchem or Mastriano – who can choose his secretary of state – triumph – at least one prominent purveyor of Trump’s falsehoods would play crucial roles overseeing election procedures for a state that could be pivotal in determining the outcome of the next presidential contest.
Should Mastriano take office, for example, he could reverse long-held voting standards by following through on a vow to decertify voting machines in counties where he suspects voting results were rigged.
Should Finchem win, he could repeat his moves in 2020: push to have Biden’s win decertified in three counties, though Trump lost the state by almost 10,000 votes, as a partisan recount reaffirmed, with no legal mechanism for decertification.
Coupled with the veto power of a gubernatorial seat, and the legal powers of the attorney general, these pyramids of election deniers could create election havoc and spur new voting conspiracies with an eye to putting the GOP presidential candidate in the White House.
“Americans need to understand how the legitimacy of a previous election – and in some ways, the entire electoral process – has for the first time in modern history, been questioned by candidates for the very positions that will run the next elections,” Ian Vandewalker, a senior counsel for the Democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told the Guardian.
While several states could elect election deniers to their top posts, Finchem, DePerno and Mastriano stand out: the trio were either in DC for Trump’s January 6 rally before his supporters attacked the Capitol, or met Trump officials that day.
The three have sparked a mix of congressional, justice department, and state scrutiny by investigators. Even under the federal government’s eye, they have continued to push conspiracy theories at home, fueling further denialism, a barrage of lawsuits to curb voting rights, and drives to aggressively monitor polls and hire poll workers.
Last month, America First Legal, a group founded by former Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller and Trump’s ex-chief of staff Mark Meadows, filed lawsuits in two Pennsylvania counties to curb the use of ballot drop boxes, which have also come under attack from conservatives in Arizona who have begun surveilling these boxes.
The Trump backed Conservative Partnership Institute, which boasts Meadows and lawyer Cleta Mitchell who runs its “election integrity network” after helping Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 results, has spent months recruiting poll workers and poll watchers in these three states and others, spurring potential voter intimidation concerns.
Further, the America Project, which was founded by multimillionaire Patrick Byrne and retired Lt Gen Michael Flynn, who met Trump at the White House on 18 December 2020, where schemes to overturn the election were bandied about, has begun a seven-figure drive to train “election reform activists” in the three states and five others.
Election analysts and officials warn of rising threats they are facing from disgruntled workers and outside disruptors. And veteran election officials and watchdog groups say they’re worried about the wave of dangerous claims by election deniers running for office and their allies.
“Poll-watchers and election observers play an important role in safeguarding the integrity of elections, so it’s important that those positions not be misused to intentionally disrupt or prevent registered voters from voting,” Al Schmidt, a former Republican election commissioner in Philadelphia who oversaw elections for a decade, told the Guardian.
Schmidt, who now leads the Committee of Seventy, a non-partisan group working to strengthen democracy, added: “There is a very real danger when election officials are seen as the enemy or the opposition. The mindset of these election denialist groups is a concern because of the behavior it can lead to. As we’ve seen, it’s led to threats of violence and motivated people to try to physically disrupt the casting and counting of votes.”
Election watchdogs are troubled about what would happen should some election deniers win their races next month, or contest the results if they clearly lose.
Arizona’s Lake and Finchem have sparked strong fears as they continue to trumpet Trump’s erroneous claims about major voting fraud in 2020. Both according to recent polls have real shots of winning the races.
Hamadeh, the Republican candidate for attorney general, has denied the results of the 2020 election and has focused his campaign ironically on “election protection” to “rebuild the confidence of our elections by prosecuting election fraud to the fullest extent of the law”.
Finchem has shown no regrets about promoting falsehoods about the 2020 election or Trump’s role on January 6. On that day this year, he brazenly and falsely tweeted that the “real insurrection” was that Democrats in his state “rigged the vote in Arizona with tens of thousands of fraudulent votes”.
During a televised debate last month with his Democratic rival Adrian Fontes, Finchem revealed he had been interviewed by the justice department and the House select committee investigating the Trump-fueled insurrection as a “witness not as a suspect”.
Meanwhile, Lake’s rhetorical falsehoods about Trump’s loss to Biden have gone on for months. She went further this month during a CNN appearance by refusing three times to say whether she would accept the midterm results should she lose.
During a February CPAC conference in Florida, Lake said: “We know that if we have another election that is stolen from us, we’re going to lose this country forever.” Then, during the primary campaign which she won in August, Lake told journalists that if she had been governor before she would not have certified the state’s electoral results.
“Deep down, I think we all know this illegitimate fool in the White House – I feel sorry for him – didn’t win,” she told the New York Times in August.
Lake has asked her Twitter followers if they would “be willing to take a shift watching a dropbox to catch potential ballot mules,” as election deniers have ratcheted up false charges about their safety.
“It’s a perfectly safe method of voting and arguably safer than voting by mail because it removes the post office intermediary,” said Maricopa county recorder Stephen Richer, who helps oversee the elections for the state’s largest county.
“For election administrators in Arizona, it’s an endless game of conspiracy theory Whac-A-Mole,” Richer added. “For election denying candidates, the truth doesn’t matter. They just have to keep the game going–to fundraise, to stoke passion and energy, and, most of all, to show loyalty to former president Trump.”
Bill Gates, the GOP chairman of the Maricopa board of supervisors, foresees more election disputes.
“There is a movement by election deniers. It’s the lawsuits and the harassing public record requests,” he said, which he noted have accelerated as early voting neared in mid October.
Gates’ fears are underscored by a lawsuit that Lake and Finchem filed this year to get rid of all voting machines that Trump ally and multimillionaire Mike Lindell underwrote and that is now on appeal to Arizona’s court of appeals after it was rejected by a lower court.
“We’ve requested sanctions against Finchem and Lake. There was no basis in law or fact to bring that lawsuit.”
In Michigan, election observers and officials are jittery about the prospects of DePerno, the conservative lawyer, and Karamo, the part time community college instructor, becoming attorney general and secretary of state. Both, along with Dixon were at a Trump rally last month.
DePerno helped spearhead a conspiratorial report about clerical errors in Antrim county that Trump’s former attorney general William Barr dubbed “idiotic” and a Michigan Senate Republicans report called “demonstrably false”.
Last month, the current attorney general Dana Nessel, who is running again, released documents suggesting that DePerno played a key part in a covert scheme to obtain improper access to voting machines in three different counties to prove fraud.
Nessel has recused herself from the probe and called for a special prosecutor to handle the inquiry.
For her part, Karamo has made high voltage attacks on the current Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, charging in tv ads that Benson was part of a plot funded by liberal billionaire George Soros. Karamo has received donations from Trump’s Save America Super Pac and former Overstock chief executive Patrick Byrne – both of which have donated six figure sums to a ballot initiative in Michigan this year that would make stricter voter ID requirements.
According to the Brennan Center, the America Project is also “sponsoring” a lawsuit by the Macomb county Republican party to “decertify” and rerun the 2020 election because of baseless charges of voting machine problems. Benson has warned that “election deniers … want to take over statewide offices so they can potentially be in a position to block or undo or fail to certify election results”.
Last month, prosecutors charged one poll worker in the state with felonies stating that he placed his own flash drive into a computer that contained voter registration data. Another state inquiry is reportedly focused on officials who handed voting tabulators over to individuals who have said that he was looking into the 2020 election.
If Mastriano, a Trump-endorsed state senator who tried to help the former president overturn the 2020 result, wins in Pennsylvania, he would exercise powers beyond being governor. Pennsylvania does not have a secretary of state office, and gives that authority to the governor.
He has promised that if he wins he would revise the election system in the state with this choice, and dropped some clear hints in an interview in April with Steve Bannon, Trump’s former top strategist.
“As governor, I get to appoint the secretary of state. And I have a voting reform-minded individual who’s been traveling the nation and knows voting reform extremely well. That individual has agreed to be my secretary of state.”
Mastriano came to Washington for the rally that preceded the Capitol attack and was reportedly the state’s “point person” in forming slates of pro Trump electors to replace the authorized electors for Biden who won the state in 2020 by about 80,000 votes.
The January 6 panel subpoenaed Mastriano back in February, and told him that it was seeking information regarding his role in the fake electors schemes that revved up in a half dozen states after Trump’s defeat to replace legitimate electors Biden won in those states with others for Trump.
In late summer, Mastriano sued the House panel to block the subpoena seeking him to sit for a deposition, and asked that his legal fees be paid by Congress.
In his lawsuit, Mastriano suggested that he was worried that edited clips from a recorded interview which the committee sought, as with many others it subpoenaed, could end up being used “improperly influence the midterm elections”.
Trump’s enthusiasm for Mastriano was palpable in May when he endorsed him.
“He has revealed the deceit, corruption, and outright theft of the 2020 presidential election, and will do something about it,” Trump crowed.
Former Pennsylvania Republican representative Jim Greenwood, who served 12 years in the US House, told the Guardian he’s a lifelong Republican but a “visceral” Trump foe, and stressed that “Mastriano is one of the all-time-great election deniers”.
Greenwood added that he’s concerned too because Mastriano has “touted he’s got the power to get rid of voting machines” and has said he wants “all Pennsylvania voters to re-register.”
As election day nears on 8 November, voting watchdogs say the stakes for fair elections are high.
“Disinformation and conspiracy theories are already affecting election administration, but Americans should be able to rely on election officials to make elections fair and accessible, and guarantee that they reflect the will of the people,” said Vandewalker of the Brennan Center.