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Election deniers could oversee voting in key swing states. Here are races to watch

From left to right: Republican secretary of state nominees Jim Marchant of Nevada, Kristina Karamo of Michigan and Mark Finchem of Arizona have all denied the legitimacy of the 2020 election.
Marco Bello/Reuters; Scott Olson/Getty Images; Mario Tama/Getty Images
From left to right: Republican secretary of state nominees Jim Marchant of Nevada, Kristina Karamo of Michigan and Mark Finchem of Arizona have all denied the legitimacy of the 2020 election.

Voters in a number of states this midterm cycle are being presented with a stark choice: Do they want someone who denies the legitimacy of the 2020 election to oversee voting in their state?

In a different political universe, that might seem outlandish, considering hand-count audits of paper ballots and court challenges found the 2020 election to have been one of the most accurate and accessible in American history.

But in 2022, trust in elections has eroded considerably among conservative-leaning voters, sending Republican candidates to follow their lead.

It's a trend that has many election officials — and democracy experts — sounding the alarm.

"The fate of democracy really hinges on whether or not losers accept defeat and whether they recognize losses as losses," said Amel Ahmed, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. "If you have a worldview where every loss amounts to the other side cheating ... that just generally presents a challenge for the viability of democracy."

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, and to question certain election security tools like the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC.

In addition to the practical voting changes an election-denying voting official could implement, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, said she worries about the potential for a disruption in the election certification process in 2024 and the misinformation problems it could present if an election denier is in a position of authority and able to make lies about voting seem more credible.

"We're very much in the midst of a national effort to discredit our elections," Benson said at a press briefing Thursday. "There will be people who choose to be politicians first and election administrators second or not at all."

In her reelection campaign this fall, Benson is facing Kristina Karamo, a community college professor who rose to prominence after falsely claiming she saw election fraud in Detroit in the last presidential race.

Their matchup is one of the down-ballot races to watch this week when it comes to democracy and the oversight of U.S. voting.

Michigan

In a state that went for Joe Biden in 2020 by more than 150,000 votes, Michigan Republicans still decided to double down with their base voters in choosing candidates for secretary of state and attorney general.

Both Karamo, who has already filed a lawsuit this year based on conspiracy theories about mail voting, and Matthew DePerno, the GOP's attorney general nominee, were endorsed by former President Donald Trump.

DePerno is under investigation for an alleged plot to seize and tamper with voting machines, and Karamo has come under scrutiny for her connections to the QAnon movement and her past comments, including an opposition to teaching evolution in schools.

"Evolution is one of the biggest frauds that have been perpetrated on us," she said in a July 2019 video, according to CNN.

While both candidates garnered the majority support of party loyalists at a spring nominating convention, even then more mainstream Republicans worried about the candidates' viability in a general election in a purple state.

"Every ad from [now] through November is going to say 'QAnon Karamo is too crazy for us,' " state Rep. Beau LaFave, a Republican who ran for secretary of state against Karamo, said at the time.

DePerno is facing current Attorney General Dana Nessel, who was first elected in 2018, and who has made headlines for refusing to enforce Michigan's anti-abortion law. Nessel was the first LGBTQ person elected to statewide office in Michigan, and Republicans including DePerno have sought to attack her using culture war tropes. They have seized on a joke she made at a press conference over the summer that there should be a "drag queen for every school."

Benson was also first elected in 2018, after losing her initial bid for the office in 2010. She is the former dean of Wayne State University law school, and the author of a book about the role of secretaries of state in American democracy.

Benson was the subject of intense scrutiny around the 2020 election, due in large part to unfounded accusations about Michigan's elections system by Trump, but she is well respected in the elections community and has long prided herself on working closely with the Republican (and Trump-endorsed) secretary of state of Ohio, Frank LaRose.

Arizona

In many ways, Arizona has been the epicenter of election denialism since 2020.

Shortly after voting ended in that election, one of the more famous vote-counting conspiracies, dubbed "SharpieGate," bloomed in Maricopa County, Ariz.

Half a year later, the Cyber Ninjas began their widely discredited "audit" of the vote in Maricopa (which also confirmed that Biden won).

And now Republicans who deny the 2020 election results are running for each of the statewide offices that has a role in administering elections.

That has many worried about the future of voting in the state, should they win.

Former President Barack Obama rallied on behalf of the Democrats in the state on Wednesday night in Phoenix, warning that "democracy as we know it may not survive" if Republicans sweep those offices.

The secretary of state race pits a former elections administrator, Adrian Fontes, against a far-right candidate, Mark Finchem, who is a self-proclaimed member of the far-right Oath Keepers and who was at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 when rioters disrupted the certification of Biden's win.

In an interview with NPR earlier this year, Finchem said he did not go inside the Capitol that day but also continued to claim that the 2020 election was stolen.

Trump endorsed Finchem last September, and has also endorsed the other election denying-candidates in the Arizona contests for governor and Senate.

In the governor's race, election denier Kari Lake, who has already filed a dismissed lawsuit that was premised in voting misinformation, is facing the current secretary of state, Katie Hobbs.

Nevada

The Silver State may be the most under-the-radar state when it comes to election denial, but a movement in rural counties toward ballot hand-counts shows that voting misinformation is taking hold here as well.

Polls also show the race for chief voting official to be neck and neck, despite a substantial fundraising lead for the non-election denying candidate, Democrat Cisco Aguilar.

Aguilar is an attorney who spent a number of years on the state's Athletic Commission, and he says his first priority in office would be to lobby the legislature in Nevada to make it a felony to harass or intimidate election workers.

His opponent, Republican Jim Marchant, is a former member of the state Assembly who blames his loss in 2020 on election fraud, though he has not produced any evidence of that.

Marchant has Trump's endorsement, and at a recent rally in Minden, Nev., he noted their similar views.

"We have something in common: President Trump and I lost an election in 2020 because of a rigged election," Marchant said. "I've been working since Nov. 4, 2020, to expose what happened, and what I found out is horrifying."

Marchant, Karamo and Finchem all say they want to significantly curtail early voting, and Marchant has been a leading proponent of the local movement back toward hand-counting ballots, even though that counting style has been found time and again to be less accurate and more resource-intensive.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Miles Parks
Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.