The Trump-endorsed state legislator who won the GOP nomination for Arizona’s secretary of state is the latest candidate to advance to the November vote for a state election oversight post, denying the results of the latter.
The early success of such candidates is raising concerns about what will happen if those who lack faith in elections are tasked with conducting them.
State Representative Mark Finchem easily cleared a packed field in Tuesday’s Arizona primaries. He has embraced former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen and has vowed to overthrow the electoral administration in the politically crucial state if elected.
“The focus of the election will be on restoring the rule of law. It’s that simple,” Finchem said in an interview on Wednesday. “Right now, we have illegality.”
Finchem, who received an initial endorsement from Trump, was among those seeking the Legislature to overturn Democrat Joe Biden’s victory in Arizona. He joins the Republican nominees for secretary of state in Alabama, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada and New Mexico and the Republican nominee for governor in Pennsylvania in supporting Trump’s false claims. In Pennsylvania, the governor appoints the secretary of state.
Election experts say candidates contesting the results of a valid election in which there was no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of voting systems pose the danger of interfering in future elections. They warn that this can unleash chaos if they refuse to accept results they don’t like.
“They only have faith in elections when their side wins. Their definition of a safe election is only when they or their party wins,” said David Becker, a former attorney at the US Department of Justice who now leads the nonprofit Center for Innovation and Election Research. “This is not a democracy.”
Not all of this year’s candidates were successful. Most notably, Representative Jody Hice lost his bid to oust Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in the state’s primaries. Raffensperger drew the ire of Trump after refusing the former president’s demand in a phone call to “find” enough votes to overturn Biden’s victory in the state.
Most of the seven incumbent Republican secretaries facing opponents in this year’s primaries have advanced to the November elections. That includes Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab, who on Tuesday defeated a challenger promoting electoral conspiracy theories.
Only Holli Sullivan of Indiana and Steve Barnett of South Dakota have lost their attempts to stay in office. A handful of primaries remain in the coming weeks.
Historically, races for secretary of state have been low-key races overshadowed by campaigns for governor and state attorney general. But they have attracted huge interest since the 2020 election, when voting systems and processes came under attack from Trump and his supporters.
Secretaries of state do not make laws but work closely with local election officials in their states. Responsibilities vary, but they typically issue guidance on voting procedures to ensure uniformity, distribute funds to local election officials, and coordinate with federal authorities on election security.
Experts say a secretary of state who believes the 2020 election was stolen may seek changes to the way elections are held. For example, those who feel that mail-in voting is vulnerable to fraud may add new requirements for mail-in voting requests, reduce access to dropboxes, or eliminate permanent absentee voters lists.
In Arizona, the secretary of state writes a legally binding handbook that sets out electoral rules. The manual must be based on state law and approved by the attorney general and governor, but it was the subject of controversy this year after the Republican attorney general tried to block a new version written by the Democratic secretary of state.
The 2019 version with some changes was allowed to stay in place instead of the new one, and Finchem promises to completely scrap that version.
“If they have the keys to the castle, so to speak, will they correctly set the rules, count votes, and uphold the will of the people?” said David Levine, a former election official who is now a member of the Alliance for Securing Democracy.
In Nevada, Republican candidate Jim Marchant wants all voting equipment thrown away in favor of marked, hand-counted paper ballots. He argues that voting machines are unreliable and told voters: “You didn’t elect anyone. The people who are in the position have been selected. You had no choice.”
In Arizona, Finchem is part of a process to force state election officials to manually count ballots cast in November elections. A federal judge is considering the possibility of firing him.
There is no evidence that the voting machines were rigged. A coalition of federal and state election and cybersecurity officials called the 2020 presidential election “the safest in American history” and Trump’s own attorney general said there was no fraud that would alter the results.
Experts say manual ballot counting is not only less accurate, but extremely labor intensive, potentially delaying results by weeks. They also say it’s unnecessary because voting equipment is tested before and after elections to ensure ballots are read and counted correctly.
In addition to looking at electoral management, Levine said there are questions about what a secretary of state who embraces conspiracy theories can do if his party’s candidate loses an election and alleges fraud.
“We need to make sure that we’re putting people in those positions that put free and fair elections above partisan interests,” he said.
Finchem confirmed on Wednesday that he received a subpoena from the Justice Department seeking documents related to his activities around the 2020 election. He has rejected claims that he or other candidates like him could be a danger to democracy.
“This is hyperbolic at its best,” Finchem said. “At worst, it’s just a fear provocation.”
While secretaries of state are important positions, they do not have unlimited power, said Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections for Common Cause, a nonpartisan organization that advocates expanding voter access.
“Even in states where the secretary of state has enormous power, a secretary of state cannot – on his own – overturn a democratic election,” Albert said. “Even when these individuals may want to take steps to undermine voters’ ability to vote and have a vote count, they are still constrained by the law and the checks and balances in place.”
Cassidy reported from Washington.