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What election deniers want to do when they’re running elections

These candidates are one election away from becoming their states’ top election officials, and they’ve all denied the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election.

A white plastic basket belonging to the United States Postal Service sits on a table.
Orange County Supervisor of Elections workers prepare mailed ballots for the high-speed tabulator in the Vote-By-Mail Ballot Counting Room, on Aug. 18, 2020. 
Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Victoria Chamberlin is an audio producer at Vox, where she has been making Today, Explained since April 2021. She previously worked at DC-based NPR partner station WAMU as a radio reporter, producer for The Kojo Nnamdi Show, and reporting fellow for the public radio collaborative Guns and America.

Mark Finchem, Jim Marchant, and Kristina Karamo are all one election away from becoming their states’ top election officials. They are the GOP nominees for secretary of state in Arizona, Nevada, and Michigan, respectively, and they have all denied the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. Their candidacies are raising fears that, should they win, they won’t fairly administer the 2024 presidential election in their all-important swing states.

One of the most disruptive things they could do is refuse to certify free and fair election results. But secretaries of state have broad influence that stretches far beyond approving vote tallies, and many of these candidates want to dramatically change the way future elections are run in those states.

In this episode of Today, Explained — Vox’s daily news explainer podcast — host Noel King talks to Zach Montellaro, a reporter who covers democracy and state politics at Politico, to understand how much is at stake if these election-denying candidates win their tight races.

Below is an excerpt of the conversation, edited for length and clarity. There’s much more in the full podcast, so find Today, Explained wherever you get podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.

Noel King

In these upcoming midterms, 25 states are going to decide who’s in charge of state elections. You’ve been looking into candidates for these offices who deny the results of the 2020 elections — and who may win. Tell me about who you’ve been following.

Zach Montellaro

The four I’m really watching the most closely is Pennsylvania, where Doug Mastriano is a state senator running for governor, but he can appoint the secretary of state. In Nevada, Jim Marchant, a former state lawmaker; in Michigan, Kristina Karamo; and then Arizona, where state Rep. Mark Finchem is running for secretary of state. Those are the four “top of the ticket” election-deniers running for chief election official in their states.

Noel King

Tell me about each of them.

Zach Montellaro

Mark Finchem is maybe the most prominent of the four of them. He really rose to fame in the state and elsewhere shortly after the 2020 election, where he hosted allies of then-president Donald Trump — right after the election for that “hearing,” where he spread conspiracy theories about the election trying to create misinformation about the election — has basically never stopped since then.

Karamo is running in Michigan after she was a poll watcher in the 2020 election, the folks who watch the proceedings, basically. And she claimed to have seen some malfeasance there, never backed it up, kind of shot off from there. She’s the Republican Party’s nominee, and she won the nomination through a convention, not through a primary there, so she didn’t have a whole regular population voting on her to give in the nomination. She’s spread some conspiracy theories and conspiracy theories-adjacent, both with and without elections. And there she’s running against the Democratic incumbent, probably might be one of the closest states. Jocelyn Benson, there, is the Democratic secretary of state.

Jim Marchant is the self-appointed leader of all these candidates. He brought them together in a coalition called the America First Secretary of State Coalition. They can kind of swap ideas, theoretically fundraise for each other, even though none of them are really strong fundraisers. And Marchant has been trying to rally them all together and give them a common platform and give them a common ideal to run on. Ironically, out of the four of those folks that we’ve talked about, he’s the only one not endorsed by former President Donald Trump.

Noel King

These folks have all secured the Republican Party’s nomination. But can they really win a general election?

Zach Montellaro

There’s not a lot of attention on these races, so it really gives any one of them a viable opportunity to win. Of course, this year we’ve seen a lot more attention on these races, and none of these folks are good fundraisers. Money isn’t everything in politics, but it helps your campaign. But just think about the states where they’re running. Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada have some of the closest elections over the last decade. That probably won’t change this year. You know, could Mark Finchem win, Kristina Karamo, and could Jim Marchant win? Absolutely. These are down-ballot races that don’t attract a lot of attention. So it gives candidates a much easier path to winning in a nomination that they wouldn’t otherwise win in a Senate race where there would be hundreds of millions of dollars potentially pouring in to kind of tip the race.

Noel King

If these “America First” coalition candidates win in November — and they did pick a nice, anodyne name for their group — what is their platform? What are they pledging to do?

Zach Montellaro

The Marchant group puts forward six broad policy ideas. One big one that they focus on is voter ID. Voter ID is something that’s not just limited to this group of election deniers. It’s popular among the American right. It’s actually popular among most Americans. Most Americans think, in poll after poll after poll, there should be some level of ID, and ID laws are very, very different across the country. They’re running to have some level of ID, likely photo ID, in their state.

Another thing they’re running on, which actually most election officials broadly think is a good idea: paper ballots. Most people vote on paper ballots, meaning that when you go fill out your ballot, you actually have the physical paper that is counted. Most states then count those ballots with the machine. [It is] much, much quicker to count an election with a ballot tabulator than doing it by hand. A lot of these candidates are saying, actually, we want to go back to hand-counting ballots. Hand-counting is likely less accurate than a ballot tabulator, which has been proven over and over and over and over again to be accurate.

Another of the biggest things is looking to eliminate or severely curtail the use of mail-in voting.

Noel King

If they win, given that they’re in swing states, the big unknown will be the 2024 election. What could they do in their jobs to upend the electoral process in the states where they’re from in 2024?

Zach Montellaro

One that gets the most attention, I actually think wrongly, is certifying elections. That final check: This person won who said “We won.” That would almost assuredly end up in state and/or federal court. But even the premise of that, saying they’re not going to sign off on a free and fair election, is in itself a challenge to the fundamental baseline of the system.

The next things they can do vary really dramatically state by state. But broadly, a lot of them can set policy. They can’t change the laws automatically, but they can make things much, much harder to happen. Think about [ballot] drop boxes, which have become a point of contention. What sort of rules could they put around drop boxes? If you submit a mail ballot in many states, there’s a process called signature matching (a process where states require voters to provide valid signatures on their absentee/mail-in ballots). How do they make it harder to have those ballots be approved?

What many of these candidates also say they want to do is totally erase the state’s current voter rolls and start fresh. And that is what I think is most concerning, at least to me. What can they do, not when everyone’s watching, you know, the day after the election, what do they do in the two years leading up to it?

Noel King

Have you talked to anyone who said if people like this win elections and start fiddling with the system, Americans’ trust in the way we vote is going to bottom out? And that could just be catastrophic.

Zach Montellaro

A lot of Americans don’t think about elections. They think about elections as a one-day event. Elections really are, you know, a full year. It does not take 48 hours to prepare for a primary. It takes a year. It does not take 72 hours to prepare for a general election. It takes that whole year running up to it.

So the challenge is how do you restore people’s trust in elections when they don’t trust them? And there’s been no really good answer to that. Some part of America, at this point, won’t be reachable by election officials, will never believe we have free elections. And they’re wrong, but they’ll never believe that they’re free elections. It’s a race for election officials of both parties to reach the rest of Americans who just don’t think about elections all that much and say, “no, look, we do have a fair system. Come in and see.” The real push, since 2016 but especially since 2020, is transparency, transparency, transparency. “Come in and see how we test the ballot machines to make sure that they are actually counting what they say they’re going to count, come in and ask questions.”

By and large, your state election official, your local county clerk, will be more than happy to answer your questions. Maybe not right at this very second because they’re super busy preparing for the general election, but election officials want you to feel good about elections. They want to answer your questions. They want you to come in and watch the testing. They want poll watchers to actually watch and see how American elections are run. So the arms race is: Can you reach enough Americans who just have a weird gut feeling about it but aren’t so ... far gone? How do you reach them this year and ahead of 2024?