“Well, Jody Hice is lying.”
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) reiterated those words several times throughout last week’s televised debate. Raffensperger, Georgia’s top elections official, famously withstood former President Donald Trump’s pressure to “find” votes and subvert the 2020 results in the Peach State. Now he’s facing a viable primary challenge from a Trump-endorsed candidate, U.S. Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), who has built his campaign on falsehoods and conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.
This has brought new focus to an important, but often overlooked position: the secretary of state. In these races, money is flooding in from out-of-state donors and party-aligned groups; according to the Brennan Center for Justice, contributions to secretary of state races in key battleground states is three times higher than in 2018, and eight times higher than in 2014.
There are 27 secretary of state seats on the ballot this November. The most instrumental races are taking place in states that President Joe Biden narrowly won in 2020, which have consequently become the target of Trump’s ire and the epicenters for the “Big Lie.”
Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s pro-voting, Democratic incumbent, is running for governor. That leaves a dangerous opening in a swing state where the Arizona Republican Party has been a hotbed for conspiracy theories.
- Incumbent candidate: None
- Who we need to elect: Democratic candidate, TBD
- Trump’s “Big Lie” candidate of choice: Arizona Rep. Mark Finchem (R)
- Primary election: Aug. 2
The Latest: There are four Republicans and two Democrats running in their respective primaries. As of February, Beau Lane leads the Republican field in donations, narrowly ahead of Trump-endorsed candidate, state representative Mark Finchem. Finchem gained the “Big Lie” stamp of approval through his unwavering commitment to #StopTheSteal in Arizona, including protesting election results on Jan. 6, 2021. Several weeks later, Finchem joined 30 other Republicans in calling on Congress to accept an “alternate 11 electoral votes [for] Donald J. Trump.” In the Arizona Legislature, Finchem advocated for the expensive sham “audit” and introduced legislation to eliminate early voting, no-excuse mail-in voting (which the state has had since 1991) and emergency voting centers. Although this bill in particular hasn’t advanced in the 2022 session, it’s important to note that the leading Republican candidate for chief elections officer wants to revoke a system of voting used by nearly 90% of Arizona voters in 2020.
In contrast, the Democratic candidates, state Rep. Reginald Bolding and Adrian Fontes, are both running on platforms rooted in protecting the right to vote. Bolding serves in the Arizona House of Representatives as House Democratic Leader and is also the co-founder of the Arizona Coalition for Change, an organization focused on civic engagement and leadership development. Fontes previously served as the Maricopa County Recorder, where, according to his campaign website, he “revolutionized a broken, outdated, and unjust voting system by making elections more accessible and more secure” in Arizona’s most populous county.
Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state, resisted Trump’s calls to overturn 2020 election results, but that doesn’t mean he is pro-voting. Nonetheless, Raffensperger is being primaried by a Trump-backed candidate peddling baseless claims (a similar dynamic is playing out in the Republican primary for governor).
- Incumbent candidate: Brad Raffensperger (R)
- Who we need to elect: Democratic candidate, TBD
- Trump’s “Big Lie” candidate of choice: U.S. Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.)
- Primary election: May 24
The Latest: In two weeks from today, Georgia voters will head to the polls for the primaries. The Republican contest will likely come down to Raffensperger and Hice; the former has the incumbent advantage but the latter has raised twice as much money. While Raffensperger stood strong against Trump’s election subversion pressure, he supports Georgia’s voter suppression law, Senate Bill 202. As secretary of state, his 2022 priorities include ensuring noncitizens cannot vote in Georgia elections (there’s no evidence to show they are).
After rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, Hice, as a congressman, voted against certifying the results of the presidential election in Arizona and Pennsylvania. Earlier that morning, Hice wrote, “This is our 1776 moment” in a since-deleted Instagram post. Hice also initiated an objection to the Georgia results, but after the violence in the Capitol, he failed to find a senator to join him in that objection. Since the inception of his bid for secretary of state, Hice has made false claims about the 2020 election and voting procedures central to his campaign.
Meanwhile, all five candidates in the Democratic primary vehemently confirmed their opposition to S.B. 202 in the recent debate. State Rep. Bee Nguyen (D) has the strongest lead in fundraising and endorsements, but will need to win over a largely undecided primary electorate.
In Michigan, another state that flipped blue for Biden in 2020, the Democratic secretary of state has consistently defended her state’s elections, even in the face of harassment and threats. The difference between incumbent Jocelyn Benson and her Republican opponent couldn’t be starker.
- Incumbent candidate: Jocelyn Benson (D)
- Who we need to elect: Jocelyn Benson (D)
- Trump’s “Big Lie” candidate of choice: Kristina Karamo (R)
- Primary election: Nominations by party convention
The Latest: Benson has been busy during her first term, implementing automatic voter registration, Election Day voter registration, no excuse mail-in voting and more, all while facing consistent GOP resistance. In April, Benson’s efforts were recognized in a slew of awards — the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award and two accolades from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (for Improving Accessibility for Voters with Disabilities and Outstanding Innovation in Election Cybersecurity and Technology).
What has Kristina Karamo, the Trump-endorsed candidate backed by the Michigan Republican Party, been doing during this time period? She spent weeks after the 2020 election as a poll challenger in Detroit, calling herself a “whistleblower” as she discussed the alleged irregularities she witnessed on her media tour of right-wing news outlets. Later on, Karamo traveled to Arizona to join and praise the Republican “audit” there.
In Michigan, political parties nominate secretary of state candidates instead of holding a primary election; while formal conventions will take place in August, Benson and Karamo have already secured their parties’ respective nominations.
The Republican incumbent (who was censured by her own party for standing up for fair and free elections) is term-limited. Based on the path the GOP is heading down, any Republican replacement won’t do the same.
- Incumbent candidate: None
- Who we need to elect: Cisco Aguilar (D)
- “Big Lie” candidate: Former Nevada Rep. Jim Marchant (R)
- Primary election: June 14 (The Democratic primary election was canceled.)
The Latest: In December 2020, Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske (R) publicly announced that there was no evidence of fraud in the 2020 election in the Silver State. Her office published a “Facts vs. Myths” document, which included discrediting the Trump-pushed claim that noncitizens voted in Nevada. As a result, Cegavske was censured by her own party. “My job is to carry out the duties of my office as enacted by the Nevada Legislature, not carry water for the state GOP or put my thumb on the scale of democracy,” she said in a statement. “Unfortunately, members of my own party continue to believe the 2020 general election was wrought with fraud — and that somehow I had a part in it — despite a complete lack of evidence to support that belief.”
Now, Cegavske is term-limited, and any Republican successor is likely to fall on the side of the Nevada GOP that pushed for the censure. There are seven Republicans competing in the June primary, two of which the States United Project labeled as outright election deniers. Former state Rep. Jim Marchant (R) has asserted that he would not have certified Biden’s win in 2020 and would consider sending “alternate electors” in 2024. While Marchant is trying his best to court Trump, so far, he has not managed to secure his endorsement. But hey, at least he is endorsed by My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell.
Attorney and former Athletic Commission Chair Cisco Aguilar is the lone Democrat in the race, so there will be no Democratic primary for secretary of state.
Keep a close eye on several other states.
Let’s hope the race is not closer than expected for the re-election of Democratic incumbent Jena Griswold. “It’s no surprise that Jena Griswold as the chair of the Democratic Association of Secretary of States has provided the blueprint for other states to disempower the voters by guaranteeing outcomes,” said one of Griswold’s Republican opponents, Tina Peters, who has been indicted on 10 charges of election misconduct.
Peters is right that Griswold is the chair of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State (DASS). It’s also true that Colorado has provided a blueprint for the country — but as an innovative leader on voting, especially vote by mail.
Ohio held its primary elections for secretary of state on May 3 where incumbent Frank LaRose (R) and Chelsea Clark (D) advanced to the general election. LaRose was endorsed by Trump, though curiously, doesn’t fit the typical mold of a Trump endorsed candidate: LaRose has defended the results of the 2020 election. Let’s not forget though, LaRose is one of the Republican state leaders who has been central in derailing the redistricting process in the state, subverting the will of Ohioans who voted overwhelmingly for fair maps.
Chelsea Clark (D), a city council member in Forest Park (a suburb of Cincinnati), faces an uphill battle against the popular incumbent, but she is set on resisting efforts by the Republican-controlled legislature to undermine voting rights.
Despite being another focal point for the post-2020 election “Big Lie,” Wisconsin didn’t make the initial list because the secretary of state doesn’t oversee elections. Over the years, Republicans in the state legislature have stripped the office of most of its authority and staffing, instead putting election administration into the hands of the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC). Now, the winds are blowing the other way — after WEC upheld Biden’s narrow 2020 win in the state, several Republican candidates want to dismantle the commission.
Incumbent Democrat Doug La Follette, a self-branded progressive and environmentalist, has served as the Wisconsin secretary of state for a whopping 44 years, dutifully conducting the administrative work and largely staying above the political fray. La Follette is facing a primary challenge from Alexia Sabor, who wants to transform the office into a “loudspeaker in defense of democracy.”
Democracy is at stake this November.
If there is going to be election subversion in 2024, it will happen at the state level through the post-election certification process. In most states, secretaries of state are crucial players in these procedures and the increasingly radical stances of Republican secretary of state candidates pose a serious threat to democracy. In Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Nevada, the candidates running to become their state’s chief elections officers are building their platforms on unsubstantiated and dangerous claims.
As Kim Rogers, executive director of DASS told The Guardian: “It is akin to giving an arsonist keys to the firehouse.”