Democracy itself was on the ballot last week. And with votes counted and most contests decided, we can decisively call this election a win for democracy. Across the country, from local elections to congressional and gubernatorial races to ballot initiatives, pro-democracy candidates and policies prevailed in competitive contests. Americans sent a clear message: free and fair elections matter.
But nowhere were these victories clearer — or more critical — than in races for secretary of state.
On the right, a well-organized “America First” coalition — formed in 2021 with the express purpose of taking over the administration of elections in presidential battleground states — suffered a humiliating defeat: “America First” secretary of state candidates ended the election cycle losing 13 of the 14 states they contested.
To counter this right-wing effort to subvert free and fair elections, candidates like Arizona’s Adrian Fontes, Michigan’s Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D), Nevada’s Cisco Aguilar and New Mexico’s Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver (D) ran on platforms to expand voting access and safeguard elections and prevailed in their races.
This triumph of democracy over election-denying candidates was decisive in the highly competitive races to decide who would oversee the administration, counting and certification of future elections.
While the candidates who posed the greatest threat to free and fair elections in America were defeated, the continued vulnerability of our democracy cannot be overstated. We should view the 2022 election as both a victory and an alarm bell, signaling the crisis facing our democratic way of life.
Safeguarding the electoral process in America will not be successful as an exclusively partisan project, as the success of this year’s pro-democracy candidates proves. To build the broad coalition needed to protect elections and earn the trust of most American voters, we need participation from Republicans, independents and Democrats alike. We should look to these wins at the frontlines of the fight to save free and fair elections and learn from their success for the future; the fight to preserve our democracy didn’t end on Election Day.
Days after the election, a democracyFIRST post-election report identified several common factors in these races that provide important lessons on how to build the broad, cross-partisan, coalition of voters we need to be successful heading into 2024 and beyond.
In these key contests, Republican and independent leaders came together to form a united front against election denier candidates. In Arizona, U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson (I) and Republican Maricopa County Supervisor Andy Kunasek endorsed Adrian Fontes, the Democrat who will become Arizona’s next secretary of state. In Michigan, the business friendly and Republican-leaning Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce backed Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.
Pro-democracy secretary of state candidates focused on providing a clear choice and contrast on the issue of future elections in their states. A review of the TV ads in three of the most competitive states — Arizona, Michigan and Nevada — reveals how public speeches and messaging from both the candidates and outside groups focused on framing a clear choice for voters: who do you trust to oversee our elections? A candidate who is committed to free and fair elections, or a candidate who wants to restrict your access to voting and subvert the institutions of our democracy?
This election cycle, typically overlooked and underfunded secretary of state candidates had the resources and outside support needed to win toss-up races from groups like the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, iVote and End Citizens United. In Arizona, Michigan and Nevada, the pro-democracy secretary of state candidates raised $8.9 million, compared to the $3.2 million raised by “America First” backed candidates. Across these three races, democracyFIRST PAC (a cross-partisan group dedicated to elected pro-democracy candidates to oversee our elections) raised $500,000 directly for these three campaigns and helped fund outside spending efforts.
Exit polls and a post-election survey from democracyFIRST of Arizona and Nevada voters shows that these victories resulted from Republican voters splitting their ticket, independent voters overwhelmingly throwing their support behind pro-democracy candidates and Democratic voters entirely consolidated behind their nominees. These tactics and this pro-democracy message helped build a coalition of voters across the ideological spectrum who united to elect these candidates to oversee their state’s elections. Going into Election Day, polling showed that independent voters, and even a significant share of Republican voters, were breaking for candidates who support our democratic institutions and free and fair elections. As a result, these secretary of state candidates all outperformed the candidates at the top of the ticket, including those running for Senate and governor.
By contrast, every “America First” secretary of state candidate underperformed nearly all other statewide Republicans leading the ticket. Republicans’ gamble — nominating extreme, anti-democracy candidates for positions to oversee our elections — was soundly rejected by voters. In a historically favorable political environment for Republicans, they lost these important races in swing states by nominating candidates who ran on platforms aiming to subvert democracy.
The victory for democracy in 2022 is not the end of the threats against it, but rather a temporary reprieve. As former President Donald Trump and other election deniers begin positioning themselves for 2024, the anti-democracy MAGA movement remains a dangerous political force in American politics. To save the future of American democracy, we must build on this momentum and grow the broad coalition of Republicans, Democrats and independents united in common purpose to safeguard our electoral system. The 2022 midterm elections showed us the path; now we must follow it. Nothing less than our democracy is at stake.
Jordan Wood is the executive director of democracyFIRST, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to meet the growing threat to the foundations of our democracy and to protect the integrity of our electoral process. Formerly Rep. Katie Porter’s (D-Calif.) chief of staff, Jordan now helms the pro-democracy majority in the battle for the soul of our country.