By Tim Reid, Nathan Layne and Jason Lange
(Reuters) – One leading candidate seeking to become Georgia’s chief elections official, Republican Jody Hice, is a Congressman who voted to overturn Democrat Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential win in the hours after the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol. Hice had posted on social media earlier that day: “This is our 1776 moment,” referencing the American Revolution.
In Arizona, the contenders for the elections-chief office, secretary of state, include Republican state lawmaker Mark Finchem, who attended the ‘Stop the Steal’ rally before the deadly insurrection and spoke at a similar gathering the previous day. In Nevada, one strong Republican candidate for elections chief is Jim Marchant, who unsuccessfully sued to have his own defeat in a 2020 congressional race reversed based on unfounded voter-fraud claims.
The three candidates are part of a wider group of Republican secretary-of-state contenders in America’s swing states who have embraced former President Donald Trump’s false claims that he lost a “rigged” election. Their candidacies have alarmed Democrats and voting-rights groups, who fear that the politicians who tried hardest to undermine Americans’ faith in elections last year may soon be the ones running them – or deciding them, in future contested votes.
Jena Griswold, chair of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State and Colorado’s top elections official, said the secretary-of-state races reflect a much broader exploitation of phony voter-fraud claims by Republicans seeking all levels of elected office.
“That is ‘code red’ for democracy,” she said in an interview.
Secretary-of-state candidates face primary elections next spring and summer and general elections on Nov. 8, 2022, along with the midterm congressional contests.
Reuters interviewed nine of the 15 declared Republican candidates for secretary of state in five battleground states — Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada — and reviewed public statements by all of the candidates. Ten of the 15 have either declared that the 2020 election was stolen or called for their state’s results to be invalidated or further investigated.
Only two of the nine candidates Reuters interviewed said that Biden won the election.
The group of 15 includes Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state and the only incumbent Republican in the five battleground states who is seeking re-election. Raffensperger has consistently rejected Trump’s stolen-election allegations in the face of intense pressure from many fellow Republicans to overturn Biden’s win in the state.
Nearly all of the Republican contenders have stressed a need to curb mail-in voting, to limit ballot drop boxes and to take other steps to curtail ballot access. A majority said they backed a Republican push for more audits or other investigations of the 2020 vote, despite dozens of audits, recounts and court rulings that confirmed Biden’s victory.
Shawnna Bolick – an Arizona state representative and a Republican contender for state elections chief – has gone a step further. She proposed a law empowering the Arizona legislature, currently controlled by Republicans, to overrule the secretary of state’s certification of popular vote results. That call for a drastic change in how America chooses presidents comes after Trump’s unsuccessful attempt to get Republicans in states he lost to send electors for him instead of Biden to Congress. (See graphic https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-ELECTION/ELECTORAL-COLLEGE/qzjpqaeqapx/media-embed.html on how the U.S. Electoral College works.)
Bolick said she intended to make certification “more democratic” and that her bill did not allow lawmakers to pick a winner.
Boris Epshteyn, a former special assistant to Trump, said the party is focused on secretary-of-state elections. So is Trump, who has endorsed candidates in three states: Hice in Georgia; Finchem in Arizona; and Kristina Karamo, a Michigan educator he praised for parroting his false claims of winning that state.
“It’s vital they have the right ideals,” Epshteyn said of Republican secretary-of-state candidates. “That includes, first and foremost, getting to the bottom of the 2020 election as well as making sure widespread voter fraud doesn’t happen going forward.”
It’s highly unusual for a former U.S. president to endorse secretary-of-state candidates. “President Trump is proud to endorse candidates who fight for election integrity,” said Liz Harrington, a Trump spokeswoman.
Democrats and nonpartisan election experts say it appears that Trump allies – having been foiled in their attempt to reverse Biden’s victory – are now trying to make it easier to overturn future results.
Republican State Leadership Committee spokesman Andrew Romeo said his organization acknowledges that Biden beat Trump in the 2020 election but that it proudly supports candidates focused on making it “easier to vote and harder to cheat for all Americans.”
The Republican secretary-of-state candidates are part of a much larger party effort to exert more control over election administration following Trump’s false fraud claims. At least 18 Republican-led states have passed voting restrictions they say are intended to ensure election integrity. Democrats argue such measures are intended to suppress voting because Republicans fare better in low-turnout elections.
Georgia and Arizona have put greater power over elections in the hands of Republican-controlled state legislatures. In Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Arizona, Republican lawmakers are pursuing partisan audits https://www.reuters.com/world/us/pennsylvania-republicans-kick-start-2020-election-review-with-hearing-2021-09-09 of the 2020 vote. The long-delayed results of the audit in Maricopa County, Arizona – launched five months ago – are scheduled for release on Friday.
The false voter-fraud claims by Trump and his allies have inspired hundreds of threats of hanging, firing squads, bombs and other violence against election officials and their families, Reuters has reported this year. A Reuters investigation https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-election-threats-law-enforcement this month revealed that U.S. law enforcement has held almost no one accountable for the barrage of threats https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-trump-georgia-threats and intimidation of election administrators.
CAMPAIGN DONATIONS POUR IN
Secretaries of state oversee elections in most U.S. states and have significant power over how votes are cast, counted and certified. They typically approve vote tallies in individual counties and the overall presidential results.
In normal times, most voters might struggle to name their secretary of state or detail their election-oversight duties. But these once-overlooked races are drawing far more attention and money this year from both parties, according to interviews with party officials and a Reuters review of political fundraising records.
Campaign finance reports from Georgia and Michigan show donors from both parties piling aggressively into their races early in the cycle. Georgia candidates raised $1.8 million between February and June – nearly four times what was raised in the same period of 2017 ahead of the last Georgia secretary-of-state election in 2018, according to campaign finance disclosures.
In Georgia, Trump allies are eager to unseat incumbent Republican Raffensperger after he rebuffed Trump’s request to “find” just enough votes https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-trump-idUSKBN2980MG to reverse Trump’s Georgia loss.
David Becker, an election expert and former Justice Department voting-rights attorney, said Raffensperger and other secretaries of state last year formed a bulwark to protect democracy under extreme pressure from Trump and his allies. The prospect of those allies running elections, he said, “should chill all of us.”
“If one of these con artists became Secretary of State, and President Trump tried to make the call he made to Secretary Raffensperger – to someone with less integrity, who denies democracy – what happens if that person takes that call?”
This year, one prominent donor to pro-Trump secretary-of-state candidates is the Presidential Coalition, a conservative group founded by David Bossie, a former Trump deputy campaign manager who was initially tapped in November to lead Trump’s failed post-election court challenges before testing positive for COVID-19. The coalition gave Hice $7,000 in June, campaign financial disclosures show. Bossie said in an interview that the coalition is looking at backing Finchem in Arizona and other secretary-of-state candidates in Nevada, Michigan and “many other states.”
Democrats say they are just as energized to win secretary-of-state races. The party’s fundraising arm for those campaigns, chaired by Griswold, has raised $1.1 million in the first six months of 2021, according to filings with the U.S. Treasury Department. Griswold said they aim to raise at least $10 million before the election.
In Arizona, Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs is running for governor, leaving her seat an open race. She won by a single percentage point in 2018, and both parties expect another extremely close race next year.
Trump last week endorsed Finchem for Arizona secretary of state, praising his “powerful stance on the massive Voter Fraud.” The state lawmaker is now seen as a favorite in the Republican primary. Finchem declined an interview request.
In addition to promoting voter-fraud claims and calling for Arizona to decertify Biden’s win, Finchem has expressed views linked to the QAnon conspiracy theory, which casts Trump as a savior figure and elite Democrats as a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles and cannibals.
Finchem was a featured speaker at the Jan. 5 “pre-rally” in Washington, a warm-up for the bigger gathering at which Trump himself spoke. “When you steal something, that’s not really a win; that’s a fraud,” Finchem said. Addressing members of Congress, he said: “This ain’t going away.”
One of his competitors for the Republican nomination is Bolick, the lawmaker who introduced the bill to allow the legislature to revoke the secretary of state’s election certification. The bill died in committee.
In an interview, Bolick tried to draw a distinction between herself and Finchem, saying she was “not part of ‘Stop the Steal.’”
But like Finchem, Bolick signed onto a resolution in December urging Congress to award Arizona’s Electoral College votes to Trump, despite his loss to Biden by more than 10,000 votes.
In Nevada, Marchant said he expects to get Trump’s endorsement. Trump endorsed Marchant when he ran unsuccessfully last year for Congress. If elected secretary of state, Marchant said, he would seek to end all early voting and ban the use of voting machines temporarily while the devices are examined for evidence of election-rigging.
Marchant could not provide evidence of fraud in Nevada when asked for it in an interview.
In Wisconsin, businessman and secretary of state candidate Jay Schroeder is considered the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. He said in an interview that “there is lots of reasonable doubt” as to whether Biden won the election.
The secretary of state in Wisconsin, unlike most other states, does not oversee elections. Schroeder is campaigning to change that: He advocates for stripping election oversight power from the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission and giving it back to the secretary of state, which controlled elections until a decade ago.
If he gets his way, he said, he would get tough with counties that don’t follow the law: “I would call for an audit, and if the county refused that, I would not certify their results.”
GEORGIA RACES TO TEST TRUMP’S CLOUT
Georgia is shaping up to be a key 2022 battleground, with competitive Senate, governor and secretary-of-state races next year. These elections will be a major test of whether Republicans who crossed Trump can survive primaries – and whether those who backed his election-fraud falsehoods can win general elections against Democrats.
With Trump’s support, Hice is seen as the frontrunner in Georgia’s Republican nominating contest. Hice has raised $580,000 between February and June, more than doubling Raffensperger’s haul of $249,000, according to campaign finance disclosures.
Hice has been among the most strident backers of Trump’s baseless stolen-election claims. In the hours after the Jan. 6 riots, Hice was among 147 Republican members of Congress https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-lawmakers-special-report/special-report-stolen-election-republican-lawmakers-paralyzed-by-trumps-false-fraud-claims-idUSKBN2A41CP who voted against certifying Biden’s election win in at least one of two states that came up for a vote.
Hice did not respond to requests for comment on his candidacy, his voter-fraud allegations, or his “1776” social-media post on Jan. 6, which was deleted after Trump supporters breached the Capitol.
Bossie’s group supported Raffensperger in 2018 but now condemns his failure “to fight for what the overwhelming number of Republican voters in Georgia were demanding, which was ballot integrity,” Bossie said. “2020 was a total disgrace.”
Multiple recounts and audits have confirmed Biden won Georgia by about 12,000 votes. Raffensperger has repeatedly described the November election as secure and told Reuters in a recent interview that Trump’s surrogates don’t have the facts to support their allegations.
Since the vote, Raffensperger and his family have been inundated with threats of violence, causing them to go into hiding at one point and to take other precautions, including starting their car remotely to guard against bombs, the Reuters investigations revealed.
Hice’s candidacy is not without risk for Republicans. His vocal support of Trump’s false voter-fraud allegations could drive away some moderates and independents in a general election, political consultants said.
Another Republican contender in Georgia is David Belle Isle, who lost a runoff to Raffensperger in 2018 and is running again next year.
Belle Isle acknowledged he had no “smoking gun” to prove widespread fraud. But he said he believes Biden should not have been declared the winner because too few absentee ballots were rejected despite their potential for fraud.
Raffensperger, he said, “certified the wrong result.”
(Reporting by Tim Reid, Nathan Layne and Jason Lange; additional reporting by Linda So; editing by Soyoung Kim and Brian Thevenot)