“Democracy is on the ballot” has become an increasingly common refrain in U.S. elections. The assertion has been justified by Donald Trump’s rejection of an unambiguous commitment to accepting the outcome of a free and fair election, whether it brings victory or defeat. This November, the refrain will be especially true, and for the first time, pivotally, in a midterm election: Who gets elected to critical statewide offices (principally, governor and secretary of state, but also to some obscure lower-level offices) could well determine whether it will even be possible to have free and fair elections in 2024.
The challenge was demonstrated most recently in the Nevada Republican primary on June 14, when Jim Marchant, a militant denier of the legitimacy of the 2020 election, won the Republican nomination to be Nevada’s secretary of state. Incredibly, Marchant alleged there hadn’t been a legitimate election in Nevada since 2006 (even though Republicans have held the governorship continuously since then). Yet he had no problem embracing his own electoral victory, despite winning with less than 40 percent of the vote. Without the slightest evidence, Marchant has claimed Nevada’s election system is riddled with fraud, and has declared that his “number one priority” will be to overhaul state elections with supposed anti-fraud measures, to include an end to mail-in voting and vote-counting machines.
Alarmingly, this kind of reflexive rejection of electoral neutrality and integrity is becoming increasingly common among Republican candidates who, if they win in November, would be positioned to influence the administration and certification of elections in key swing states.
The problem is not with Republicans in general. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who famously refused to magically “find” some eleven thousand additional votes for Trump in 2020 and instead certified a Joe Biden victory, won renomination in May against a Trump endorsee, as did Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, who also refused to go along with Trump’s campaign of election rejection and subversion. Similarly, Nevada’s Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske (who is term limited) defended the integrity of the state’s 2020 presidential vote (which Biden won by 2.4 percentage points). Immediately after the January 6 assault on the Capitol, she issued a courageous statement defending the integrity of Nevada’s election. Three months later she was censured by the Nevada Republican Party.
Unfortunately, however, many of the Republicans winning nominations this year for governor, secretary of state, and other key state offices are much more in the mold of Marchant than Cegavske. Recently, the Washington Post counted 108 Republican primary winners for statewide office or Congress “who say the 2020 election was rigged.” That represents a majority of the 170 races analyzed one-third of the way through the primary season (and it jumps to 149 winning candidates—88 percent of the total races through June 14—if one includes those who campaigned on a platform of tightening voting rules or practices).
The most dramatic victory for pro-Trump election denialism has come in Pennsylvania, where far-right state Senator Doug Mastriano—who made rejection of Biden’s 2020 election victory in Pennsylvania (and also of Covid mitigation policies) the centerpiece of his primary campaign—won the Republican gubernatorial nomination with 44 percent of the vote (more than double his nearest rival). His victory is ominous for three reasons. First, Mastriano is a particularly extreme election denier. He protested outside the Capitol on January 6; his campaign paid to bus Pennsylvanians to the protest rally that day; and he has vowed to make everyone in the state re-register to vote before 2024 (a tactic biased against lower-income voters, who are disproportionately Democratic). Second, in Pennsylvania the governor appoints the secretary of state and thus has unusual sway over elections. And third, Pennsylvania is the swing state with the largest number of electoral votes.
Several of the other crucial swing states have still to hold their primary elections. On August 2 Republicans and Democrats in Arizona and Michigan will nominate their local and statewide candidates. On August 9, Wisconsin will do the same. A Trump-endorsed candidate is running for secretary of state in both Arizona and Michigan, and a Trump endorsee running for governor in Arizona and Wisconsin. Each of these candidates have publicly embraced Trump’s claims of a stolen election and have made various promises to turn election administration into a partisan affair. Mark Finchem, the Trump endorsee for Arizona’s secretary of state, was present at the Capital on January 6 and claimed he was there to deliver “evidence” to Vice President Mike Pence to postpone the certification of the election results. Tim Michels, Trump’s pick for governor in Wisconsin, has issued a plan calling for the termination of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, the repeal of all of its guidance to local election clerks, and the firing of all senior staff. Election to these offices would provide these candidates with powerful tools to tilt the outcome of future elections.
Where Power Lies
Given the decentralized nature of election administration in the United States, each state manages the process slightly differently. The most vulnerable point of the process to partisan takeover is the same, however, in every state: certification of the election. In Arizona and Georgia, the elected secretary of state certifies the election and then the governor finalizes certification. In Pennsylvania, the secretary of state, who similarly certifies the election, is appointed by the governor rather than elected.
Michigan and Wisconsin both delegate the power to certify elections to bipartisan election commissions. (The Wisconsin Elections Commission also supervises voter registration and balloting, whereas in Michigan this task is performed by the secretary of state.) In Michigan, the State Board of Canvassers is composed of two Democrats and two Republicans, nominated by their parties and appointed by the governor to four-year terms. Certification requires the votes of three members, so as to ensure support from at least one member of each political party. In Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Elections Commission (which supervises all aspects of election administration statewide) is made up of six members, two of whom are appointed by the governor, and one each by the president of the state’s Senate, senate minority leader, speaker of the Assembly, and Assembly minority leader. There are currently three Republicans and three Democrats on the commission. Following Biden’s win in the state, prominent Wisconsin Republicans, including the leading Republican candidates for governor, have suggested that the commission be abolished and the power of certification vested in a partisan actor (or set of actors). Democratic Governor Tony Evers’ veto powers have thus far prevented this suggestion from being actualized—but he is up for re-election this year.
State by State
The prospects for partisan takeover of election administration are highest in both Arizona and Wisconsin.
In Arizona, both the elections for secretary of state and governor are open races. Trump has endorsed State Representative Finchem for secretary of state and former local news anchor Kari Lake for governor. Both continue to call for the decertification of Arizona’s 2020 election results, while Lake has publicly stated that she would not have certified Biden’s victory if she had been governor at the time. Polls show Lake leading her principal Republican rival, businesswomen Karrin Taylor Robson, who has also publicly stated that she does not believe the 2020 election was “fair.” If Lake is able to win the primary, current polling suggests she would run a very close race against the likely Democratic nominee, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs. Finchem is also currently leading the second-place Republican candidate in his race. If either or both Finchem and Lake succeed in winning their respective offices, they would be in a position to ensure that the Republican candidate “wins” the 2024 presidential election in Arizona, one way or another.
In Wisconsin, five Republicans are vying in the August 9 primary for the chance to face Governor Evers in the general election. The early frontrunner was Rebecca Kleefisch, who served as lieutenant governor under Scott Walker for eight years. Kleefisch initially stated that Biden won Wisconsin, but in recent months she has escalated her criticism of the presidential election, calling it a “rigged” contest. Despite her attempts to curry favor with Trump-aligned Republicans by shifting her views on the issue, Trump chose rather to endorse construction executive Michels. Regardless of whether Kleefisch or Michels (who are now in a virtual tie) wins the primary, a Republican victory in the general election would likely lead to partisan takeover of election administration in the state. Current projections slightly favor Governor Evers, who has been crucial in vetoing anti-voter legislation from the Republican-controlled legislature. If he loses re-election, the legislature would likely act on proposals to dissolve the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission and vest singular—and discretionary—authority to determine elections with the elected secretary of state, governor, or even the legislature itself.
The prospect for partisan takeover of election administration in Georgia significantly decreased after last month’s primary, when both Raffensperger and Kemp defeated their Trump-endorsed opponents. In both Michigan and Pennsylvania, this prospect also appears less acute. In Michigan, Democratic incumbents Jocelyn Benson and Gretchen Whitmer are seeking re-election as secretary of state and governor, respectively. On April 23, the Michigan Republican Party selected Trump-endorsed candidate Kristina Karamo (an extreme election denier) to face Benson in the secretary of state race. However, recent polling shows Benson leading Karamo by 9 percentage points. Whitmer will face one of the many Republicans that have filed to run against her in the August 2 primary, but early projections have the race tilting Democratic. Trump has yet to make an endorsement in this race. In Pennsylvania, Trump endorsee Mastriano did win the Republican primary for governor, but he will need to best Attorney General Josh Shapiro in November to claim the seat. In the first poll since the primary, Shapiro leads Mastriano by 4 percentage points, but that is within the margin of error.
Democracy IS on the Ballot
This November, candidates who are promising to profoundly change the way elections are administered and certified are running for statewide offices in the most important swing states across the nation. If they are successful, they would have the power to manipulate or even blatantly negate the outcome of an election. If they are successful in enough swing states (and it might only take three or four), they could make it impossible for the Democratic candidate to win the presidency, irrespective of the electoral outcome in these states.
Not just the health but the continued existence of our democracy—our tradition of free and fair elections—is on the ballot in this year’s midterm elections. It is absolutely crucial that Americans turn out to vote for those (of either party) who will respect and protect the integrity of our elections.
Larry Diamond, an editorial board member of American Purpose, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and Mosbacher Senior Fellow in Global Democracy at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
Lindsay Newfeld is a researcher and recent graduate from Stanford University.
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