By BOB CHRISTIE and CHRISTINA A. CASSIDY
PHOENIX (AP) — The Trump-endorsed state lawmaker who won the GOP nomination for Arizona secretary of state is the latest candidate to advance to the November ballot for a post overseeing state elections while denying the results of the last one.
The early success of such candidates is raising concerns about what happens if those who lack faith in elections are put in charge of running them.
State Rep. Mark Finchem easily cleared a crowded field in Tuesday’s Arizona primary. He has embraced former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen and has promised to upend election administration in the politically pivotal state if elected.
“The focus of the election is going to be on restoring the rule of law. It’s that simple,” Finchem said in an interview Wednesday. “Right now, we have lawlessness.”
Finchem, who earned an early endorsement from Trump, was among those seeking to have the Legislature overturn Democrat Joe Biden’s win in Arizona. He joins Republican nominees for secretary of state in Alabama, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada and New Mexico and the Republican nominee for governor in Pennsylvania in supporting Trump’s false claims. In Pennsylvania, the governor appoints the secretary of state.
Election experts say candidates who dispute the results of a valid election in which there has been no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of voting systems pose a danger of interfering in future elections. They warn it could trigger chaos if they refuse to accept results they don’t like.
“They only have faith in elections when their side wins. Their definition of a secure election is only when they or their party wins,” said David Becker, a former U.S. Justice Department attorney who now leads the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research. “That is not a democracy.”
Not all such candidates this year have been successful. Most notably, Rep. Jody Hice lost his bid to oust Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in the state’s primary. Raffensperger had drawn the ire of Trump after refusing the former president’s demand in a phone call to “find” enough votes to overturn Biden’s win in the state.
Most of the seven incumbent Republican secretaries facing primary challengers this year have advanced to the November election. That includes Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab, who on Tuesday defeated a challenger who promoted election conspiracy theories.
Historically, races for secretary of state have been low-key contests overshadowed by campaigns for governor and state attorney general. But they have drawn enormous interest since the 2020 election, when voting systems and processes came under attack by Trump and his supporters.
Secretaries of state don’t make laws, but they work closely with local election officials in their states. Responsibilities vary, but they typically issue guidance on voting procedures to ensure uniformity, dole out funding to local election officials and coordinate with federal officials on election security.
Experts say a secretary of state who believes the 2020 election was stolen could seek changes to how elections are run. For instance, those who think mail voting is vulnerable to fraud could add new requirements for mail ballot requests, reduce access to drop boxes or eliminate lists of permanent absentee voters.
In Arizona, the secretary of state writes a manual with the force of law that lays out election rules. The manual must be based on state law and approved by the attorney general and governor, but has been the subject of controversy this year after the Republican attorney general sought to block a new version written by the Democratic secretary of state.
The 2019 version with some changes was allowed to remain in force instead of the new one, and Finchem vows to completely scrap that version.
“If they have the keys to the castle, so to speak, will they properly set rules, count votes and defend the will of the people?” said David Levine, a former election official who is now a fellow with the Alliance for Securing Democracy.
In Nevada, the Republican nominee, Jim Marchant, wants all voting equipment tossed out in favor of hand-marked and hand-counted paper ballots. He argues voting machines can’t be trusted and has told voters: “You haven’t elected anybody. The people that are in office have been selected. You haven’t had a choice.”
In Arizona, Finchem is part of a lawsuit seeking to compel election officials in the state to hand-count ballots cast in the November election. A federal judge is considering whether to dismiss it.
There is no evidence that voting machines have been manipulated. A coalition of federal and state election and cybersecurity officials called the 2020 presidential election “the most secure in American history” and Trump’s own attorney general has said there was no fraud that would have altered the results.
Experts say hand-counting of ballots is not only less accurate but extremely labor-intensive, potentially delaying results by weeks. They also say it’s unnecessary because voting equipment is tested before and after elections to ensure ballots are read and tallied correctly.
Besides noting election administration, Levine said there are questions about what a secretary of state who embraces conspiracy theories might do if their party’s candidate lost an election and claimed fraud.
“We need to make sure that we are putting people in these positions who put free and fair elections above partisan interest,” he said.
Finchem confirmed Wednesday that he has received a subpoena from the Justice Department seeking documents related to his activities surrounding the 2020 election. He dismissed claims that he or other candidates like him might be a danger to democracy.
“That’s hyperbolic at its best,” Finchem said. “At its worst, it’s just fear-mongering.”
Although secretaries of state are important positions, they do not have unlimited power, said Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections for Common Cause, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for expanded voter access.
“Even in states where the secretary of state has an enormous amount of power, a secretary of state cannot — by themselves — overturn a democratic election,” Albert said. “Even where these individuals may want to take actions to undermine the ability for voters to vote and have a ballot count, they are still limited by the law and checks and balances in place.”
Cassidy reported from Washington.