In many states, the secretary of state is the chief elections official. It’s a crucial job, but not one that many Americans pay much attention to.
But it’s time to start. Election-denying secretaries of state could win elections in key presidential battlegrounds such as Arizona, Michigan and Nevada and be in office in time for a Donald Trump 2024 presidential run. So what could that mean?
A secretary of state can’t single-handedly change an election’s results. “It’s really hard to rig an election in America, because it’s so decentralized,” said Meredith McGehee, the former head of a nonpartisan government transparency advocacy group, Issue One.
But there are ways rogue secretaries of state could use their powers to throw a wrench in elections. Here are the actions election experts worry about:
1. Making it harder to vote
A secretary of state plays a major role in deciding how elections are run. In Arizona, for example, the secretary of state takes a leading role in putting together the state’s election manual for local officials to follow.
That person can change procedures for how votes are counted, such as by tightening restrictions on when mail-in ballots can arrive or what signatures are accepted. Some candidates told me they wouldn’t allow mail voting in the case of a natural disaster or pandemic, for example.
2. Allowing for endless audits of results
Secretaries of state could allow for endless audits and recounts of election results. There’s nothing wrong with checking results if there’s a dispute, said Trey Grayson, a Republican former secretary of state in Kentucky.
He and other election experts stress that endless audits don’t instill confidence in the democratic process; instead they allow bad actors to try to raise endless questions.
3. Refusing to sign off on election results
The most prominent job of a secretary of state is to sign off on election results when the election is over.
But if the secretary of state is an election denier, “that puts us in a different scenario and is quite worrisome,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, the head of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights Program.
Such a refusal could derail an entire state’s election — though there are backstops to prevent this: Other election officials, such as that state’s governor, or the courts, could step in and force rogue secretaries to sign off on results or lose their jobs. (Though what happens in a state such as Arizona, where election deniers could win the governor’s race and the race for secretary of state? It could get quite dangerous.)
4. Sowing distrust in results
Even if they don’t go the most dramatic route, election-denying secretaries of state could publicly question election results, helping erode voter confidence and giving election deniers across the nation an air of authority.
Who are the election-denying candidates who could win?
Kristina Karamo in Michigan
She is one of the loudest provocateurs spreading false election-fraud claims. In 2020, she watched poll workers tally ballots in Detroit and baselessly alleged that voting machines were rigged — accusations ultimately rejected by courts. “We need to lawfully remove these traitors,” she’s said of Republicans who stood by the 2020 election results. In November, she will try to unseat Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D), who played a national role in pushing back against GOP attempts to overthrow results.
Mark Finchem in Arizona
After the 2020 election, Finchem argued for throwing out the results of Arizona’s most populous county, despite the fact that a Republican-led audit ultimately found more votes for Joe Biden. The position of secretary of state is currently open. Finchem is up against Democrat Adrian Fontes, a former Maricopa County official.
Jim Marchant in Nevada
He ran for Congress in 2020, lost and sued to try to overturn his result. He was unsuccessful, but he did catch the attention of Trump. The current secretary of state in Nevada is Republican Barbara Cegavske, who has defended the state’s 2020 elections but is term-limited. Marchant will face Democrat Cisco Aguilar in November.
Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania
In Pennsylvania, the governor appoints a secretary of state. And this spring, Republicans nominated an election-denying candidate for governor, Mastriano, who was at the Jan. 6 rally and outside the Capitol the day of the 2021 attack. “I get to appoint the secretary of state,” he has said, adding, “I could decertify every machine in the state … with the stroke of a pen.”
What to make of all this
Experts I talked to say they don’t think one bad actor can thwart legitimate election results, especially if there is sustained attention on the issue. In 2020, two local Republican election officials in Detroit backed off rejecting Biden’s win after public pressure.
“I’m hopeful that our institutions will continue to hold,” said Tammy Patrick, a former elections officer for Arizona’s Maricopa County, “but the strength of all of our institutions is only as strong as the individuals who are put in those roles and the response they are given.”