The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Imagine 2020 in Georgia with an election-denier in charge. That could happen in 2024.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger speaks during a news conference on Nov. 11 in Atlanta.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger speaks during a news conference on Nov. 11 in Atlanta. (Brynn Anderson/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

IMAGINE HOW the 2020 election might have gone if, instead of principled Republican Brad Raffensperger running Georgia’s voting system, a pro-Trump conspiracy theorist had been the state’s secretary of state, receiving calls from former president Donald Trump asking to find enough votes to overturn the results. Or if, as Mr. Trump pressured Michigan’s canvassers to refuse to certify President Biden’s win in that state, that state’s chief elections officer had helped drum up rather than tamp down the former president’s bogus fraud allegations.

These what-ifs might become the nation’s reality in 2024, with Republican election-deniers running for secretary of state in several swing states.

Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) is gunning to replace Mr. Raffensperger in Georgia, and he already has Mr. Trump’s endorsement. Mr. Hice led House Republicans in voting against counting electoral votes from swing states that preferred Mr. Biden. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed a letter Mr. Hice sent to Georgia conservatives claiming that the 2020 vote was rife with “systemic voting irregularities and fraud” and that the “back-stabbing” Mr. Raffensperger worked “arm and arm with Stacey Abrams to deliver the presidency and Senate to the radical left.” These are absurd lies; extensive investigation showed no fraud, and Mr. Raffensperger is a stern conservative who wanted Republicans to win — but simply refused to fix the system on behalf of Mr. Trump.

Mr. Hice is hardly the only threat to democracy. Politico points to candidates in Arizona, Nevada and Michigan running to take over the secretary of state’s office in each key swing state. In Arizona, state Rep. Mark Finchem (R) has been a leading advocate for the shambolic vote “audit” that state Republicans are conducting, a conspiracy-fueled mess that has drawn high interest from Mr. Trump and his most dogged supporters, and he has appeared on QAnon-associated programs to promote Trump election lies. Meanwhile, former GOP congressional candidate Jim Marchant, who pushed to have his clear-cut 2020 loss thrown out in court, is running in Nevada, and Kristina Karamo, a supposed election “whistleblower,” is campaigning in Michigan.

Then there’s the turnover that may occur among election officials below the secretary of state level. Michigan Republicans unceremoniously dumped the state canvasser who dared to follow the law and certify Mr. Biden’s victory there.

Republicans of conscience must reject these extremists. Yet polls show that alarming numbers of GOP voters believe their lies. If a Jody Hice or a Mark Finchem were to win, it would become all the more important for other elected officials to defend democracy. In many places, the nuts-and-bolts election administration and vote-counting occur at the county level; local officials would have to resist undue intrusion.

These candidacies also underline the need to reform the office of state secretary of state. Empowering partisan elected officials to run voting systems is an unusual and questionable practice; at the least, states should consider barring them from seeking higher office, imposing stricter ethics rules or creating accreditation processes for top elections officials.

It is seductive to imagine that the danger to U.S. democracy passed with Mr. Trump’s departure. In fact, it may have only begun.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this editorial: Virtuous people will be needed to lead us from the morass

Greg Sargent: An anti-Trump Republican’s agonizing travails point to real trouble ahead

The Post’s View: Trump’s continuing obsession makes Georgia ground zero in the voting wars

Alexandra Petri: AITA: A confused older man called asking me to ‘find more votes’ for him but I refused

The Post’s View: The Jan. 6 commission should make it harder for Republicans to twist the truth

Fernanda Santos: How cynical is the Republican election recount circus in Arizona? This cynical.