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How Trump-backed secretary of state candidates would change elections in the United States

A voter signs a ballot before placing it in the ballot box in Milwaukee. Trump-backed secretaries of state could be instrumental in overturning the popular vote in their state. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

Former president Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election are evolving into a movement that may be a more potent threat to democracy: one that places his supporters in elected roles with oversight of elections at the local and state levels. That would give him and his allies more say over who wins elections.

The ultimate win for them would be to put in place secretaries of state, who oversee how elections are conducted in most states and sign off on the results. More than any other category of elected official, secretaries of state could be instrumental in overturning the popular vote in their state — an unprecedented move in American history — or take other actions that throw results into question.

Ahead of the 2022 elections, there are a number of viable Republican candidates in states that could decide the next presidential election who question whether Trump actually lost in 2020. And they are proposing big changes to how elections are run.

The Fix talked to some of these candidates or their campaigns — in Arizona, Wisconsin, Georgia and Nevada — about what they would do to change elections in the United States if they were in charge. Top of their list includes:

Allow nearly endless audits of election results

Not a single candidate we spoke to was willing to say Biden won the 2020 election, and no one accepted the results of a recent Republican-backed audit in Arizona that, despite amateur mistakes and a number of falsehoods, wound up finding more votes for Biden. Instead, many said that any candidate should be allowed to request election reviews as many times as they want. In other words, the election results could continuously be called into question with no end in sight.

“We need a real audit,” said Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) in a statement. With Trump’s blessing, he is challenging Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger after Raffensperger refused Trump’s efforts to call the Georgia election for him. Georgia has undergone three separate audits, all of which confirmed that Biden won the state without any evidence of widespread fraud. Hice said he would go even further and appoint a special counsel to investigate the 2020 election, echoing something Trump toyed with doing at the federal level.

Biden also won Wisconsin, but Jay Schroeder, a Republican secretary of state candidate there, doesn’t believe it.

“We need to investigate to see if he won,” he said in an interview. “This is what I can’t understand: If someone wants to have an audit, and you think there is nothing there, why wouldn’t you let them do it?”

When pressed repeatedly, Schroeder eventually said that a candidate’s ability to audit their loss should end 22 months after the election, which is the current law in Wisconsin.

These pushes for audits come as bipartisan election experts warn that continuous reviews of election results don’t provide voters confidence; they erode it. There’s nothing wrong with a review of an election after the fact to figure out ways to make it run smoother, said Trey Grayson, a former Republican secretary of state in Kentucky. But you want to catch any wrong results before they’re certified. “One of the worst things you can do is certify the winner and then discover something when it is too late to do anything about it,” he said.

“There’s nothing that compares with the hanging of an election,” said Wendy Weiser, who directs the Democracy Program with the Brennan Center, in an interview last year about this.

Give partisan legislatures a lot more say in elections

Trump’s attempts to overturn his election loss centered on pressuring state lawmakers to help him. He fell short in part because legislatures set policies for how elections are run, but it’s not up to them to count votes and certify them. A number of secretary of state candidates want to change that.

In Arizona, candidate Shawnna Bolick, a current Republican state lawmaker, introduced a bill that would create an “elections oversight” committee in the Republican-led legislature with the power to reject who the secretary of state certifies.

Bolick’s primary challenger, Mark Finchem, is a leading driver of a conspiracy theory that the election was stolen in Arizona’s second-largest county, Pima County. He is a state House lawmaker and introduced a bill to let Republican lawmakers get hold of voter data there. “I expect to see criminal prosecution out of it,” he said, without citing any evidence.

In Nevada, candidate Jim Marchant said he would support changes to allow state legislatures to override the secretary of state’s certification of who won an election. “There should be oversight,” he said. Marchant unsuccessfully sued in 2020 to overturn his own loss in a congressional race.

Hice indicated in his statement that he supports something similar in Georgia.

In Wisconsin, a bipartisan election commissions oversees results, but Schroeder is campaigning to put that power back into the hands of the partisan secretary of state by asking the legislature to approve that role.

Giving state legislatures more power over certifying election results would be a drastically different way to run them — “a new era in election administration,” said Wendy Underhill, an elections expert with the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.

State legislatures house some of the most partisan politicians in America. While a secretary of state campaigns on running elections for voters of every persuasion, state lawmakers are held to no such expectation.

“It’s a great way to undermine confidence in elections,” Grayson, the former secretary of state in Kentucky, said.

“There are all sorts of reasons you need to have a check on state legislatures. Their unchecked power can get extreme,” Weiser with the Brennan Center said.

This is happening as Trump is working on beefing up state legislatures with loyalists ahead of his possible 2024 presidential run.

In Wisconsin, a state lawmaker just introduced a resolution to overturn Trump’s loss there — and Trump urged other Republicans to sign onto it. “Only one state senator needs to co-sponsor the resolution for it to be put to a vote in each chamber,” Trump said in a statement. “Which American Patriot from the State Senate will step forward?” He is also endorsing candidates for the Michigan state legislature who have questioned his election loss.

Refuse to allow changes to voting

Trump’s false election-fraud claims were underpinned by citing the changes to how people voted in 2020. Because of the pandemic, voting by mail became widespread, as did expanded early voting and drop boxes for ballots. Trump and his allies used the uncertainty that comes with a new method of voting to question the results.

A number of Republican secretary of state candidates said they would restrict voting by mail and refuse to allow any changes to voting should another coronavirus variant or natural disaster or any other unforeseen circumstance make it difficult for people to go to the polls the way they normally do.

In Arizona, Bolick, through her spokeswoman, said she would ensure “that rules are not changed at the last minute that may be in conflict with state law.”

But Grayson, who successfully got legislation approved in Kentucky allowing him to postpone an election in the case of a terrorist attack, said such flexibility is key. “When stuff happens … you need to be able to react. That’s not partisan,” he said. “That’s just good government.”

Take a president’s call about election results

Once a kind of sleepy job, election officials came under enormous pressure in 2020. Trump called Raffensperger in Georgia and urged him to “find” enough votes to declare Trump the winner. Raffensperger declined and got threatened by Trump and received death threats from Trump’s supporters.

We asked these candidates how they would handle a situation in which the president of the United States asks them to override the results they had just certified. A number indicated that they’d be open to hearing from the president.

“I would do everything in my power to ensure both sides feel confident about the election results,” Hice said in a statement.

Others insisted that there wouldn’t be any such pressure. Bolick, through her spokeswoman, said she doesn’t believe Trump tried to overturn an election. “There was a peaceful transfer of power,” she insisted.

Marchant, in Nevada, insisted that he would stand up to the pressure — despite the fact that people close to Trump urged him to run and are supporting his campaign. “I will do my job. I am going to do my job as a secretary of state to make sure that we have 100 percent fair and transparent elections, and it doesn’t matter what he says,” he said.

Grayson said that while election officials take calls from campaigns all the time, these officials need to be realistic about the sway a president will have over them. “When the president of the United States calls you in your own party, asks you to do something — you’re a human being,” he said. “That’s tough.”