Once the 2020 presidential election results showed Georgia had gone from a reliable red for Republicans to a true blue win for Democrats, state Rep. Bee Nguyen thought that was the end of the campaign.
Little did the 39-year-old Atlanta Democrat know, it was the beginning of her role as one of the country's earliest "Big Lie" opponents.
Nguyen gained national notice last December at a state legislative hearing for a 12-minute takedown of then-President Donald Trump's campaign lawyers, who were seeking to overturn the Peach State's tally.
"Certainly, the alarm bells have been ringing prior to this year," she told USA TODAY.
Trump tried a more direct approach in January, when he unsuccessfully pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger during a phone call to "find" enough votes to change the outcome.
Raffensperger has since weathered a backlash from the former president and his allies, namely U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, who is spearheading a primary campaign to oust Raffensperger.
That is one reason Nguyen decided to launch her own bid for Georgia’s chief election officer.
"If we do not elect secretaries of state who are unwilling to overturn the results of elections – no matter what those results are – we are in huge trouble," she said.
In the 2022 midterms, secretaries of state contests are emerging as just as important as who controls the governor's mansion or Congress, but with more direct ramifications for overseeing future elections – including the 2024 presidential race.
It's been almost a year since President Joe Biden won the White House, yet there remains a persistent belief among many right-leaning voters that the 2020 election was “rigged” against Trump.
That, in turn, has stoked interest in secretary of state roles, which typically oversee election administration and certify the results.
And that interest is hardly isolated: USA TODAY has learned there is a more direct connection in at least four swing states, where GOP candidates whom Trump has either endorsed or previously supported are now coordinating their efforts at the behest of those in the former president's orbit.
A common thread among those candidates: They have questioned 2020 voting process, if not outright said the outcome was stolen.
At least three Trump-approved candidates met in Dallas last week to discuss election integrity – a favorite topic among Trump and his allies when they attack, without evidence, the legitimacy of the 2020 results.
For voters, the effort among the Trump faction to corner the secretary of state positions means more pressure to understand down-ballot races beyond congressional and gubernatorial races or risk voting in officials who could later invalidate citizens' ballots.
Democrats, as well, will face more pressure to hone their messaging, reinforcing the legitimacy of past results as well as ringing the alarm about what's at stake in the future.
Many progressives contend the focus on these state-level roles is part of a larger strategy to undermine or steal the 2024 presidential contest, while others fret it could lead to more violent insurrections like the one seen at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
The Big Lie persists
"I will tell you that I do not believe that Joe Biden was legitimately elected," Boris Epshteyn, a former special assistant to Trump, said in an interview.
"I think this election was stolen. I think President Trump did win the election."
Polling this year has shown the belief that the 2020 election was corrupted by fraud is growing, and not just among the GOP.
A Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll in May found 56% of Republicans agreed that last year's presidential race was won by illegal votes. Roughly 25% of all respondents held the same belief.
CNN released a survey last month that found 78% of Republicans now believe Biden did not “legitimately” win enough votes. It showed 36% of Americans saying he did not win.
Misgivings about the election have fueled more than a dozen GOP-controlled state legislatures to pass stricter election rules in the months since.
But they also have fertilized Republican primaries in next year’s midterm elections for a crop of secretary of state candidates in crucial battleground states who are wedded to Trump's lies about the election.
At least two-thirds of the 15 declared contenders seeking to be the Republican nominee for secretary of state in five crucial battlegrounds — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin — have either said the 2020 election was stolen or cast doubt on the results, according to a Reuters investigation.
'America First' secretaries in 2022
In Arizona, Nevada, Georgia and Michigan, Republican secretary of state candidates are in regular communication and have formed a coalition backed by Trump allies to win in 2022, USA TODAY has learned.
Those four states total 49 electoral votes among them, and would have changed the 2020 outcome had they all gone for Trump.
"We're trying to get America First secretaries of state elected throughout the country… we're concentrating in the swing states," said Nevada Republican secretary of state candidate Jim Marchant.
Voters typically struggle to name who is on the ballot for secretary of state in their backyard, but the country’s ongoing debate about election integrity and voting rights has changed much of that ahead of the midterms.
Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the Crystal Ball, a political analysis newsletter at the University of Virginia, said these races are now part of the national conversation as much as elections for Congress or governor.
"Election administration in general has become a bigger topic because of Donald Trump's frankly irresponsible claims about the integrity of the election, but also Democrats and others defending themselves against those claims," he said.
Marchant, the Nevada Republican, told USA TODAY the idea for coordination came from within Trump's circle.
"When when (the Trump people) asked me to run for secretary of state, they asked me to put together this coalition," he said. "It's something that would help us fundraise… and then adopt certain policies that we all want to see in secretary of state offices."
The group supports voter ID laws and "aggressive" poll watchers, he said, who can more closely monitor election counts at the local level.
Marchant, whom Trump previously endorsed for Congress, filed a suit last year claiming voter fraud in his roughly 16,100-vote loss to Rep. Steve Horsford, D-Nev.
The case was dismissed by a Clark County judge.
Marchant declined to name which Trump allies helped herd the candidates into their coalition, but indicated they were "people that are pretty, pretty influential," including individuals who speak to the former president directly.
Common threads among Trump's picks
Trump spokeswoman Liz Harrington did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the former president's involvement with the coalition, but Trump's picks have voiced skepticism about the voting process — or the results.
I received some encouragement in the mail! I am honored to have the endorsement of President Trump.
Georgians deserve a Sec of State who will renew integrity, hold the Fulton County Election Board accountable, and pursue those who commit fraud. pic.twitter.com/Ku9ObIZ8IQ
— Jody Hice (@JodyHice) June 21, 2021
Hice, the Georgia congressman, was a leading voice in peddling false claims about Georgia's election system, including tweeting out that voting machines changed votes from Trump to Biden.
In March, the former president endorsed Hice.
Republican state Rep. Mark Finchem, who is running to oversee Arizona's election process, has maintained the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. He also attended the Jan. 6 "Stop the Steal" rally, which exploded into a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Trump knighted the 68-year-old Republican with his support in September, saying, “Mark was willing to say what few others had the courage to say.”
Finchem declined a request for comment.
Thank you, President Trump for your endorsement. You are leading the way on restoring election integrity. I am truly honored to be recognized for the hard work I put in and will continue to do to restore the integrity of our elections. https://t.co/PZa727r60E
— Mark Finchem for AZ Secretary of State (@RealMarkFinchem) September 13, 2021
Michigan educator Kristina Karamo is an outspoken political activist, who gained popularity among right-leaning voters after she alleged she witnessed two instances of illegal voting in Detroit last year. She received the coveted Trump nod last month.
"I would say my goal is to ensure that the election results are 100% the result of legal activities, and that legal votes are not nullified by illegal ballots," she said.
Michigan's certified election results show Biden won the state by 154,188 votes, and an investigation led by Republican state lawmakers found no basis of widespread fraud in the 2020 election.
In a statement, Trump promoted Karamo as one of the speakers at an Oct. 12 rally scheduled to take place outside the state capitol, "where Patriots will demand a Forensic Audit of the 2020 Presidential Election Scam."
Karamo declined to say when asked three times by USA TODAY whether she believes enough voter fraud existed in the 2020 election to have changed the outcome, however.
"The goal is citizen oversight, so whether or not the fraud that existed change the outcome or not, that's a secondary point," she said. "The primary point is it shouldn't exist at all in the state."
President Donald J. Trump announces his endorsement of Kristina Karamo for Secretary of State of Michigan pic.twitter.com/pn7NPYZoAE
— Liz Harrington (@realLizUSA) September 7, 2021
In March, Marchant told the Associated Press he believed the 2020 election was "stolen" from Trump. The former Nevada assemblymen said he wouldn't say "stolen" now, but asserted there are "enough anomalies" to justify an audit of all 50 states.
"The way I look at it, if Joe Biden won, so be it, God bless him," Marchant told USA TODAY. "If there's enough doubt right now, for me anyway, to doubt the election, I don't know why the other side will not let us do an audit. I mean, if they're certain about their win why are they blocking us so vehemently?"
Gathering in Dallas
Marchant, Karamo and Finchem trekked to Dallas last week as part of an election integrity summit where the candidates discussed, among other policy ideas, advocating for traceable ballots to be used in future elections.
A spokeswoman in Hice's office said the congressman did not attend.
The trio visited Authentix, a Dallas-based anti-counterfeiting company that has offices in Saudi Arabia, Ghana, Singapore and the U.K., according to its website.
In an Oct. 6 tweet, Finchem and other Arizona state officials stood outside Authenix's offices saying they were interested in "establishing a ballot audit trail and use of currency grade fraud countermeasures on all future ballots."
Rep. Mark Finchem, Rep. Leo Biasiucci and Cochise County Recorder David Stevens at the Ballot Integrity Summit in Dallas TX to write the process map for establishing a ballot audit trail and use of currency grade fraud countermeasures on all future balllots. pic.twitter.com/QJJCGYZmlX
— Mark Finchem for AZ Secretary of State (@RealMarkFinchem) October 6, 2021
Trump is tacitly keeping an eye on another run for president and flirts with the idea by holding rallies in states such as Iowa. But aides have discouraged Trump from announcing another White House bid before the midterms, according to The Washington Post.
What's clear is that Trump and his allies understand the importance of having friendlier ears in the offices that oversee elections.
"If we have honest people like Mark Finchem and Jody Hice, who are the secretaries of state, you can rest easy and believe that they will do the right thing, they will do it by the law and will do it by the Constitution," Epshteyn, the former Trump aide, said.
"That's what we need in this country," he added. "Those who follow the rules and procedures, and do not try to rig the election for their party, which is what Democrats have been doing for way too long."
Dems fret 2024 steal — or worse
In 36 states, secretaries of state are elected by the voters and hold varying degrees of power.They mostly are responsible for maintaining registration rolls and statewide voter databases, and certifying election results.
In some states, such as Hawaii and Alaska, there is no secretary of state at all. Others appoint the positions, while some give the responsibility to the lieutenant governor or a state board of elections.
But anxiety over the country’s elections has defined 2021, which has been dominated by coverage of GOP-controlled legislatures enacting more restrictive voting laws and congressional Democrats looking to counter those changes with new federal rules.
And Republican state legislators have tinkered with the administrative side of elections by changing secretary of state powers in the past year.
A report by the Voting Rights Lab found that 17 state legislatures have introduced bills that would allow them or other partisan officials to "exert greater control over the conduct of elections."
Sarah Walker, executive director of Secure Democracy, a nonprofit group that works to improve election integrity, said that is alarming in the context of 2020, where secretaries of state, including some Republicans, were a bulwark against partisan pressure from Trump and his allies.
"If (Brad Raffensperger) loses in Georgia, it could send a chilling message through the GOP that if you are to uphold democratic norms, that you could be ousted by your own party," she said.
Walker said voting rights advocates fear conspiracy theorists are in the driver's seat among far-right groups ahead of 2022, which could result in abuses of power.
In Arizona, for instance, a six-month long election audit led by Republican legislators reaffirmed Biden won the state's largest county by more votes than originally counted.
Yet the Grand Canyon State's GOP-controlled legislature enacted a law that prohibits the secretary of state from representing the state on lawsuits dealing with elections.
Another proposal would allow the Arizona legislature to revoke the secretary of state's certification and permit the legislature to select its own slate of presidential electors.
A heavier burden on voters
Walker said the last two years have exposed critical weaknesses in the norms of U.S. election administration.
"Rather than restoring our system of checks and balances, and strengthening accountability and transparency, what this is going to do is drive more disinformation and undermine voter trust," she said.
Democrats are hoping to combat election misinformation early by increasing their fundraising reach into the 26 states that are holding elections for secretary of state.
The Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, the political arm for incumbents and candidates, reported raising $1.1 million in June.
Officials with the group said their hope is to double that amount by the end of this year. The association has a $10 million goal during the entire cycle.
Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson of Michigan, who is seeking reelection in 2022, said there's an undeniable effort by Republicans to chew away at the credibility of future elections by attacking administrative officials such as herself.
"Part of that strategy is the attempt at putting people in places of authority who if called upon may utilize the office and the power that comes with it to stand in the way of the voters' voices," Benson said.
Democrats' messages about the stakes of 2022
Last December, Benson faced dozens of protesters, some armed, who swarmed her house shouting through megaphones against the certification of the election and demanding a forensic audit.
At the outset, she said, Democrats across the country must have a message that repeats the truth about the 2020 outcome but that also raises a "code red" about what's at stake.
"I really welcome the additional attention on secretary of state races this year," she said. "The big question to me, however, is what are voters going to do?"
Others who are running to stop Trump-aligned candidates from seizing these election administration seats say there's a bigger threat.
Besides undercutting voter’s faith in the democratic process, there are concerns that the political violence such as Jan. 6 will become a regular part of America’s future elections.
The individuals gathered outside my home targeted me as Michigan’s Chief Election officer. But their threats were actually aimed at the 5.5million Michigan citizens who voted in this fall’s election, seeking to overturn their will. They will not succeed in doing so. My statement: pic.twitter.com/RSUnPSN4Aa
— Jocelyn Benson (@JocelynBenson) December 7, 2020
Federal prosecutors have charged more than 600 Americans in more than 40 states with participating in the Jan. 6 riot, and arrests continue almost daily.
There have also been reports about dozens of death threats aimed at election officials fueled largely by the "big lie" but with little accountability from law enforcement.
“The writing is on the wall. This is a point of inflection for our country,” said Nguyen, the Georgia Democrat, who has received threats against her life. “The decisions that we make now, they are going to determine the future of our democracy indefinitely, and I don't know how many chances we are going to have.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Secretary of state races emerge as new 'big lie' battleground in 2022
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