After attacks on the 2020 election, secretary of state races take on new urgency
Primary challenges are a normal part of politics, but normally low-key races to be a state's chief election official are taking on a different tone after the 2020 election.
At a recent rally held by former President Donald Trump in Perry, Ga., Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., stumped for his campaign to unseat Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.
"It is my deep conviction that Brad Raffensperger has massively compromised the right of the people at the ballot box," he said. "He has opened wide the door for all sorts of irregularities and fraud to march into our election system, and it is time that we take charge of this."
Hice, who objected to Georgia's Electoral College votes after the insurrection attempt at the U.S. Capitol in January, is running on a platform that promises to "aggressively pursue voter fraud," "renew integrity" and replace the state's $100 million ballot-marking system that was rolled out just last year.
He is one of several pro-Trump Republican candidates in secretary of state races in swing states like Georgia, Arizona and Michigan who have embraced falsehoods about the systems they now want to oversee — attacking the 2020 election results and spreading misleading claims about voting machines and absentee ballots.
Many elections officials who currently run things have faced the wrath of Trump for defending last November's election — none more so than Raffensperger, who notably refused Trump's request to "find" enough votes for him to win Georgia.
Georgia's narrow margins were counted three separate times, including once by hand in a risk-limiting audit. But more than a year later, baseless claims of fraud and wrongdoing persist.
Raffensperger said his job isn't to pick "winners and losers" but to accurately report the results — and his office looked into every claim of wrongdoing and couldn't find any evidence to support them.
"Every allegation that was made, we checked it out," he said in an interview. "If someone said there was 10,000 dead people, we went back and we burned the midnight oil, we were checking it out."
Raffensperger has been a notable exception within the GOP for defending election processes and standing up to the former president's claims. But Democratic state lawmaker Bee Nguyen, who's also running for Georgia secretary of state, said there is a safer option for overseeing elections that leaves no question about integrity.
"It is not a choice between Brad [Raffensperger] and Jody [Hice]," she said. "It is electing a Democratic secretary of state like myself who will be on the side of voters, who will uphold the law and use truth and facts."
Concerns of election experts
It's not just Georgia. The battle over who gets to count the votes has taken hold in places across the country, like Arizona.
Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who's now running for governor, testified to Congress last week about threats her family faced after certifying the election.
"My son's phone number was doxed, and my husband's workplace, a children's hospital, faced calls with horrible accusations and urging that he be fired because of me," she said. "No one should have to face this kind of behavior because of their work as an election official."
GOP secretary of state hopefuls in Arizona have pushed laws limiting voting access and supported a widely discredited, partisan election review in Arizona's largest county. Other candidates in states like Nevada and Michigan are also running campaigns centered around baseless claims of fraud.
As a growing number of politicians have gained prominence by openly questioning results and processes, election observers are concerned about the impact on the 2024 presidential race.
One of them is Christine Todd Whitman, a former Republican governor of New Jersey who's now co-chair of States United Action, a bipartisan think tank aimed at supporting pro-democracy leaders.
"When you have people who spread those lies trying to get in the position of secretary of state who oversees and administers elections, you've got to be very nervous that they're going to apply that kind of bias to counting results," she said.
While these Republican secretary of state candidates say their platforms are about upholding "election integrity," Todd Whitman said what she calls these "hyper-partisan" politicians could have a more nefarious goal if allowed into office.
"Some of the most troubling pieces of legislation that have passed in various states are those that take away the oversight of the secretary of state in administering and counting ballots and putting them in the hands of the partisan legislatures," she said. "What you're seeing in these laws and the secretary of state's office elections now are Republicans trying to ensure that it's their side that wins always."
It's not immediately clear how much of an appetite primary voters will have for these types of Trumpist candidates: Some who have pushed election conspiracies are long shots, while others appear to have a chance to win.
In Georgia, voters will decide in May who will be their Republican nominee. Even if Raffensperger loses his primary, his term will not end until January, and so he would oversee the vote-counting process one final time.
Copyright 2021 Georgia Public Broadcasting