The midterms race the world should be watching

Republican election deniers are running for positions to oversee future elections in Arizona. If they win, they could upend electoral democracy in the US, reports Richard Hall and Alex Woodward.

Tuesday 08 November 2022 21:00 GMT
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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


As night fell on election day 2020, a crowd of angry pro-Trump protesters gathered outside of an election office in Phoenix, Arizona, while poll workers inside were busy counting votes. Some in the crowd were armed with assault rifles. The conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was cheered as he arrived to stoke the flames. All of them appeared to believe, without a shred of evidence, that the election was being stolen from them.

Joe Biden would ultimately go on to win the state of Arizona in a closely fought race, and despite several investigations, no evidence of any foul play was discovered.

Two years on from that night, the state has remained at the centre of conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and a focal point for so-called “election deniers” — that is, people who refuse to accept the results of elections that they lose. The state also has the dubious honour of being one of the top states for threats against election workers.

Many of those election deniers are now running as the Republican nominees for positions that are responsible for oversight of future elections. Had they been in place in 2020, they might have been able to overturn the will of Arizona’s electorate and throw the election into chaos. In 2024, they may get another chance.

“I believe we have every reason to be extremely concerned about Arizona,” Lawrence Douglas, an election law expert at Amherst College, told The Independent this week.

“Holding the line against Trump in 2020 were election officials, many of them Republicans, who were prepared to defend the system against the pressures of Trump and his denialists. What we see now in states such as Arizona is an attempt to oust these officials of integrity,” he said.

Among the Republican nominees running for the three crucial statewide offices are gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem, and attorney general candidate Abraham Hamadeh – all of whom baselessly stated that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump, and all of whom received the former president’s endorsement.

Speaking recently, Ms Lake refused to say that she would accept the result of an election in which she loses — using the same language and denials as former president Donald Trump before he refused to accept the results of the 2020 election.

“I’m going to win the election, and I will accept that result,” she said in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Ms Lake was asked again by host Dana Bash: “If you lose, will you accept that?” To which she responded by repeating the same phrase: “I’m going to win the election, and I will accept that result.”

On Election Day, voting machines in Maricopa County, the most populous in the state, reported malfunctions, which could delay reporting of vote totals after polls close.

If Ms Lake, a former television news anchor, wins her race to become Arizona’s governor in November, she would have the power to block or approve legislation that changes how elections are run.

Throughout her campaign, she has promoted baseless claims about election fraud in 2020 and called for the imprisonment of the state’s current Democratic secretary of state, Katie Hobbs. She also has pledged – if elected – to direct the state attorney general to open a criminal investigation into the election, including seizing “all election material, all election equipment, and he should start questioning people immediately.”

Current Arizona state Rep Mark Finchem, now running for secretary of state, filed legislation to decertify the state’s 2020 election results, baselessly asserting that “illegal acts occurred” and that the outcome is “irredeemably compromised, and it is impossible to name a clear winner of the contest.” He also attended the Stop the Steal rally that preceded the attack on the US Capitol on 6 January, 2021.

The result, if repeated in just a couple of other swing states, could introduce unspeakable chaos into the 2024 presidential election and mark the collapse of electoral democracy in the US

Lawrence Douglas, election law expert

As secretary of state, Mr Finchem would be Arizona’s senior-most election official. He’d be in charge of maintaining voter rolls, certifying the results and shaping how local elections are run, from auditing results to managing voting machines and materials.

At the former president’s first campaign-style rally of 2022 in Arizona, Mr Finchem said his campaign is part of a “nationwide populist movement to regain control over our government”.

“We know it and they know it – Donald Trump won,” he said.

Arizona Republicans, right-wing operatives and little-known accounting firms have spent months – and millions of dollars – studying the outcome of the state’s election results. They have repeatedly affirmed Mr Biden’s win.

Abraham Hamadeh has also vowed to use the attorney general’s office to “prosecute crimes of the rigged 2020 election.”

"Arizona right now needs a warrior as attorney general. I will fight to secure our elections so when Donald Trump runs again and wins in 2024 everyone will know it’s legitimate,” he said at a July rally attended by Mr Trump.

An election denier in any one of those positions could make significant changes to election rules. If Republican candidates win, the changes could be radical. They could alter rules for certifying statewide elections, introduce limitations on access to voting and remove ballot drop boxes, all to favour their preferred candidate. In Arizona, a swing state that Mr Biden won by just 12,000 votes, that could have dramatic implications for the whole country in 2024.

Should all three candidates win in the midterms, election law expert Professor Douglas told The Independent, “Arizona would have Trump loyalists in all the key positions tasked with certifying the state outcome of the presidential contest” in 2024.

“They could effectively and corruptly refuse to certify Biden as having carried their state. The result, if repeated in just a couple of other swing states, could introduce unspeakable chaos into the 2024 presidential election and mark the collapse of electoral democracy in the US,” he speculated.

The problem of election deniers running for positions overseeing elections is not just limited to Arizona. Democracy advocacy group States United Action, which has closely tracked the progress of election-denying candidates across the US, finds that 18 of 26 races for governor this year include at least one candidate who has cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 election. One-third of all races for attorney general include at least one such candidate, and 12 out of 27 races for secretary of state include candidates who have refused to accept the outcome of that election.

The latest States United Action report follows recent analysis from pro-democracy groups finding that GOP-controlled state legislatures introduced at least 244 bills to undermine the electoral process and hand oversight of elections to partisan officials.

Twenty-four such bills became law within the last year.

Election 2022 Arizona Election Deniers
Election 2022 Arizona Election Deniers (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

That state-level effort “would make it far easier for hyperpartisan actors to stir up the doubt, chaos, and confusion that could be used as a pretext for election subversion,” according to the report.

Arizona and Wisconsin, which have a combined four election-denying candidates running for statewide office on their respective ballots, have led the country with more than 30 election-related bills each.

But election conspiracy theorists are not just seeking office in Arizona. The state has been identified by the Department of Justice and the FBI as one of the top states for threats to election officials and poll workers, according to Axios.

Just as armed protesters gathered outside of election offices on election night 2020, poll workers and even voters have faced threats for their work administering elections.

This week, a voter who tried to use a ballot drop box was “approached and followed” by a group of people, according to a complaint filed by the Arizona secretary of state’s office. An Iowa man was recently arrested for threatening to hang a Maricopa County election official for “lying” about the 2020 election result. In July, another man was arrested for threatening to detonate a bomb in Secretary of State Katie Hobbs’ "personal space" if she did not resign.

The FBI has reviewed more than 1,000 threats against people involved with elections nationwide and found that 58 per cent of them were made in states where so-called “audits” or recounts of the 2020 election results took place, such as Arizona, Colorado and Pennsylvania, per Axios.

In the aftermath of the 2020 election, Arizona became a hotbed of conspiracy theories and election denialism, from a bogus “audit” of 2020 ballots to the campaign for a US Senate seat.

Arizona was the subject of one of the most high-profile audits in the country, carried out by an obscure cybersecurity firm called Cyber Ninjas. The firm, based out of Sarasota, Florida, carried out an unprecedented review of ballots in Maricopa County, Arizona. After months of controversy over its methods and its motives, the company ultimately declared Mr Biden the legitimate winner in the county. In fact, it actually found more votes for Mr Biden than the original count, according to the New York Times.

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