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Election deniers, doubters seeking to control elections in several Western states
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Election deniers, doubters seeking to control elections in several Western states

From the Election 2022: Complete local coverage series
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Rep. Liz Cheney touched on what she called a “key lesson” from the Capitol attack investigation in her opening statement for the Jan. 6 Select Committee’s last hearing.

Cheney asked why Americans would assume the Constitution and institutions — U.S. democracy in general — would be invulnerable and not falter if assaulted again.

“Our institutions only hold when men and women of good faith make them hold, regardless of the political cost,” Cheney, R-Wyoming, said Friday. “We have no guarantee that these men and women will be in place next time.”

Rep. Liz Cheney: Lost primary

Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the most ardent Republican critic of Donald Trump in Congress, lost to Trump-backed attorney Harriet Hageman. Cheney vowed to carry on her fight against the former president and the election-denying movement he leads. “This primary election is over,” Cheney said in her speech. “But now the real work begins.”

A month before the mid-term general elections, her statement and question are front and center as some Republicans in or campaigning for statewide offices that oversee elections still outright deny or cast doubt on Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential election win.

Federal election security officials under former President Donald Trump announced that the election Biden won was the “most secure in American history”, with no evidence any voting system was compromised. Courts consistently have turned away baseless allegations of widespread voter fraud.

But Trump’s so-called “Big Lie” that the election was rigged or stolen has resonated among his supporters, and many candidates seek to tap into Trump’s base.

A Lee Enterprises review of its west region found four candidates for secretary of state offices who openly have denied or cast doubt on Joe Biden’s victory — Republican Jim Marchant in Nevada; Republican Mark Finchem in Arizona; Republican Chuck Gray in Wyoming; and Independent Charles Tuttle in North Dakota.

CBS News reports that on Sept. 25, Cheney told Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith, "If [Trump] is the nominee, I won't be a Republican".

Additionally, Wyoming’s interim secretary of state, Karl Allred, has said he would support Gray.

Some other candidates and officeholders have been coy about their thoughts or position on the 2020 election.

The Guardian in January reported that a group of Republicans running to serve as chief election officials in key swing states formed a coalition to share unfounded election fraud conspiracy theories and ideas to reshape election systems in ways that could overturn legitimate results in the next presidential race.

Jim Marchant — running for secretary of state in Nevada — leads the coalition. Marchant as recently as this month told Trump supporters at a rally that he and his coalition of secretary of state candidates will “fix the whole country” if elected and that Trump will be president again in 2024, according to the Guardian.

Mark Finchem, who attended the Jan. 6 riot, is campaigning for secretary of state in Arizona and is a prominent member of that “America First Secretary of State Coalition.”

jim marchant.jpg

Jim Marchant, who is a Nevada secretary of candidate in 2022, attends a Republican election night watch party Nov. 3, 2020, in Las Vegas. 

Finchem has suggested he wouldn’t certify the vote if Biden won Arizona in 2024, according to an Arizona Daily Star story.

Some experts are unsure what might happen if election deniers gain more control overseeing state elections, but they don’t see furor provoked by Trump subsiding soon.

Bruce Schulman is a U.S. historian at Boston University who says the risk to democratic institutions and traditions must be taken seriously.

However, Schulman noted, many Republican politicians aren’t true believers of election conspiracy theories. He referenced Sen. Ted Cruz as an example of someone embracing election denialism for political reasons.

“The big question is what happens when push comes to shove, when those people who are not true believers, will either have to stand up for democratic practices or join the authoritarian bandwagon,” Schulman said. “I’m not sure what will happen.”

Joseph Uscinski, a University of Miami professor who researches conspiracy theories, elections and politics, said it’s common for some voters to believe they were cheated after their chosen candidate loses.

Uscinski said what’s different about the 2020 election is that the majority of Republicans now hold that belief because of the echo chamber cultivated by Trump, his allies in Congress and conservative media outlets.

“With that said, it’s not clear to me that these high numbers are going to remain permanently, but I think they’re going to be with us for a while,” Uscinski said.

Lisa Bryant, a California State-Fresno professor who is an expert in voter confidence and election administration, said she sometimes is told she is too optimistic.

While skeptical of politicians, Bryant said her optimistic view is that good policies and procedures will “win the day” if and when election deniers achieve oversight of elections because statewide elections are run so well and securely.

She thinks politicians who tout that the election was stolen are inflicting the most damage in state Legislatures, where — unlike state election offices — election codes and rules can be changed to make it tougher to vote.

“We don’t know yet what could happen if people got into really powerful positions as the state senior election official — like secretary of state — but we can see what’s happening when they’re in state Legislatures,” Bryant said. “We can see in many places it has been made a little bit more difficult for people to be able to cast ballots.”

‘Candidate quality’ issue

Uscinski said people believe conspiracy theories largely for the same reasons they believe anything else — a person’s beliefs tend to be a reflection of who one is and how they view the world.

So those who still view the 2020 election as fraudulent likely won’t change their view, Uscinski said, especially with the consistent reinforcement by conservative elites.

He said the Republican Party should take stronger control over who it allows to run in its primaries under the GOP banner.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in August acknowledged that Republicans have a “candidate quality” issue.

“Some people should not be allowed to run under the party banner if they’re engaging in a bunch of wild-eyed nonsense,” Uscinski said. “I mean there are other people in Georgia who could run for Marjorie Taylor Greene’s seat.”

Trump reshaped the Republican party’s structure. Uscinski said there’s now a generation of politicians emboldened by Trump who are changing their tunes to match his.

“He built a base for himself that is less about traditional Republicanism and conservatism and much more about antagonisms toward the political establishment as a whole,” Uscinski said. “And oftentimes those antagonisms are expressed as conspiracy theories.”

GOP confidence drops more

Bryant, who is a part of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab, said there is some level of a winner effect on voter confidence after an election.

Voter confidence — how confident a person feels that ballots are counted as intended — always goes up among people who voted for a winner and down in those who chose the loser, Bryant said.

But the difference is that traditionally Democrats lose only a little confidence while Republican confidence goes down more, she said.

Bryant said what would boost confidence but largely goes under-reported or unnoticed is how IT departments and election offices are keenly aware of the evolving election landscape and are updating to handle it.

She worries about local election officials — essentially civic-minded volunteers from the community — being forced to bear the brunt of conspiracy theorist harassment. Bryant noted that election administrators in a county clerk’s office in a small Texas county resigned because of threats.

“My hope, as always, is even if people who are election deniers get elected into office — that once there they will see that the majority of people running the elections are just bureaucrats,” Bryant said. “They are friends and neighbors — people they go to church with or bowling with or whatever — and that they are just following procedures.

“They are not people sitting in offices with grand schemes to try to change election results.”

Parallels, precedents in US history

Schulman, who contributes his U.S. history insights to some national news outlets, said there are no cases historically that specifically resemble Trump’s efforts.

But Schulman noted that there are many pertinent parallels and precedents.

He pointed to a lengthy history of voter suppression, intimidation and violence surrounding elections and its relation to the country’s history of racial discrimination and white supremacy.

He said that most notoriously in the late 19th and early 20th century South, white people used a variety of “sinister means” — legal and extralegal — to deny non-whites the right to vote.

“Some part — I can’t say how much — of the explanation for how people believe claims of widespread fraud despite the lack of evidence is that ‘fraud’ designates who voted, not how they voted,” Schulman said.

In the early 1860s, Schulman emphasized that eleven states not only rejected Abraham Lincon’s election to president but seceded from the U.S. and launched a civil war rather than accept the result of an election they found unwelcome.

Schulman said there have been numerous close and contested elections in which supporters of the losing candidate saw the outcome as fraudulent or corrupt.

The most famous case, he explained, is the 1824 election in which none of the candidates received a majority in the Electoral College and the decision went to the House of Representatives.

Candidate Henry Clay gave his support to John Quincy Adams, who defeated the biggest vote-getter — Andrew Jackson — and Clay became Adams’ secretary of state.

“The apparent deal, denounced as the ‘Corrupt Bargain’ by Jackson supporters, led to widespread Jacksonian complaints about the legitimacy of the result and Adams’ subsequent presidency,” Schulman said.

Here are brief views into some states from journalists — Joshua Wolfson, Sam Wilson, Nathan Thompson, Mychel Matthews, Jack Dura, Dave Bundy, Corey Jones and Hayley Day — in Lee Enterprises’ west region:

Wyoming

In Wyoming, the secretary of state is the No. 2 elected official.

Ed Buchanan

Secretary of State Ed Buchanan shakes hands as elected officials gather at the Wyoming Capitol for Gov. Mark Gordon's State of the State address in February. Gordon later appointed Buchanan as the Eight District judge.

Wyoming Secretary of State Ed Buchanan departed office in September for a judgeship in his hometown, choosing that over seeking re-election this year.

Buchanan, a Republican, sought to push back against claims that election integrity was an issue in Wyoming. He traveled around the state to give presentations to groups about why Wyoming elections are safe and secure.

State Rep. Chuck Gray won the Republican nomination in August for secretary of state and is running unopposed in the general election. Gray has called Biden’s election “fraudulent” and “illegitimate” on Twitter.

Gray’s platform focuses on voter fraud and banning ballot drop boxes, even though voter fraud is extremely rare in Wyoming. He briefly ran for U.S. House against Liz Cheney, and made a point of visiting the Arizona recount.

The interim secretary of state — Karl Allred — was appointed in October. Allred is a member of the Wyoming Republican State Central Committee, and he said he would support Gray.

Allred hasn’t said that Wyoming’s existing elections are secure. But within days of taking office, he asked county clerks to remove absentee ballot drop boxes even while acknowledging there have been no reported issues with them.

The final decision on whether to do so remains in the hands of the seven clerks in counties that provide ballot drop boxes.

Karl Allred

Karl Allred, Uinta County GOP state committeeman, talks to other delegates before the state Republican Party’s credentials committee met at the 2022 Wyoming Republican Party Convention on Thursday at the Ramada Hotel in Sheridan. The committee voted to recommend that Laramie County lose most of its representation over a rules violation.

Montana

Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, a Republican, was elected to her current term in 2020. She will be up for reelection in 2024.

Her predecessor, Corey Stapleton, was the most prominent elected GOP official in Montana to acknowledge Trump’s loss shortly after the 2020 election was called.

But Jacobsen has never publicly addressed the 2020 election conspiracy theories, other than to say Montana’s elections are “secure” and to note that the state’s tabulating machines don’t connect to the internet.

She has aggressively lobbied for legislation similar to Republican-backed legislation elsewhere in the country to improve “election integrity” and security. Opponents have said the measures, including tighter voter ID requirements and earlier registration deadlines, limit access to voting.

The only official comment from her office on broader conspiracy theories related to the 2020 election came from her chief legal counsel during a trial in August.

Austin James acknowledged giving testimony in a deposition, under oath as Jacobsen’s representative, in which he referred to those pushing those claims as “wingnuts” and described efforts to eliminate tabulators from the state as “crazy.”

South Dakota

Monae Johnson is a Republican candidate campaigning for secretary of state in South Dakota on election integrity.

Monae Johnson

A photo of Monae Johnson, as seen on her website.

Johnson hasn’t agreed to interview requests from the Rapid City Journal.

In a July media release posted on her campaign website, Johnson said she understands the challenges in the coming months as “the radical left continues its assault on election integrity” — despite the fact that it’s Trump and his Republican supporters who question or deny the 2020 presidential election results.

She referenced South Dakota’s elections as “fair, transparent and secure.”

Her Democrat opponent, Tom Cool, acknowledges on his campaign website that there is “no evidence of widespread manipulation of the election process in the last election.”

“Local media are the chief source of information for voters and we need to ensure that the media are fully informed on the election process and that they have open access to election officials and results,” Cool says on his website.

Tom Cool

Tom Cool, as pictured on his website.

Idaho

In Idaho, the attorney general’s race has drawn attention.

Lawrence Wasden, the state’s longest-serving attorney general, was beaten in the Republican primary by former U.S. Congressman Raul Labrador.

Lawrence Wasden

Idaho state Attorney General, Lawrence Wasden, speaks at the Magic Valley Law Enforcement Memorial Service on Saturday at the Twin Falls City Park.

Wasden had declined to join Texas’ lawsuit against Georgia and other states that contested the 2020 presidential election, which rankled elected Republicans in Idaho. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Texas suit.

Throughout the campaign, Labrador said that as attorney general he would be aggressive in actions taken against the federal government and against “big government overreach.” Labrador said he would have joined lawsuits over the 2020 presidential election.

Raul Labrador

Raul Labrador, a candidate for Idaho Attorney General, watches returns come in during the Republican Party's primary election celebration Tuesday at the Hilton Garden Inn hotel in Boise, Idaho. 

Democrat candidate Tom Arkoosh has said he accepts the results of the 2020 presidential election. Arkoosh is touting support from dozens of Republicans — many are former office holders — who are concerned Labrador will politicize the AG’s Office.

North Dakota

Independent Charles Tuttle, vying to be North Dakota’s secretary of state, is a Trump supporter who has said “Trump won” the 2020 election.

Charles Tuttle

Charles Tuttle pictured. 

The North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation in August searched his Minot home and seized 15 time cards in connection with an investigation into fraud allegations related to signature collection for a ballot measure for term limits on North Dakota lawmakers and the governor. No arrests resulted from the warranted search.

Secretary of state candidates Jeffrey Powell, a Democrat, and Michael Howe, a Republican, discussed election administration during a candidate forum in May.

Howe said he is “comfortable with our election process the way it is” but that he is willing to make improvements if it would become “easier to vote and harder to cheat.”

Powell said North Dakota has a “secure voting system” and that he doesn’t have “major changes” from a procedural viewpoint.

North Dakota is a Republican-controlled state, with no Democrats holding statewide office.

candidate forum

Secretary of State candidate state Rep. Michael Howe, R-West Fargo, facing, answers a question during a candidate forum held Thursday night in Bismarck with fellow candidates Democrat Jeffrey Powell, left, and Republican Marvin Lepp, second from left. Also attending the forum were state Attorney General candidates Democrat Tim Lamb and Republican incumbent Drew Wrigley, back. The event was sponsored by the North Dakota Newspaper Association.

Nebraska

Republican incumbent Bob Evnen is running unopposed for secretary of state.

In the May primary, Evnen defeated Bob Borer, a Trump supporter who campaigned heavily on election integrity as a member of the “America First Secretary of States Candidates” coalition.

Evnen and Gov. Pete Ricketts each have maintained that Nebraska’s elections are safe and that Biden is president.

However, Ricketts is advocating for Initiative 432, which is a ballot measure to enact voter identification requirements.

Pete Ricketts (R-Nebraska)

After earning his master's degree from the University of Chicago, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts returned home to work for Union Pacific. He later took a job as a customer representative for his family's business, which would eventually become known as Ameritrade. He rose within the company, all the way up to chief operating officer and president. Ricketts also founded Drakon, a company that supports entrepreneurs, and sat on the board of the Chicago Cubs.

You may also like: The history of voting in the United States

Oklahoma

Oklahoma’s chief state election official is the secretary of the Oklahoma State Election Board, which is a position appointed by the leader of the Senate — a Republican.

Secretary Paul Ziriax in a letter to the State Legislature after the 2020 presidential election wrote that Oklahoma’s elections are “free, fair, safe and secure.”

In response to concerns after the “Cyber Symposium” hosted by Trump supporter and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, Ziriax probed data purporting to show evidence that cyber intruders electronically manipulated Oklahoma’s election.

Candidate Filing

Paul Ziriax, State Election Board Secretary. Candidate filing at the Capitol Thursday, April 14, 2022.

Ziriax said an initial review showed the data “did not appear to be credible” and that a subsequent investigation by the state found the allegations to be “entirely without merit.”

“Unfortunately, several Oklahomans have seen or read misinformation like that provided at the ‘Cyber Symposium’ and on ‘The Big Lie’ website and have demanded a so-called ‘forensic audit’ of Oklahoma’s 2020 General Election – something that is neither justified by the evidence nor authorized under the laws enacted by the Legislature,” Ziriax wrote.

Washington state

There is no official Republican candidate in Washington state’s secretary of state race.

Democrat incumbent Steve Hobbs was appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee in November 2021 when the previous secretary of state accepted a federal position in the President Joe Biden administration.

His opponent, nonpartisan candidate Julie Anderson, is the auditor in Pierce County.

Jay Inslee (D-Washington)

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee first worked as a private attorney and city prosecutor in Selah and became politically active two years later when he was elected to the Washington State House of Representatives. In 1992, he won a race for the U.S. House of Representatives but was defeated after just one term. From 1997 to 1998, he was a regional director for the Department of Health and Human Services, before winning another congressional race.

You may also like: The history of voting in the United States

Corey Jones of Tulsa is a member of the Lee Enterprises Public Service Journalism Team. corey.jones@lee.net

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