Secretary of state contests — typically low-profile races that determine who helps administer elections in a state – have drawn national attention and millions of dollars in political spending this year as several Republican nominees who doubt the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election pursue the jobs.
In all, voters in 27 states will choose secretaries of state in the midterms. Fourteen of those seats currently are held by Republicans and 13 by Democrats.
But the presence of election deniers on general election ballots in key battlegrounds has set off alarms for voting rights advocates because of the pivotal role these offices will play in affirming the outcome of future elections, including a potential 2024 rematch between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump.
And Trump, who attempted to pressure public officials to set aside the will of voters after he lost the presidency, has championed their candidacies.
“Even one being elected would be terrifying enough in a swing state,” said Nick Penniman, the founder and CEO of Issue One, a nonprofit group tracking these races. “We know that elections in America come down to 300,000 votes stretched across five or six swing states, so every vote counts.”
Here’s a look at 5 key secretary of state races:
In Arizona – where election conspiracy theories have flourished ever since Biden won this traditionally red state by fewer than 11,000 votes two years ago – Republican voters picked state Rep. Mark Finchem as their standard-bearer.
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Finchem, who has described himself as a member of the far-right Oath Keeper’s group, scored Trump’s endorsement back in September 2021. The GOP lawmaker has lobbied to toss out the results of the 2020 election in some of the state’s largest counties – including Maricopa, home to Phoenix, where a widely derided review of ballots ordered by Republicans in the state Senate still concluded that Biden had won more votes than Trump did.
In the state legislature, Finchem cosponsored a bill that would have allowed lawmakers to set aside election results. And before this year’s primary, he joined Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake in a failed legal bid to end the use of machines to record and count voters in the state’s elections.
He faces Democrat Adrian Fontes, the former top election official in Maricopa County. He lost his reelection bid as county recorder two years ago.
During a recent debate, the two sparred over the 2020 election, with Finchem arguing that the election in some counties had been “irredeemably compromised” and should be set aside.
Fontes countered that Finchem’s conspiracy theories have served to erode Arizonans’ confidence in their elections and in their fellow residents.
A CNN poll earlier in October found the contest within the margin of error, and one Democratic group recently committed $5 million to the race to boost Fontes, who has lagged behind Finchem in fundraising.
The Georgia contest features one of the country’s best-known election chiefs – Republican Brad Raffensperger, who refused Trump’s request to “find” the votes needed to overturn his loss in the Peach State. (That campaign by Trump and his allies is the subject of a special grand jury investigation in Fulton County, Georgia.)
Raffensperger’s famous rebuff – and star turn as a witness before the House select committee investigating what led to the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol – have burnished his reputation as a defender of election integrity. And in May, he pulled off a major political upset by beating his Trump-endorsed challenger, Georgia Rep. Jody Hice, outright in the primary without needing to win a runoff.
“I’ve had to stand up to incredible pressure,” the Republican said, during a recent candidate debate. “Many people buckled and folded. I didn’t, and I won’t.”
Raffensperger’s national profile has made him a tougher target for the Democratic nominee, state Rep. Bee Nguyen, who has been rising political star in her own right.
She has put expanding access to the ballot at the center of her candidacy. She also is seeking to make history by becoming the first Asian-American elected to a statewide political office in this increasingly racially and ethnically diverse state.
Nguyen has taken aim at Raffensperger’s support for an election law enacted last year that imposed new restrictions on voting and has seized on his views on abortion in an attempt to gain ground.
When he was a state lawmaker, Raffensperger sponsored a resolution that proposed a constitutional amendment to recognize “the paramount right to life of all human beings as persons at any stage of development.”
The Republican’s campaign aides have argued that Raffensperger’s position on abortion is not relevant to the job he now holds.
During the televised face-off with Raffensperger and Libertarian Ted Metz, Nguyen said: “I’m the only candidate on this stage who is both pro-choice and pro-democracy.”
The race pits the incumbent, Democrat Jocelyn Benson – a leading national voice countering election denial – against Republican Kristina Karamo, who has made false claims about the 2020 election and who was behind the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.
Karamo, a community college professor who secured an endorsement from Trump last year, has said he won the election, and she signed on to an unsuccessful Supreme Court lawsuit that challenged Biden’s victory in four states.