Republicans and Democrats are gearing up for expensive battles to influence a crop of contests next year that often go unnoticed: secretary of state races.
Former President Donald Trump’s persistent and fruitless efforts to overturn the 2020 election results – along with a bevy of new state laws that erect fresh barriers to voting – have put a spotlight on these posts. Outside groups plan to spend millions to sway the outcomes, and multiple candidates are lining up to become election chiefs in the battleground states that will decide the presidency in 2024.
In all, 26 positions for secretary of state are on the ballot next year, 14 of which are held by Republicans and 12 by Democrats.
One Democratic group focused on these races, iVote, has raised $3 million and hopes to collect a total of $15 million to shape contests in several key battleground states, said Ellen Kurz, the group’s president. Its top targets: Nevada, Arizona, Michigan, Georgia and Minnesota, all of which backed President Joe Biden in 2020. Arizona, Michigan and Minnesota currently have Democratic election chiefs. Republicans control those offices in Georgia and Nevada.
Another organization, the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, also has set a $15 million budget for the two-year-cycle – a 10-fold increase over what it spent in the 2018 cycle, the last time the top election officials in these states were on the ballot, officials said.
“The stakes are really high,” said Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, who chairs the Democratic secretaries of state group. “We believe democracy will be on the ballot in 2022.”
Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, who runs the Republican Secretaries of State Committee, declined to disclose a budget or the group’s targets: “You never telegraph a punch.”
But he noted that the Republican State Leadership Committee, the parent organization funding the GOP secretaries of state group, and its affiliated policy arm raised $6.5 million during the second quarter of this year – a record for the group at this point in the election cycle.
The partisan fights over election administration began long before the first votes were cast in 2020 – when Republicans, voting rights activists and Democratic groups battled in court over the ground rules for voting as the coronavirus pandemic raged.
This year, following Trump’s attempts to pressure election officials and others to overturn his 2020 loss, Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed a string of laws that outlaw or limit the tools election administrators used to make voting easier during the pandemic – such as widely distributing ballot drop boxes or mailing out absentee ballot applications.
In some cases, Republican legislators also have moved to weaken the powers of elected secretaries of state.
In Georgia, for instance, the GOP-controlled legislature booted the Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, from a voting seat on the State Board of Elections and now has the power to pick three out of five election board members. (Raffensperger, who ignored Trump’s request to “find” votes to overturn his loss in the state, has drawn a Trump ally, US Rep. Jody Hice, as a primary opponent. Hice was one of 147 Republicans who voted against certifying Biden’s win even after a violent pro-Trump mob stormed the US Capitol on January 6.)
A group of GOP lawmakers last month invoked Georgia’s new election law to request that the state board begin a performance review of election officials in heavily Democratic Fulton County – a move that could lead to a state-ordered takeover of election administration in the Peach State’s most populous county. Fulton County includes most of Atlanta.
In Arizona, meanwhile, GOP lawmakers recently stripped Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs of her power to defend election lawsuits and shifted the authority to the state’s Republican attorney general.
“Our Democratic process is really, really, really in trouble, and our secretaries of state are the first responders to this emergency,” said Kurz, who founded iVote in 2014.
Hargett, who also co-chairs an election integrity commission started by the Republican State Leadership Committee, said preventing election fraud is now an animating issue for many constituents.
“I get emails every day from people who want to protect the integrity of elections,” he said. “What Americans want to know is that every vote was counted accurately. They want to make sure that eligible voters have the opportunity to vote and that ineligible voters didn’t have the opportunity to vote.”
Crowded field in Arizona
Arizona, a state Biden won by fewer than 11,000 votes, sits at the center of efforts by Trump’s supporters to discredit last year’s election results.
A problem-plagued “audit” of 2020 ballots in Maricopa County, initiated by the Republican-controlled state Senate and largely funded by Trump allies, has drawn widespread derision. Hobbs, who gained national prominence as an outspoken critic of the Maricopa ballot review, is running for governor, leaving an open seat.
At least six candidates crowd the field, including several Republicans who have made election fraud a top issue.
State Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, a Scottsdale Republican, is one of the best-known candidates for secretary of state and has sponsored high-profile election bills during her decade in the legislature. She crafted a controversial new law this year that limits the distribution of mail ballots through the state’s widely used early mail-in voting system.
The measure revised the state’s permanent early mail-in voting list – which allowed voters to automatically receive ballots for every election. The new law drops voters from the list if they have not cast ballots by mail in two consecutive election cycles and have not responded to final mailed notices.
Critics say the law seeks to suppress votes by removing occasional mail-in voters from the list and could affect as many as 150,000 Arizonans.
Ugenti-Rita defended the change. “It was irresponsible to mail out hundreds of thousands of ballots that were never being voted. My bill allows us to put a stop to that,” she said in a statement to CNN. “I still fail to understand why the Democrats would oppose this commonsense reform that benefits all Arizonans who care about free and fair elections.”
And although Ugenti-Rita initially supported the Maricopa ballot review largely overseen by Arizona Senate President Karen Fann, she now calls it a “botched” effort. Fann has said she’s not trying to overturn the 2020 election results but wants to use the review to help determine whether changes to state law are needed.
“The voters of Arizona are anxiously awaiting the report President Fann has promised,” Ugenti-Rita said. “We need to get to the next phase – solutions. Now we need to focus on what we can do to advance election integrity and restore confidence in the outcomes of our elections.”
Another Republican vying for Arizona secretary of state, state Rep. Mark Finchem, is a prominent supporter of the Stop the Steal campaign and was in Washington during the January 6 riot. He did not respond to interview requests this week.
And another contender, state Rep. Shawnna Bolick, introduced a bill earlier this year to allow the state legislature, by a simple majority vote, to revoke presidential electors chosen through the popular vote and appoint its own slate. The measure did not gain traction in this year’s legislative session.
In a statement to CNN through a spokeswoman, Bolick said she had introduced the bill to provide “an independent oversight mechanism to hold our electoral process accountable when there is fraud or inconsistencies that threaten the outcome.” And she said she’s running for election chief because “51% of voters believe cheating affected the outcome of the election” and the secretary of state’s office isn’t “serving its basic functions.”
In neighboring Nevada, Republican Jim Marchant, a former state legislator who ran unsuccessfully for Congress last year, is running to replace Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske.
Cegavske, a Republican who repeatedly defended the integrity of the 2020 election, is term limited.
Last year, Marchant unsuccessfully sued to have his roughly 5-point loss overturned and a new election declared.
Now Marchant supports Nevada launching its own “audit” of the 2020 results. “There are enough anomalies that I’m suspect of our election system nationwide,” Marchant told CNN recently.
Trey Grayson, a Republican former secretary of state in Kentucky and a former president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, said both political parties have emphasized concerns about election administration to motivate their voters.
But he said some Republican candidates have gone too far. “We are seeing candidates who, for lack of a better term, are election deniers,” Grayson said. “They believe the 2020 election was stolen and that Donald Trump won and that there was this widespread fraud, for which there is no evidence.”
“They aren’t whispering it. They aren’t saying this to donors or party activists in closed-door rooms. That’s their public message,” he said. “And I find that disturbing.”