Activist state

‘Arsonists with keys to the fire station’: Once murky state races fuel fears for US democracy | 2022 US Midterm Elections

Last year, Brad Raffensperger made national headlines for taking a stand against Donald Trump and his lies about the 2020 election.

In a phone call that was quickly made public, Trump demanded that Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state for Georgia, “find” enough votes to deprive Joe Biden of a victory in the battleground state. Raffensperger refused to do so and received much praise for his bravery.

Raffensperger is paying for his actions in a way that reveals how his once obscure elected position is now at the center of a battle for the future of American democracy — and attracting all the money and political heat that entails.

This year, Raffensperger faces a brutal primary race against a Trump-backed candidate, US Congressman Jody Hice, and is trying to hang on to his job. Hice, who said the 2020 results in Georgia would have been different if the race had been “fair”, has already noted more than twice as much money as Raffensperger.

Hice’s impressive run is in part due to the unusually high number of out-of-state donations his campaign has attracted, as more Americans across the country focus on the Secretary of State’s races.

And Georgia is not unique. As Trump and his allies continue to spread the “big lie” of widespread fraud in the 2020 race, many voters are focusing their attention — and their wallets — on the officials who oversee state elections.

Candidates for secretary of state from both parties are now posting substantial fundraising numbers, heightening concerns about how election administration has become a hot political issue in the United States.

Secretary of State races have historically attracted little attention and even less money. The winners of these elections take on rather bureaucratic roles, and their duties may include managing the state records, supervising the Department of Motor Vehicles, and maintaining the state seal. But in many states, the secretary of state also serves — crucially — as the chief election officer.

In the weeks following the 2020 election, with Trump and his supporters falsely claiming the results were tainted by fraud, Secretaries of State in key battleground states became targets of intimidation and threats. Now the former president is using the power of his endorsement to exert influence in the races for those positions.

Although Trump has not endorsed any candidates for secretary of state in 2020, he has already endorsed three in the 2022 cycle: Hice in Georgia, Mark Finchem in Arizona and Kristina Karamo in Michigan. All three candidates embraced the lie that Democrats stole the 2020 election by allowing fraud to affect the results. Biden’s margin of victory in each of those states was less than three points, and their contribution could prove decisive in the next presidential election.

“They’re prepared to subvert the will of the voters in order to pick the winner,” said Kim Rogers, executive director of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State. “It’s disempowering, and it’s like giving an arsonist the keys to the fire station.”

The disparate concerns of Republicans and Democrats about election fairness have contributed to a significant increase in donations to candidates for Secretary of State.

According to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justicedonations for the Secretary of State’s races in six battleground states are three times higher than they were at this point in the last election cycle, in 2018, and eight times higher than the cycle of 2014. Fundraising particularly increased in Arizona, Georgia and Michigan, which also happen to be the three states where Trump issued an endorsement.

“A lot more money is going to these once sleepy bureaucratic races,” said Ian Vandewalker, senior election and government program attorney at the Brennan Center. “The places where we’ve seen the biggest increase — which are basically Arizona, Georgia, and Michigan — each of those places have had some degree of nationally covered election controversy around 2020.”

Mark Finchem, seen here at a Trump rally, is running for Secretary of State in Arizona. Photography: Rachel Mummey/Reuters

The Brennan Center analysis also indicated that out-of-state donations to candidates for Secretary of State are growing at an even faster rate than overall donations. Finchem, who appealed the Arizona Legislature to decertify the 2020 presidential results in three major counties, already has six times as many donors as all the candidates for secretary of state in the 2018 election combined. Two-thirds of these donors live outside of Arizona.

Democrats have taken notice of the Republican enthusiasm for the Secretary of State election, and they are responding by stepping up their own fundraising.

The Democratic Association of Secretaries of State and its partner groups raised a record $4.5 million in 2021, up from $1.5 million in the entire 2018 cycle. The organization said it is on on track to meet its fundraising goal of $15 million for the 2022 cycle, in part due to an increase in the number of first-time individual donors. Other progressive groups, including End Citizens United and iVote, have pledged to spend tens of millions more on Secretary of State races this year.

“Engagement is at all levels. We’ve seen a massive increase in our mailing list and grassroots support,” Rogers said.

Rogers thinks Democratic activists are increasingly turning their attention to the races for secretaries of state, in part because they have been frustrated by the lack of progress at the federal level. Congressional Democrats have repeatedly attempted to pass nationwide voting rights legislation that would reverse some of the voting restrictions enacted by 19 states last yearbut Senate Republicans successfully used the filibuster to defeat those bills.

“I think there are a lot of activists who got involved in 2020 and fought incredibly hard for federal voting rights legislation in 2021,” Rogers said. “When 50 Republicans blocked it again, people were looking for a way to stay engaged and keep fighting, and they transferred their assets to the states.”

Republicans complain that Democrats are trying to change election regulations to their advantage, both at the federal and state levels. Andrew Romeo, director of communications for the Republican State Leadership Committee, said Democrats are “building their interest in races for the secretary of state because they see controlling those offices as a way to change the rules. to compensate for their inability to win the elections”.

Romeo’s group is an umbrella organization that promotes Republican candidates for state legislatures, state supreme courts, and secretary of state offices, among other roles. The RSLC and its group of political partners raised $33.3 million in 2021, surpassing their previous odd-year record by more than $14 million.

But for Democrats like Rogers, the outcome of the races for the Secretary of State in key battleground states represents nothing less than the fate of American democracy.

“These people want to rig the game, and they’re willing to do it,” Rogers said.

Vandewalker fears that increasingly grim messages about the races of secretaries of state are contributing to a political climate in which both parties are wary of the election outcome.

“The money and attention given to these races is not inherently a bad thing. Voters should be made aware of these candidates,” Vandewalker said. voters because of course one side or the other is going to win and count the votes, and democracy relies on people accepting the outcome, even if their side doesn’t win.