What could happen if an election denier is running elections

5 min read

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If you haven’t watched Dana Bash’s Sunday interview on NEWS with Kari Lake, TV journalist turned Republican candidate for governor in Arizona, you should.

There’s only one outcome Lake said she would accept in November.

“I’m going to win the election, and I will accept that result,” she said.

That’s probably part campaign bravado, but also part the bizarre new reality in which we live, where candidates in the Donald Trump mold will never accept defeat.

Lake is one of many Republican candidates for key election-related positions who have pushed or embraced election denialism. NEWS’s Daniel Dale has kept a list of candidates for secretary of state and governor. They espouse varying degrees of denialism, and some have even retreated to now accept President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory.

One of Dale’s reports includes this passage about Jim Marchant, the GOP candidate for secretary of state in Nevada, who has questioned an election he won:

Marchant unsuccessfully tried to get a court to order a re-vote of his unsuccessful 2020 congressional race, which he lost by more than 16,000 votes. He has been so consistent in questioning Nevada’s elections system, which his campaign has wrongly described as “fraudulent,” that he even raised doubts about his own victory in the Republican secretary of state primary this June – telling the Las Vegas Review-Journal that he was “not really confident in the result” and that there “could have been anomalies.”

NEWS’s Fredreka Schouten wrote recently about how election-denying secretary of state candidates are raising large amounts of money, raising the profile of these key election roles and bringing election skepticism to the mainstream.

There are also examples of GOP primary voters opting for the candidates who rejected Trump’s 2020 fantasy, including in Georgia.

But in Arizona, Lake is up for governor, and state Rep. Mark Finchem is the GOP nominee for secretary of state. Both still loudly question the 2020 results.

It’s worth considering what would happen if both won and then oversaw a tight presidential election in 2024.

In Arizona, the governor signs the certificate of ascertainment in presidential elections that verifies the appropriate electors represent the state at the counting of electoral votes.

In 2020, it was the Republican Doug Ducey who verified Biden’s victory in that certificate. The Arizona secretary of state who defended the 2020 results was a Democrat, Katie Hobbs, who is now Lake’s opponent for governor in November.

Elections have consequences, and the situation for future elections in Arizona will be very different depending on who wins next month.

I talked to Sean Morales-Doyle, director of voting rights at the Brennan Center for Justice, about how an election-denying governor or secretary of state would or could disrupt an election.

Under the law, he said that couldn’t happen.

“Chief election officials aren’t allowed to ignore the will of the people and subvert the outcome of our elections, and we have laws in place to stop that from happening,” he told me over the phone. “But that doesn’t mean that they won’t try, and if they do, we’re in a place we’ve never really been before. I think it is troubling for our democracy that we even have to be having that conversation.”

There have been specific examples this year of local officials refusing to certify elections, most notably with rural Otero County in New Mexico, where the state Supreme Court ultimately stepped in and forced the issue. The local officials were skeptical of voting machines, and one of the officials, Couy Griffin, was removed from his position as a county commissioner in September by a state judge who cited Griffin’s role in the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Morales-Doyle argued that’s an example of the system working. The state’s secretary of state went to court and was able to get the county to certify the primary using a writ of mandamus, which is used to require officials to perform ministerial tasks.

“We do have a system of checks and balances and rule of law in the United States, and hopefully those systems will hold and ensure that election officials do carry out their duties,” he said.

And while the Brennan Center and other voting rights groups have raised the alarm about the Supreme Court’s recent decisions paring back federal voting rights protections, as well as state-level laws that make it more difficult to vote, the courts have so far been protectors of election outcomes.

“When it comes to simply failing to abide by the rule of law and fulfill our democratic values, the evidence so far is that we can count on the courts to play that role,” Morales-Doyle said.

John Eastman, the lawyer who crafted Trump’s 2020 effort to circumvent the Electoral College, even admitted the plan would lose at the Supreme Court. Read a NEWS fact check of Eastman’s plan, including Eastman’s own admission it was illegal.

The House and the Senate are homing in on fixes to the law that dictates how Electoral College votes are counted and to make clear that governors are required to issue and transmit certificates of ascertainment according to state law.

If the governor fails to do so, bipartisan bills in the House and Senate lay out an expedited judicial track available only to presidential candidates. The idea is that courts would resolve any disputes in advance of the counting of electoral votes.

They work differently in every state, and local jurisdictions are important along with state officials. Most poll workers are doing their best and want to see the system work.

But if the person at the top is a skeptic, “it’ll make it much harder for all those systems to operate and for the people who are acting in good faith within the system to do their jobs,” Morales-Doyle said.

Schouten has written multiple times this year about the new reality for poll workers, which includes security measures amid threats and harassment and an exodus of experienced officials who did not seek reelection.

I’ll add one more thing Morales-Doyle said because he raised a valid point about the balance between being prepared for officials who might reject elections and allowing their insidious election denialism to fester and undermine the US system.

“The longer we have to deal with these threats, the larger they grow and the greater the threat becomes in the future,” he said. “But as of right now, it’s important to keep in mind that the few instances where we’ve seen people attempt this kind of thing, it has been shut down.”

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