Meet the election deniers on the cusp of controlling U.S. elections

More than 60 per cent of U.S. jurisdictions have an election-denier on the ballot this fall, including a milita member and participants in the Capitol riot. These officials could be the ones deciding whether or not to certify the next presidental election outcome.

The 2022 midterms are days away. At issue: Who administers voting in 2024

Donald Trump is hinting strongly that he's going to run again. If so, he could have more militant allies administering elections in swing states. (Go Nakamura/Reuters)

Let's try imagining what the next U.S. presidential election might look like. It's 2024. It's been a bitter, hard-fought campaign. Votes are being counted.

Now consider a scenario where these are the people in charge of administering elections: the people who set rules, issue guidance to poll workers, or confirm the winner.

In Arizona, imagine it's Mark Finchem. He was in Washington during the Jan. 6 insurrection. A member of the Oath Keepers militia, he introduced a bill this year – 597 days after the last election – to cancel Joe Biden's 2020 win.

In Pennsylvania, it's the candidate appointed by a governor who was also there on Jan. 6, and who led Donald Trump's efforts to invalidate the results in his state.

In Michigan, it's Kristina Karamo who on Jan. 6 insisted it must have been left-wing radicals attacking the Capitol. She has since referred to police officers there that day as crisis actors.

In Nevada, it's Jim Marchant who said his state's elections have been illegitimate for two decades and that the winners have been imposed by a deep-state cabal.

In Minnesota, it's Kim Crockett who has called the last presidential vote rigged and who dragged her feet before saying she would accept this year's midterm results.

Mark Finchem, right, is an Arizona state lawmaker, militia member, and 2020 election truther, seen here at a Trump rally in January. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

In Wisconsin, imagine there's a governor who still won't say whether he wants to decertify the 2020 presidential election; his party's candidate for elections chief wants him to sign a bill stripping the state's bipartisan elections body of its powers.

Those are the people running as Republican candidates to become secretary of state, a state's chief elections official.

The coming days will determine whether these candidates win office: it depends on outcomes of the Nov. 8 midterm elections. 

If the polls are accurate some of these people, maybe even most, will win, along with more mainstream Republicans as in Ohio and Georgia.

Several people who were in Washington during the Jan. 6 riot are now on the ballot. Seen here: a cloud of smoke at the U.S. Capitol building that day. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

'Existential' threat to democracy: Vote administrator

More than 60 per cent of U.S. jurisdictions have an election-denier on the ballot this fall. In pivotal swing states, that could result in election-deniers running elections.

The woman who led Wisconsin's elections commission in 2020 was deluged with threats and abuse and she said she's trying not to be alarmist now.

But it's not easy. 

"You don't want to be a Chicken Little, right? You don't want to be crying wolf," said Ann Jacobs, a Democrat who still sits on the Wisconsin elections commission, a bipartisan and previously non-controversial outfit now upended by Trump's election denialism.

"But I do think the threats to the fabric of our democracy are real. They do have the potential to be somewhat existential."

Kristina Karamo, seen here at a rally this month, doesn't just deny that Trump lost the 2020 election; she also denies that Trump supporters caused the Jan. 6 riot. (Todd McInturf/Detroit News via AP)

The details vary from state to state. That's because they all have different rules; secretaries of state have more power in some places than others; the candidates also vary in their commitment to conspiracies.

But these candidates generally want four things: To restrict mail-in voting, which became more popular with Democrats during the pandemic; to limit the days mail-in ballots can be counted; to ramp up vote audits and investigations; and to give partisan politicians more power over the process.

These candidates say: We're the good guys

In their view, they're the reasonable ones.

They say elections are shoddily managed and absentee ballots are a problem. They say ballots need tighter controls. And they say Democrats are the ones who played fast and loose with the rules in 2020.

Here's an example from Minnesota.

Kim Crockett, the Republican candidate for secretary of state, said in a one-candidate debate, boycotted by her opponent, that Democrats rushed to embrace absentee voting during the pandemic.

That's true.

One objective of candidates who don't believe Joe Biden won the last U.S. presidential election: Restrict mail-in voting and the use of drop boxes, like this scene in 2020, when mail-in voting became especially popular with Democrats during the pandemic. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Democrats tried making absentee voting easier; Trump tried making it harder. It was the result of the pandemic itself becoming another partisan political issue, with Democrats in cities more worried about congregating in public places.

It became obvious by the middle of 2020 that the stage was set for a brutal post-election battle over the legitimacy of ballot counts. 

In Minnesota, the Democratic secretary of state amicably settled a lawsuit from a pro-Democratic group that sued to make absentee voting easier. 

Minnesota extended the deadline for counting absentee ballots, and waived security requirements, including the need for a witness.

Crockett said those changes were illegitimate – that they required a vote in the legislature. She noted that a court later agreed with her, though that finding was also disputed.

In that same one-person debate, she brushed off questions about whether Joe Biden won the presidency fair and square.

Democracy an election issue, says Michigan incumbent secretary of state:

Opponent tells Finchem: You're unhinged and violent

An Arizona debate got more combative, with both candidates there.

The militia member, Mark Finchem, cast himself as a defender of the law: he said the votes were irredeemably compromised in some counties and should not have counted.

As evidence, Finchem said people in Yuma County pleaded guilty to illegally depositing other voters' ballots in drop boxes.

What he didn't say: this was two women, accused of dropping off four ballots each; it happened in the 2020 summer primary election, not the general election involving Trump, and resulted in a 30-day jail sentence for a former mayor and school-board official.

Finchem also referred to people stuffing ballot boxes.

He was alluding to a film, 2000 Mules, that relied on methodology that has been challenged and debunked in numerous reports and triggered a defamation lawsuit. Now, a book based on the movie has deleted key details.

The conspiracies run deep with Finchem, his critics say. 

He recently accused Google and the deep state of suppressing searches for his campaign website; a journalist later found an elementary coding error committed by his own campaign.

Reaction to Finchem becoming party nominee:

On the eve of the Jan. 6 insurrection, Finchem delivered a speech where he said 74 million Trump voters would never accept the result. When it began raining during the speech, he said: "This is God washing the stench off Washington, D.C."

His Democratic opponent called him a dangerous person peddling corrosive lies.

"What [Finchem] did was engage in a violent insurrection," Adrian Fontes said in the debate. 

"He is a part of an organization [Oath Keepers] that has called for the violent overthrow of our government. He has supporters, and [he] himself has, called for civil war in this country. [For] the stockpiling of ammunition for this very war. It is … unhinged and violent." 

Finchem easily won his primary. He has a real chance of winning the general election.

Doug Mastriano is running for Pennsylvania governor. He says if he wins he'll appoint a like-minded person as chief elections supervisor. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

In Michigan, Kristina Karamo claimed she witnessed fraud in 2020. She signed an affidavit saying a spoiled ballot, marked for both parties, was unfairly counted for Biden. 

A longtime election official said Karamo was ignorant of election vocabulary and misinterpreted an order – "push it through" –  to cancel the ballot. 

'The Holy Spirit told me'

She hosted a podcast on the day of the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol attack and immediately blamed the attack on Antifa.

In that same podcast, she said her faith prevents her from using the language she'd like about those doubters who refuse to accept she witnessed fraud.

"If you want to say I'm a liar, the Holy Spirit told me that I can't say what I want to say," she said.

Scholars who study election administration have expressed alarm.

"Just shockingly toxic," is how Kenneth Mayer, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, describes the emerging partisanship in vote certification.

Tom Ivacko at the University of Michigan says the fair administration of elections is absolutely an election issue this fall.

Yet it's unclear how many Americans care: Ivacko noted polls indicating that 70 per cent view democracy as under threat – but only 7 per cent see it as a top election issue.

"Which is very frightening," Ivacko said.

Trump supporters clashed with police at the entrance of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, while trying to stop certification of the 2020 election. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)

The checks in the system... for now

One thing academics agree on is that the decentralized responsibilities over American elections could limit the damage caused by a single rogue actor.

Secretaries of state don't set rules alone. Local officials wield great power in some states: more than 3,500 different entities run elections in Wisconsin and Michigan alone.

There's also the justice system. If an official goes rogue, Ivacko said: "The courts can step in. … We still have kind of a failsafe." 

WATCH | U.S. midterms on Nov. 8 will decide control over Congress: 

U.S. midterms on Nov. 8 will decide control over Congress

11 months ago
Duration 3:48
Political watchers in the United States are paying close attention to races in Pennsylvania and Georgia that could decide which party controls the Senate.

Kathleen Hale said her fears are mitigated by memories of local elections officials she's met in her work as a researcher and author at Auburn University. She said they are professional, skilled, and honourable. She hopes that continues. 

These officials are, however, retiring, and quitting, at an unusual pace. They are being threatened and demoralized and their operations are so often under-funded, Hale said, that many resort to bake sales and corporate donations to function.

Some are being forced out. Like one man on a board in Michigan that nearly stalled Biden's election certification in 2020. The Republican who voted to approve it was forced out.

Now that same board nearly interfered in this election: it tried blocking an abortion referendum from the ballot even after the pro-abortion side collected enough signatures.

It had to be forced by a court to proceed.

So will these checks in the system actually keep working?

Ivacko said he hopes so. But, at the end of the day, he said, people are not all equally committed to fair play.

And, he said: "Our systems are based on people."

In 2020, public officials resisted pressure from Trump supporters, seen here, to overturn the election results. A new crop of pro-Trump election deniers is running to replace such officials. (Erin Scott/Reuters)


Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.