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A coalition of more than a dozen Republicans is running on a shared platform that would make big changes to how U.S. elections operate. They have campaigned on the false premise that there was widespread fraud in the 2020 election.
Members of the coalition in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Michigan have been endorsed by former President Donald Trump.
The coalition’s platform includes wiping out early and mail voting and requiring almost everyone to vote on Election Day, two options that have grown in popularity.
Armed with misinformation about U.S. elections, more than a dozen conspiracy theory-driven secretary of state candidates are working together to completely transform the way Americans vote with a radical platform.
Under the umbrella of a coalition that calls itself the "America First Secretary of State Coalition," candidates in Nevada, Michigan, Arizona, California and other states launched their campaigns on the falsehood that Democrats stole the 2020 election, running on a platform that echoes the "stop the steal" rally chant from 2020. Recruited with the help of a major QAnon influencer, they have plans that, if enacted, would reduce access to the ballot for millions of Americans.
Among the ideas they’ve campaigned on:
No more voting by mail.
No more early voting.
Reject the Electronic Registration Information Center, a consortium of states that share data to help remove millions of voters who have died or moved.
Aggressively overhaul voter rolls, possibly requiring anyone who wants to vote to actively re-register.
Get rid of voting machines used to tabulate results.
Joanna Lydgate, CEO of States United Action, a group tracking such candidates, said the effort could have lasting consequences.
"What we are seeing right now is this coordinated effort to undermine the integrity of the system to run candidates who are election deniers," she said. "Having an election denier in any one of those statewide positions can undermine efforts by the others to protect the voters and the will of the American people."
Former President Donald Trump has endorsed a few of the candidates, including Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano. While Mastriano, a Republican, is in the coalition’s minority in that he is not running for secretary of state, he would have the power to appoint the state’s top elections official, if he is successful. Another, Michigan’s Kristina Karamo, got the nod from her state’s Republican Party to be its nominee in November. A third, State Rep. Mark Finchem in Arizona, is a leading fundraiser in his Republican primary, set for August.
The candidates have traveled across the country for months holding "election integrity" forums where they spread falsehoods about fraud.
Experts say several aspects of the coalition’s platform pose a threat to democracy by adding barriers to voting.
One of the most dramatic aspects of the coalition’s platform is to get rid of two forms of voting that are popular with voters: early voting and voting by mail.
Jim Marchant, the leader of the coalition running for Nevada's secretary of state seat and a former state lawmaker, falsely said that early voting and voting by mail provide an opportunity to "cheat a lot." Meanwhile, he encouraged his own supporters to vote early in his own June 14 primary. We reached out to multiple coalition candidates including Marchant, Karamo, Finchem and Mastriano and did not receive a response.
Findings by state and federal officials and prosecutors show that there was no widespread fraud that would have affected the outcome of the 2020 election.
Early voting is widely used by voters, regardless of their political leanings. In Arizona, where Finchem pushed an unsuccessful state bill to get rid of early voting, about 89% of voters in 2020 cast ballots before Election Day.
Allowing early voting reduces lines at the polls on Election Day. It also spreads out any risks posed by natural disasters or bad actors who may try to disrupt or interfere with elections, for example by spreading misinformation, said Jennifer Morrell, a former elections official in Colorado and Utah and partner at The Elections Group, which consults on election administration. When voting is concentrated in one day, the opportunity for problems is higher.
It’s unclear how coalition members would execute a promise to eliminate voting by mail. Secretaries of state often have powers to make changes to how people vote amid emergencies such as a pandemic or a hurricane, but they must follow existing state laws — and those include allowing mail voting.
Democracy experts including Lydgate caution against dismissing the coalition’s ideas as unlikely to materialize. When candidates say there is massive fraud "we have to assume they will do everything in their power to undermine the system," said Lydgate. "It’s like putting arsonists in charge of the fire department."
Rep. Mark Finchem, of Arizona, gestures as he speaks during an election rally in Richmond, Va., on Oct. 13, 2021. (AP)
The coalition of "stop the steal" candidates have also targeted the Electronic Registration Information Center, known as ERIC. More than half of states — both red and blue — use this system, which allows states to share voter registration and driver's license data in order to remove millions of voters who have died or moved. In 2021, states that use ERIC found nearly 9 million outdated voter records for people who had moved, died or had duplicate registrations.
Marchant, Finchem and Karamo have tried to create a false link between ERIC and liberal billionaire George Soros, who has invested in democracy programs through his Open Society Foundations. Marchant called ERIC a Soros-backed project to "keep the voter rolls dirty."
ERIC is actually an attempt to clean up voter rolls. It was founded in 2012 with $139,000 in start-up funds from the nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trusts. Pew received $1.2 million from Soros’ Open Society Foundations between 2009 and 2011, but that was unrelated to ERIC. Member states now pay a membership fee and annual dues that fund the program’s costs.
Republicans who do not agree with conspiracy theories about the 2020 election say that ERIC is actually helpful to voting officials. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, a Republican, called assertions that ERIC is a Soros-funded leftist group "patently false."
After winning the Pennsylvania GOP primary, Mastriano told Newsmax, "We might have to reset, as far as registration, start that whole process over here." Rachel Hamm, who was running in California, suggested requiring people to re-register every eight or 12 years, "proving you still want to vote, you are still alive" and live at the correct address.
Such a scenario would violate the purpose of the National Voter Registration Act, which was designed to increase voter registration, said Eliza Sweren-Becker, a lawyer for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. Wiping the voter rolls is "entirely unreasonable" and would violate steps for removing ineligible voters.
Election officials use various sources of state and federal data— including the postal system’s national change of address database — to manage their voter rolls.
It’s unclear how states could logistically start voter registration from scratch and still hold elections at any level.
A voter, right, feeds a ballot into a tabulator at a makeshift polling station inside a parking garage in Santa Fe, N.M., on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. (AP)
Some of the candidates have called for getting rid of the election machines that tabulate results.
"Any electronic machine can be hacked," Nevada’s Marchant said at a coalition event in South Carolina. "So why use them?"
But election machines have been used for decades. Nevada’s law allowing voting machines was enacted in 1951.
While it’s theoretically possible to hack a machine, there is little evidence it’s happened in a way affecting the outcome of an election. The federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency issued an advisory June 3 stating there are vulnerabilities affecting versions of Dominion Voting Systems’ software and called on states to take steps to mitigate risks. But the agency also said that it had "no evidence" that these vulnerabilities have been exploited in any elections. Dominion said that the vulnerabilities have been addressed in subsequent software versions, and Georgia election officials said the manner in which they were detected was not a real-world scenario.
Finchem has praised France’s method of hand-counting ballots cast for president. When France elects a president, it is the only race on the ballot. In the U.S., ballots often include multiple contests spanning several pages.
"The idea of hand counting every race is impractical and just creates a whole lot of other problems," Morrell said.
"Humans are terrible at repeated tedious tasks," Morrell said. "We are bad at counting, we don't do it accurately and don't do it quickly — that’s the whole reason we invented machines to do it in the first place."
The review of about 2 million ballots orchestrated by Arizona Senate Republicans last year took months — and that was just in Maricopa County. More than 159 million Americans voted in 2020.
Voters line up in booths to cast their ballots at Robious Elementary School in Chesterfield, Va. on Nov. 8, 2016. (Shelby Lum/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)
The coalition is angling to replace secretaries of state who, like Georgia’s Brad Raffensperger, refused to take steps to overturn the election on the basis of Trump’s lies.
Raffensperger, a Republican, rejected the former president’s request in a phone call to "find 11,780 votes" for him and declare him the winner in Georgia. Trump’s pick to run against Raffensperger, U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, lost the May primary. (While the coalition’s website and Marchant indicated Hice was part of the coalition, a spokesperson for Hice told VICE that he wasn’t a coalition member.)
Some of these candidates face uphill battles because they are running against better-financed or more experienced candidates — for example, Michigan’s Karamo will face Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat. But in battlegrounds where the competition is close, these candidates remain serious contenders. Mastriano faces a competitive general election against Democrat Josh Shapiro, the current Pennsylvania attorney general. The winner of the Nevada GOP primary will face Democrat Cisco Aguilar, a lawyer and former Nevada Athletic Commission chair.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University has been tracking campaign donations in six battleground secretary of state races. The group found that candidates in those races have collectively raised $13.3 million, more than two and a half times the $4.7 million raised by the same point in the 2018 cycle.
In some races, candidates who deny the outcome of the 2020 election hold primary fundraising leads, including Finchem in Arizona, who has raised about $940,000.
"We definitely can’t write these candidates off as fringe candidates," Lydgate said. "The reality here is that these people are definitely having some initial success. There is a real cause for concern right now. People need to pay attention."
PolitiFact researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
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