by Zachary Roth, Georgia Recorder [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]
February 18, 2023
Americans concerned about the health of democracy breathed a sigh of relief when a pack of election deniers in 2022 lost their attempts to control voting in key battleground states — making it unlikely that a rogue state election official could subvert the 2024 presidential election.
Candidates for secretary of state who denied the result of the 2020 presidential race were defeated in all three swing states where they were on the ballot — Arizona, Michigan, and Nevada. And in Pennsylvania, where the governor appoints the chief election official, an election-denier gubernatorial candidate also lost.
But while battleground states may have dodged a bullet in their secretary of state races, Alabama, Indiana, South Dakota, and Wyoming all elected deniers — defined as officials who refused to publicly acknowledge the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s victory or backed court cases that could overturn the election. And the governor of Florida, the nation’s third-largest state, appointed a secretary of state who has refused, when asked, to say Biden won the election.
The danger to democracy posed by election deniers shouldn’t be viewed in isolation, democracy advocates say. Numerous election deniers, they note, also were elected to Congress, statewide offices, statehouses, and local election posts around the country — meaning these secretaries of state are part of a network of denialism that last year’s elections failed to extinguish.
“Election-denier secretaries of state absolutely present a risk of election subversion that the public still needs to be aware of and responding to,” said Rachel Homer, counsel for the nonpartisan advocacy organization Protect Democracy. “The risk that the will of the people might not translate into who was actually elected — that’s a threat to democracy.”
None of the newly elected secretaries of state appears close to getting passed into law the kind of major voting overhaul that several campaigned on.
But even beyond legislation, the secretaries of state, who in all five states serve as their state’s chief elections officer, can affect access to the ballot and the overall efficiency of the election system. And they have used their short time in office so far to continue baselessly stoking distrust in elections, to hire political allies, and to advance measures that further tighten the rules around voting.
Among the troubling early developments:
- Senior staff with years of election administration experience have resigned or been let go from secretary of state offices in South Dakota and Wyoming. In the former state, a combative “America First” political activist who attended the Jan. 6 protests has been hired.
- Alabama’s new secretary of state abruptly withdrew from a well-regarded interstate compact for sharing voter registration information, and says it’s not his job to make voting easier.
- Indiana’s secretary of state wants to further tighten the rules for mail voting, which has expanded in popularity since the pandemic.
- Florida’s secretary of state, an appointee of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, is pushing to expand a controversial “election integrity” unit.
With the possible exception of Florida, these five states likely aren’t competitive enough to have a chance of tipping a presidential contest.
But democracy advocates warn that having state election systems serving around 35 million people in the hands of officials who won’t acknowledge Biden’s win raises a far broader set of dangers: that election outcomes will be subverted, thwarting the will of voters; that denialism is being mainstreamed as a governing ideology, at least in some states; that crucial norms of independence and neutrality for election officials are being eroded; and that new attempts to tighten voting rules, driven by false claims about widespread fraud, will further restrict access to the ballot, especially for minority communities.
Joanna Lydgate, the CEO of States United Action, which works to protect fair elections, raised yet more dangers.
“The undermining of public confidence, and the attempts to confuse voters, have a huge impact,” said Lydgate. “Democracy relies on public confidence, it relies on participation, it relies on people believing in the system. And when you have people in elected office who are continuing to spread lies and conspiracy theories, that runs a risk of confusing voters and deterring people from participating in the system. So the threat is alive and well.”
Here’s a closer look at the five secretaries of state:
Monae Johnson, South Dakota
Johnson, a former staffer in the secretary of state’s office, was elected in November after winning the GOP nomination over the incumbent at last year’s convention.
Johnson disputes the denier label, but asked by South Dakota Searchlight during the campaign whether the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump, she said: “I’m going to leave that question up to those people that are actually in the fight for it.” Asked in a different interview whether Biden won legitimately, she said: “I’m not going to acknowledge that.”
Johnson has said she doesn’t plan to propose any of her own bills this session, but has promised to fight any measure to allow voters to register online — a popular reform that all but 11 states now offer.
Personnel changes in the office have drawn attention. Johnson removed a number of staff, including the state’s well-regarded elections director, Kia Warne, who had been with the office since 1993. Warne’s replacement, Elaine Jensen, who served as a county elections auditor for 17 years before coming to the secretary of state’s office, also left in January after just a few weeks on the job, said Rachel Soulek, the office’s elections director and spokesperson.
“You learn who’s your friend and who’s not your friend when you do things like this,” Johnson told an interviewer when asked about the turnover. “You learn who you can trust and who you can’t.”
Meanwhile, Johnson has hired as a federal and state elections coordinator Logan Manhart, a 24-year-old “America First” political activist and former Trump campaign staffer who attended the Jan. 6, 2021 protests in Washington, D.C., and later defended attendees as “protesting for a cause we believed in.” (On the evening of Jan. 6, Manhart, who has not been connected with the attack on the Capitol, called the day’s events “disgusting,” adding: “Millions of patriots peaceably assembled, and it was tainted by a reckless few.”)
Manhart ran last year as a Republican for the state legislature, but dropped out after Democrats charged that he was violating South Dakota election law, which requires officeholders to have lived in the state for at least the previous two years.
On Twitter, Manhart has praised “2,000 Mules,” a debunked conspiracist film alleging that the 2020 election was stolen through mass stuffing of vote-by-mail drop boxes. After States Newsroom asked Johnson’s office about Manhart’s tweets, they were set to private.
Berk Ehrmantraut, the executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party, called Manhart’s intensely partisan public comments “not appropriate for someone who needs to be impartially conducting elections.”
“Logan has shown nothing but professionalism since joining the office and has assisted every individual who he has worked with,” Soulek told States Newsroom.
Wes Allen, Alabama
Allen, a Republican who took office in January, has said that in 2020, “the election process did not work.” And, as a state lawmaker, he supported Texas’ effort to have the U.S. Supreme Court overturn Biden’s victories in four pivotal states.
Many election officials aim to encourage voting while also keeping elections secure, but Allen has said it isn’t his job to try to get more people to vote. Alabama’s voting rate in 2022 ranked 46th among states, according to estimates by the U.S. Elections Project.
“Our job is to help give (local election staff and law enforcement) the resources they need to make sure our elections are run in the most safe, secure, and transparent way possible,” Allen told a conservative radio host last month. “Our job is not to turn people out. That is the job of the candidates — to make people excited to go to the polls.”
That philosophy appears to have informed the highest-profile action Allen has taken in office so far: A day after being sworn in, he withdrew Alabama from the Electronic Registration Information Center, known as ERIC, a 32-state data-sharing partnership that has won praise from election-management experts for helping states keep clean and accurate voter rolls.
Explaining the move, Allen cited privacy concerns, but he also said he opposed ERIC because it requires the secretary of state’s office to contact eligible but unregistered voters and urge them to register.
During the campaign, Allen called ERIC a “Soros-funded, leftist group” — a reference to George Soros, the billionaire funder of liberal causes and a frequent Republican target. Allen’s predecessor in office, John Merrill, a conservative Republican, has said he disagrees about ERIC and has tried to ensure that Allen is “properly educated” on the subject.
Allen has said he wants to see legislation to restrict “ballot harvesting,” in which people collect absentee ballots from multiple voters and deliver them to drop boxes or election offices — sometimes in return for payment.
Though ballot harvesting has in a few cases been linked to genuine fraud or illegal voting, Arizona’s anti-ballot-harvesting law was used to jail a local Democratic volunteer and former mayor for collecting and delivering four ballots from community members.
Rodreshia Russaw, the executive director of The Ordinary People Society, an Alabama-based nonprofit that works with formerly incarcerated people, including helping them register to vote, told States Newsroom she’s concerned that such a law could disenfranchise large numbers of Black voters, by deterring this kind of work.
“If this type of law is passed, it’s going to count thousands of voters out,” Russaw said.
A spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office did not respond to a request for comment about Allen’s record so far and plans for the future.
Cord Byrd, Florida
Byrd, a former state legislator, was appointed secretary of state by DeSantis in May. Unlike some other chief election officials, he hasn’t sought to make an issue of the 2020 contest. But, asked soon after taking office whether Biden won the election, he refused to say, pointing to “irregularities in certain states.” The Tampa Bay Times reported that Byrd, when asked, repeatedly said Biden was certified for the office by Congress, “but when pressed about whether Biden won the election, Byrd pointed to issues with voting in several other states.”
Byrd runs Florida’s election integrity unit, created last year by DeSantis to crack down on illegal voting. The unit fields reports of voter fraud. A separate team within the Florida Department of Law Enforcement conducts actual criminal investigations.
Despite the high-profile announcement last summer of 20 arrests, including one man arrested at gunpoint, there have been only two convictions so far, and neither appears to involve serious wrongdoing. (The cases are not brought by the election integrity unit, but instead by local prosecutors — though this week state lawmakers passed a bill that would see them handled by a statewide prosecutors office.)
One conviction came through a plea deal that involved no punishment, and in the other, the defendant is awaiting sentencing after rejecting a deal that would have involved no punishment beyond time served.
Many of those charged have said they thought they were eligible to vote under Florida’s 2018 rights-restoration measure, and were sent a voter registration card by the state. Voting advocates say the arrests could scare eligible voters out of getting their rights restored.
Still, Byrd told lawmakers at a hearing last month that fully staffing the controversial unit, including hiring a new director, is a top priority. His budget request would more than double the unit’s funding, allowing it to grow from 15 to 27 employees.
“I think for some amount of time the laws went unenforced,” Byrd said at the hearing. “And when people know the laws aren’t going to be enforced, they engage in different behavior.”
In January, the unit hired as its assistant director Brooke Renney, an experienced GOP political operative who worked on the election campaign of former Gov. Rick Scott, among other Republicans.
“I will never tell you I know everything about election integrity or administration and what does or doesn’t happen in an election,” Renney acknowledged in a podcast episode she hosted last year called “Operative Life.” Asked by a Florida news station about Renney’s qualifications for the role, a spokesman for the Department of State called the question a “smear,” adding: “Her experience in the field, including helping Floridians who were victimized by election crimes, gives her valuable insight into the operations of elections and combatting election crimes.”
Byrd also wants to add new rules for mail-in voting, which was used by over a third of all Florida voters last year. A 60-page report on mail-in voting prepared by Byrd’s office for lawmakers recommended requiring that county election supervisors verify the signature of any voter requesting a mail ballot, and barring voters from requesting a mail ballot by phone. Voting rights advocates have called the ideas “asinine.”
A spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office did not respond to a request for comment about Byrd’s record so far and plans for the future.
Chuck Gray, Wyoming
Gray won a competitive race for the Republican nomination, then was unopposed in the general election. He has called the 2020 presidential election “clearly rigged,” and has hosted screenings of “2,000 Mules” at campaign events.
Gray campaigned on a pledge to “expose voter fraud” and “stop cheaters from trying to steal our elections.” He has zeroed in on banning ballot drop boxes, which he has said, with little evidence, pose a security risk. In February, Gray went before lawmakers to oppose a Republican bill that would have tightened the rules around the use of drop boxes, without eliminating them.
“A key priority of mine is to end the use of ballot drop boxes,” Gray said, “a position which is only strengthened by the increased security risk posed by ballot drop boxes around the country.”
Among Gray’s other priorities, he has said, are tightening the state’s voter ID law, banning “ballot harvesting,” and banning private funding of elections offices
As his chief policy officer and general counsel, Gray hired Joe Rubino, who graduated from law school in 2021 and is the nephew of U.S. Rep. Harriet Hageman, the Trump-endorsed Republican who beat former U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney last year.
Rubino replaced Monique Meese, who had announced her exit in August, citing Gray’s questioning of the integrity of the election system. Meese is one of 13 staffers who have resigned from the office since Gray’s primary victory, including four out of five executive-level staffers.
A spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office did not respond to a request for comment about Gray’s record so far and plans for the future.
Diego Morales, Indiana
Morales defeated incumbent Holli Sullivan for the GOP nomination at the party convention, before being elected in November. He was the only successful candidate who was part of the “America First” coalition, which was founded by former Nevada state lawmaker Jim Marchant, a leading election denier.
In an op-ed last year, Morales wrote that he and others had “deep skepticism regarding the accuracy of the 2020 presidential election,” calling the contest “a sham.” In an interview later in the campaign, Morales called Biden “the legitimate president,” without acknowledging that his stance had changed.
During the campaign, Morales called for a slew of far-reaching new voting restrictions, including cutting the early voting period in half, tightening the rules on who can vote by mail, requiring proof of citizenship during registration, and creating an “election task force” to probe illegal voting.
Since taking office, Morales hasn’t pushed for any of those measures, and his budget request to lawmakers didn’t include funds for the task force.
But he said in a January interview that he plans to introduce a bill to require people who vote by mail to include a government-issued photo ID. A similar requirement in Florida was unanimously criticized by county election directors as potentially disenfranchising for large numbers of voters.
“My priority is to make Indiana a national model for election confidence and integrity,” Morales said in an inaugural speech in January.
The secretary of state’s office did not respond to a request for comment about Morales’ record so far and plans for the future.
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