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Behind the Campaign to Put Election Deniers in Charge of Elections


In trying to determine the precise moment when the job of secretary of state was repurposed from a mainly administrative office in state governments to a linchpin in the right-wing effort to manipulate elections, January 2, 2021, would be an obvious place to start. That’s when Donald Trump, who had lost the Presidency two months earlier, cajoled, threatened, and pleaded with Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state, to “find” the 11,780 votes that would have reversed that outcome. Raffensperger, a Republican previously best known for his role in the widely contested removal of thousands of voters from the state rolls, rebuffed the former President, explaining that Trump’s claims of widespread voter fraud in Georgia were untrue. Not surprisingly, Raffensperger was branded a RINO—Republican in Name Only. He was then challenged in the Republican primary, in May, by Representative Jody Hice, a Trump acolyte. As a member of Congress, Hice had twice tried to overturn the 2020 election, first by joining with other Republicans in urging the Supreme Court to reject the results in Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, and later, on January 6th, by refusing to certify Joe Biden’s victory. Hice promised that, if he were elected secretary of state, he would attempt to retroactively decertify the election. Raffensperger defeated Hice to win the nomination, by a margin of nearly twenty per cent, with help from swing voters and out-of-state money, most notably from the pro-democracy Republican Accountability PAC.

The plan to transform the job of secretary of state, however, actually began months earlier and, despite Hice’s high-profile loss, it continues. On November 4, 2020, the day after Trump’s defeat, the Guardian reported on a plan from a group of QAnon adherents to help elect MAGA-friendly secretary-of-state candidates across the country. Jim Marchant, who had served a single term in the Nevada legislature, had just been defeated in a bid for Congress—he later claimed, “I was a victim of voter fraud”—and was planning to run again in 2022. Around the same time, he met with a QAnon booster known as Juan O. Savin who, along with others, urged him to run, instead, for secretary of state. (Marchant did not respond to requests for comment; Savin could not be reached.)

In May of last year, Marchant and Savin created the America First Secretary of State Coalition. It started with just five members, but has grown to include more than a dozen candidates for office in various states, including Hice, in Georgia, and Doug Mastriano, who is currently the Republican nominee for governor of Pennsylvania. (In Pennsylvania, the governor selects the chief election official; according to the RealClearPolitics polling average, Mastriano currently trails the Democratic nominee, Josh Shapiro, by only about five points.) As Marchant told the QAnon-affiliated Patriot Double Down conference in Las Vegas, last October, “I knew right then that they had figured out . . . we need to take back the secretaries-of-state offices around the country.” He added, “Not only did they ask me to run, they asked me to put together a coalition of other like-minded secretary-of-state candidates. I got to work, Juan O. Savin helped, and we did, we formed a coalition.” According to the coalition’s Web site, its mission is to “promote and establish messaging that Secretary of State elections all across the country are a priority and are currently our most important elections because they are predominantly responsible for the election process in each state.” Marchant has said that the coalition is working “behind the scenes to try to fix 2020 like President Trump said.” On a podcast hosted by Steve Bannon, he said, “If we get just a few of the candidates that we have in our coalition, we save our country.” In June, Marchant won the Nevada Republican primary.

The potential threat that this effort presents to actual election integrity and the rule of law is illustrated by Mark Finchem, who is serving his fourth term in the Arizona House of Representatives, and is the coalition’s candidate for secretary of state there. Finchem, who has identified as an Oath Keeper in the past, was part of a group that tried to advance a false slate of Presidential electors in 2020, and has said that, if he had been secretary of state then, “we would have won.” In January, he co-sponsored a bill in the Arizona House that would give the state legislature—which is currently in Republican hands—the power to reject the results of an election. He won the Republican nomination for secretary of state in August.

Like Arizona, Nevada totters between red and blue, and a little more than a third of its voters are unattached to either party, in part because of a “motor-voter” law that automatically registers people to vote when they obtain a Nevada license. (The system registers people without a party affiliation; voters have to fill out additional paperwork to align themselves with a party.) A Republican operative in the state told me that, while many people who are registered automatically aren’t likely to cast ballots, polls show that unaffiliated moderates, who do vote, are trending Republican, and that may give an edge to Marchant. So might the fact that, this year, more Democrats in Nevada have switched to the G.O.P. than the other way around. Nevadans, the operative said, have not been immune to the illiberal rhetoric that has captured so many Americans. “Until about 2016, the candidate was much more important than the party. But Nevada sort of succumbed to the same sort of political trade winds as the rest of the country, and this is making it more partisan than it used to be.” He added that putting Marchant in charge of Nevada elections “would be like giving three shots of tequila and car keys to a teen-ager.”

Marchant, while working with Savin to gather America First candidates, established the Conservatives for Election Integrity PAC, ostensibly to fund those campaigns, including his own. The PAC’s most recent contribution report states that its largest donors are a real-estate company run by Matthew Brimhall, who was a corporate officer of the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas, and the America Project, a nonprofit “social welfare” organization that aims to act like “a ‘symphony conductor’ of the Pro-Freedom, Pro-Constitutional movement,” and was founded by the former Overstock C.E.O. Patrick Byrne; Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national-security adviser; and Flynn’s brother, Joe. A spokesperson for the America Project said that nobody at the organization had heard of C.F.E.I. PAC, despite multiple donations listed in contribution reports. Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump adviser who was involved in the proposal to replace legitimate slates of electors with MAGA supporters, runs a consulting group that has received funds from the PAC. Earlier this month, federal agents with a court-authorized search warrant seized Ephsteyn’s phone, as part of the Justice Department’s ongoing investigation into Trump’s effort to reverse the results of the election.

If the C.F.E.I. PAC is directly funding any campaign other than Marchant’s, it is not obvious from its expenditures. The office of Nevada’s current secretary of state, Barbara Cegavske, received formal complaints from one of his primary opponents, and from a national political-action committee that supports Democratic candidates, claiming that he is using the C.F.E.I. to skirt campaign-finance regulations. (Cegavske, a Republican who is term limited, was herself censured by the Nevada Republican Party for rejecting the stolen-election narrative. She declined to comment for this piece.) One complaint alleges that, in addition to donating ten thousand dollars to Marchant’s campaign—the legal limit—the PAC has used at least sixty thousand dollars to pay for ads promoting his candidacy. Marchant is also being supported by Robert Beadles, a cryptocurrency investor who recently moved to Nevada from California and began spending money to implement a “precinct strategy” to replace local G.O.P. officials. Last year, Beadles told Steve Bannon, “These RINOs that are in office, you know, they keep letting us down. We need to do like a peaceful purge, you know, bringing in America Firsters. You know, we need to take back our votes.” Earlier this year, Beadles funded a series of attacks against Bob Lucey, a moderate Republican commissioner in Washoe County, Nevada, who was running for reëlection. In June, Lucey lost his primary. “It seems like now the Republicans, at least the extremists, are putting functional moderates that don’t adhere to the election-integrity issue in their sights,” he told me. This summer, nearly two years after Trump lost the election, the Washoe County G.O.P. voted to reject that result.

Even before Marchant won the Republican nomination in Nevada, he was attempting to change how elections are run in the state. As he campaigned, he pushed local election officials to abandon their computerized voting systems and revert to paper ballots and hand counting. Seven of the state’s seventeen counties have considered making the switch, even though it has been shown that counting ballots manually is prone to mistakes. Commissioners in two counties—Esmeralda and Nye—have already voted to ask their clerks to switch. In June, it took more than seven hours for election officials in Esmeralda to count three hundred and seventeen paper ballots. In Nye, where some thirty thousand ballots are expected to be cast in the midterms, the long-standing clerk there, a Republican who opposed the change, resigned, and the county commissioners appointed Mark Kampf, a Marchant supporter who questioned the outcome of the 2020 election, to replace her. The new system, Marchant told the commissioners, is one “that we can roll out all over the country.”




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