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    Sunday, September 24, 2023

    Election deniers march toward power in key 2024 battlegrounds

    Kari Lake, Republican candidate for Arizona governor, speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas, Friday, Aug. 5, 2022. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
    Republican Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano speaks during the Manufacturer & Business Association's Legislative Luncheon in Erie, Pa. on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022. (Greg Wohlford/Erie Times-News via AP)

    First came Kristina Karamo, a community college instructor from Detroit who claimed without evidence that she witnessed fraud as a 2020 election observer - and who in April became her party's pick for secretary of state, Michigan's top election official, after repeatedly touting those claims.

    Next was Doug Mastriano, the firebrand state lawmaker from Pennsylvania who urged his colleagues to throw out Joe Biden's 2020 victory. In May, Mastriano secured the GOP nomination for governor, a position with the power to certify the state's slate of presidential electors.

    Finally, this month, Arizona Republicans nominated Kari Lake for governor and Mark Finchem for secretary of state. Both are outspoken election deniers who have pledged that they would not have certified Biden's victory in their state.

    The winners fit a pattern: Across the battleground states that decided the 2020 vote, candidates who deny the legitimacy of that election have claimed nearly two-thirds of GOP nominations for state and federal offices with authority over elections, according to a Washington Post analysis.

    Had those candidates held power in 2020, they would have had the electoral clout to try something that the current officeholders refused: overturning the vote and denying Biden the presidency.

    "We would have won," Finchem told supporters in an email. "Plain and simple."

    Whether they could have succeeded in practice is a matter of vigorous debate among scholars, who cite the potential for court challenges and other means of upholding the results.

    But the experts agree on one thing: A close presidential contest that comes down to the outcome in states where officials are willing to try to thwart the popular will could throw the country into chaos. It would potentially delay the result, undermine confidence in the democratic system and sow the seeds of civil strife on a scale even greater than what the nation saw on Jan. 6, 2021.

    "It could easily lead to a situation where a significant portion of the electorate in those states will never believe the election was legitimate even if the courts step in and ensure that the lawfully elected winner is in fact certified as the winner," said Richard Pildes, a constitutional law professor at New York University. Such a situation would be "destabilizing," Pildes added, because the legitimacy of democracy ultimately depends on its citizens believing that elections are fair.

    The predilection among Republican primary voters toward candidates who deny the result of the last election extends well beyond Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona - three states that together accounted for 47 electoral votes in 2020, more than enough to flip the last election to Trump.

    In the 41 states that have held nominating contests this year, more than half the GOP winners so far - about 250 candidates in 469 contests - have embraced Trump's false claims about his defeat two years ago, according to a Post analysis of every race for federal and statewide office with power over elections.

    The proportion of election-denying nominees is even higher in the six critical battlegrounds that ultimately decided the 2020 presidential contest, where Trump most fiercely contested the results. In Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, at least 54 winners out of 87 contests - more than 62% of nominees - have embraced the former president's false claims.

    The count covers offices with direct supervision over election certification, such as secretaries of state, as well as the U.S. House and Senate, which have the power to finalize - or contest - the electoral college count every four years. Lieutenant governors and attorneys general are also included, with each playing a role in shaping election law, investigating alleged fraud or filing lawsuits to influence electoral outcomes.

    Among the six battlegrounds, only Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania have nominated statewide candidates who would have direct power over the certification process and who worked to overturn the 2020 result or have said they would not have certified it.

    Candidates identified by The Post as election deniers have questioned President Biden's victory, opposed the counting of Biden's electoral college votes, expressed support for a partisan post-election ballot review, signed onto a lawsuit seeking to overturn the 2020 result, or attended or expressed support for the 'Stop the Steal' rally on Jan. 6, 2021.

    Many of this year's primaries have coincided with a series of dramatic hearings in which the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack has laid out intimate details of Trump's plot to overturn the 2020 result, his role instigating the violence and the knowledge among many of his allies that Biden had won.

    Even against that backdrop, Republican voters have continued to choose candidates who have echoed the former president's false rhetoric about a rigged election and, in some cases, shown a willingness to subvert the result of a free and fair vote if given the chance.

    "Anybody who was involved in that corrupt, shady, shoddy election of 2020 - lock them up!" Lake exclaimed at a rally with Trump in January. This month, Lake suggested without evidence that fraud had tainted voting in her primary, but she dropped those claims when she won.

    These candidates still have to win their general elections in November, of course - and some of them, including Mastriano, are significantly behind in public polling.

    In 2020, Republican and Democratic officeholders alike served as guardrails on the democratic system by ensuring the certification of the popular vote. To name just one, Rusty Bowers, the Republican Arizona House speaker, resisted pressure from Trump campaign lawyer Rudy Giuliani to overturn Biden's victory.

    Bowers will not be able to reprise that role should the occasion arise in 2024. Term-limited out of his state house seat, he lost his Aug. 2 state senate primary to an election denier. In a text sent to The Post this week, Bowers sized up the state of the Republican Party and its loyalty to Trump's stolen-election claims in three words: "Anger over reason."

    Karamo, Finchem and Mastriano did not respond to The Post's requests for interviews. A Lake spokesman responded to The Post's inquiry with the following statement: "What happened in 2020 won't happen in 2024 with Kari Lake as governor because, unlike last time, Arizona will finally have an elections process that our state can be proud of and confident in."

    Mastriano is arguably the GOP nominee this year who would hold more powers over elections than any other if he becomes Pennsylvania's next governor. The commonwealth's governor is not only empowered to certify the appointment of the winning presidential candidate's slate of electors - as all governors are - but also appoints the secretary of state, who certifies the results and oversees elections generally.

    In a radio interview in March, Mastriano made clear his intentions to use those powers. "I get to appoint the secretary of state, who's delegated from me the power to make the corrections to elections, the voting logs and everything," he said. "I could decertify every machine in the state with the stroke of a pen via the secretary of state. I already have the secretary of state picked out. It's a world-class person that knows voting integrity better than anyone else in the nation, I think, and I already have a team that's gonna be built around that individual."

    In 2020, Mastriano tried to block Pennsylvania's certification of Biden's victory by introducing a resolution asserting incorrectly that the Republican-dominated legislature had the right to choose which electors' votes should be counted. Legislatures can give themselves that power, but federal law prohibits them from imposing a new election law on a contest that has already occurred.

    Mastriano also organized a gathering of Republican state senators in Gettysburg, Pa., in late November 2020, during which Giuliani shared baseless allegations of fraud in the state. And he attended the Jan. 6 riot in Washington, where he was captured on video crossing the police line. Mastriano appeared before the Jan. 6 committee this month but refused to answer questions.

    Across the country in Arizona, Lake and Finchem together would hold similar power as Mastriano in Pennsylvania - including the authority to certify a presidential election result and to certify the votes of the presidential electors, a document that is sent to the National Archives and Congress and is considered an official record of a presidential result.

    Lake, a former longtime local TV anchor, has repeatedly said she does not recognize Biden as the nation's legitimate president. Had she been governor in 2020, she has said she would not have fulfilled her legal duty to certify Arizona's election results, a maneuver that could have disenfranchised the votes of hundreds of thousands of Arizonans who cast their ballots for Biden.

    Arizona's current governor, Republican Doug Ducey, resisted calls from Trump allies to withhold certification, and last month endorsed primary opponents of both Lake and Finchem.

    As a poll watcher, Karamo worked to block the result in Michigan in 2020, testifying to state lawmakers and signing onto legal battles claiming without evidence that she saw rampant fraud.

    Should she become secretary of state, she would be responsible for co-signing the certificate of electors with the Michigan governor, an act she conceivably could decline to do. On Wednesday, she tweeted a link to a post on the Trump-backed social media app Truth Social claiming that the former president would be back in office this year. Later in the day, she claimed her account had been hacked.

    The Republican nominee for governor in Michigan, Tudor Dixon, is also an election denier, but she has not gone so far as to say she would have blocked certification in 2020. Asked if she would do so if she did not trust a future result, her campaign issued the following statement: "Inflation is soaring, our education system is failing, and violent crime is way up across the state. That's my focus, not 'journalists' trying to create a story for clicks."

    In Georgia, Republican voters nominated incumbents for the state's top two offices with power over elections - Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, neither of whom echo Trump's false claims.

    In Nevada, the gubernatorial nominee, Clark County sheriff Joe Lombardo, has said he saw no evidence of fraud in the 2020 contest. The GOP's pick for secretary of state, Jim Marchant, has been a leader of the movement to overturn the 2020 result, but the office he is seeking lacks the power to certify elections.

    In Wisconsin, the nominee for governor, Tim Michels, has said the 2020 election "may" have been stolen but has stopped short of saying he would have blocked certification in his state.

    If GOP candidates make good on their promises to try to block an election result they deem suspicious without evidence of widespread irregularities, it won't happen without a fight. Democrats and voting-rights advocates are already preparing to take legal action if any state officials seek to block the certification of the popular vote.

    Mark Brewer, an election lawyer and former chairman of the Democratic Party of Michigan, said the role of the secretary of state and governor in determining election outcomes is entirely "ministerial," meaning there is no wiggle room to decline to accept the popular result.

    "They have to certify," he said. "And if they refuse, a lawsuit would be brought quickly."

    Cliff Levine, a Democratic election lawyer based in Pittsburgh, offered similar thoughts about Pennsylvania. But Levine said it is not a slam dunk that legal challenges would force recalcitrant election officials to do their jobs. "It's ministerial until you have a dispute," he said.

    Levine warned that there are many other ways an election-denying governor could try to create election-related chaos - by, for instance, decertifying machines, blocking electronic counting of ballots or pushing new policies that went nowhere in 2020, such as empowering the legislature rather than voters to determine which presidential candidate's electors are counted.

    "The systemwide protections to ensure fair and free elections will be severely challenged" if Mastriano wins, Levine warned. "The dam will burst."

    It is also not known what would happen if enough governors refuse to send their elector certificates. John Eastman, the Trump campaign lawyer and architect of the plan to deny Biden the presidency by overturning the results, argued to Trump and his allies that withholding certificates would kick the outcome to the House of Representatives, where each delegation has one vote. Currently, Republicans control 26 state delegations and Democrats control 20. Three are tied, while Alaska's lone congressional seat is vacant.

    The bottom line, legal experts warned, is that any attempt to disrupt the process risks creating even more chaos than what unfolded following the 2020 election.

    "These people are out there saying they are going to do this," said Bradley Schrager, a Democratic election lawyer based in Nevada. "Which means, logically, that there's a constituency out there that yearns for this."

    And if election-denying candidates win in November, having campaigned on the issue, Schrager said they may claim a mandate to address their backers' grievances by whatever means necessary.

    "We're in the world of, 'What are you prepared to do?' 'How far will you go?'" Schrager said. "We're focusing on certification and things of that nature. But all the little things that run an election go through these people. So you could not just gum up an election. You could destroy it."

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    The Washington Post's Nazmul Ahasan, Eva Herscowitz, Audrey Hill, Sammy Sussman and Grace Vitaglione from the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, Yvonne Wingett Sanchez in Arizona, Nick Mourtoupalas and John Sullivan contributed to this report.

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