As poll pundits cheered electoral conspiracy theorists’ losses in numerous high-profile Election Day races, Paddy McGuire prepared to hand over his office to one of them.
McGuire, the Mason County auditor in western Washington, lost his bid for re-election to Steve Duenkel, a Republican who has repeated former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. Duenkel, who called a prominent campaigner district conspirator and led a door-to-door effort to detect voter fraud, defeated McGuire by 100 votes in the conservative-leaning county of 60,000.
“There are all these stories about secretary of state nominees who have declined elections that they lost in purple states,” McGuire said, referring to the state office that usually oversees the vote. “But the deputy ministers don’t count ballots. Those of us on the ground, whether we’re clerks or auditors or recorders, do.”
Republicans who backed Trump’s bid to overturn the 2020 election lost bids for statewide offices that play a key role in overseeing voting in the six states that decided the last presidential election, as well as in races across the country.
However, an untold number won in local elections to control seats that conduct on-the-ground election operations in counties, cities and municipalities across the country.
“Without a doubt, election denial is alive and well and a constant threat,” said Joanna Lydgate of the United States, a group that highlights the danger of electoral conspiracy theorists trying to take control of the election.
Of the nine Republicans running for secretary of state who repeated Trump’s lies about the 2020 presidential election or supported his efforts to overturn their results, three won — all in Republican-dominated states.
In Alabama, state Rep. Wes Allen doesn’t even wait to take office before making waves. Last week, he announced that once he becomes secretary of state he will withdraw from ERIC, a multi-state voter registration database. The system is designed to alert states when voters need to be removed because they have relocated, but has become the target of election conspiracy theorists.
Allen echoed those conspiracy theories during his campaign, but in a statement last week he said he was motivated by a desire to protect the privacy of Alabama voters. His call to leave ERIC drew a sharp rebuke from the state’s outgoing secretary of state, John Merrill, a fellow Republican.
“So if Wes Allen intends to remove Alabama from its relationship with ERIC, how does he intend to maintain election security without access to the necessary data, legal authority, or ability to conduct proper voter roll maintenance?” Merrill’s office said in a statement, citing how ERIC flags when a voter has moved out of state and can be removed from Alabama rolls.
In deeply conservative Wyoming, Republican Chuck Gray was the only candidate for secretary of state on the ballot. Once he won the GOP primary in August, his rise was guaranteed.
In Indiana, Diego Morales toppled the secretary of state, a fellow Republican, during the party’s nominating convention by echoing Trump’s conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election. He toned down his rhetoric during his successful general election campaign .
Morales did not respond to a request for comment. He was the only one of 17 Republican election conspiracy theorists in a group called the Coalition for America’s First Secretary of State to win his general election race.
The record is much murkier at the local level, where elections are actually held and ballots are counted.
There are thousands of separate election offices in the U.S. In many states, elections are conducted by county offices overseen by clerks or auditors, although in some they are run at the municipal level in cities or even towns.
No organization monitors local election offices. The Democratic group Run for Something, alarmed by the prospect of election conspirators occupying these positions, launched an initiative this year to support candidates it called “defenders of democracy.” It was estimated that 1,700 separate elections were held either for positions to conduct elections or for bodies such as county boards that appoint the returning officers.
Amanda Litman, co-founder of the organization, said the group attended 32 races where it endorsed candidates. Their candidate has won 17 matches and lost 12, while three have yet to be called up. The most important thing, he said, was that they won eight games against the no-choices and lost only three.
“It’s generally a good sign that when you’re able to make the stakes of the fight for democracy, you’re winning,” Littman said.
Still, he added, it’s difficult to track down all the potential election conspiracists who have infiltrated local offices: “It’s a bit of an unknown.”
Some prominent election conspiracy theorists did win local seats.
In the Atlanta area, Bridget Thorne, who attended numerous Fulton County Commission meetings to talk about conspiracy theories revolving around the 2020 election, won a seat on the commission. However, it is dominated by Democrats, so it will likely have limited ability to lobby the county’s caucuses.
In Washoe County, the Nevada swing district that includes Reno, Republican Mike Clark won one of five county commission seats. He told a local newspaper that “I have no personal knowledge” of whether President Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election.
And in Mason County, Duenkel spread conspiracy theories about local and national elections. He helped lead a team of volunteers who went door-to-door to check for voters who didn’t live where they were registered and claimed to have found thousands. A local TV station retraced their steps and found several mistakes by the team.
However, every Republican on the ballot won Mason County this election. McGuire said he called Duenkel to congratulate him and left a voicemail, but never got a call back. Duenkel also did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.
“He got more votes than I did and he won,” McGuire said. “That’s what an election professional does — he respects the will of the voters and stands behind the results, whether he’s happy with the result or not.”
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