As election experts cheered the losses of election conspiracy theorists in numerous high-profile races on Election Day on Election Day, Paddy McGuire prepared to hand over office to one of them.
McGuire, the comptroller of Mason County in western Washington, lost his re-election bid to Steve Duenkel, a Republican who has repeated former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. Duenkel, who invited a prominent election conspirator to the area and led a door-to-door effort to uncover voter fraud, defeated McGuire by 100 votes in the conservative-leaning county of 60,000.
“There’s all these stories about the refuser to vote who’s got secretary nominees who lost in purple states,” McGuire said, referring to the state office that normally oversees voting. “But foreign ministers don’t count ballots. Those of us on the ground, whether we’re clerks or auditors or clerks, do that.”
Republicans who supported Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election lost bids for statewide offices, which play a key role in overseeing voting in the six states that decided the last presidential election, as well as races across the country.
But untold numbers won in local elections to control the positions that conduct field electoral operations in counties, cities and towns across the country.
“Without a doubt, election denial is alive and well and this is an ongoing threat,” said Joanna Lydgate of States United, a group that highlights the risk of election conspiracy theorists trying to take over election administration.
Of the nine Republicans who ran 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 representative Wes Allen doesn’t even wait to take office before making waves. Last week he announced that he would retire from ERIC, a multi-state voter registration database, once he becomes foreign secretary. The system is designed to notify states when voters need to be removed because they’ve moved, but it has become a target for election conspiracy theorists.
Allen repeated these conspiracy theories throughout his campaign, but in a statement last week he instead 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 plans 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 the ability to conduct proper voter roll maintenance?” The Office of Merrill said in a statement, noting how ERIC marks when a voter has moved out of the state and can be removed from Alabama’s lists.
In deeply conservative Wyoming, Republican Chuck Gray was the only candidate on the ballot for Secretary of State. When he won the GOP primary in August, his rise was guaranteed.
In Indiana, Diego Morales ousted the acting secretary of state, a fellow Republican, during the party’s nominating convention by repeating Trump’s conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election. During his successful federal election campaign, he reined in his rhetoric.
Morales did not respond to a request for comment. He was the only one of 17 Republican election conspirators in a group called the America First Secretary of State Coalition to win his race in the general election.
At the local level, where elections are actually held and ballots counted, the record is far grimmer.
There are thousands of separate polling stations in the United States. In many states, elections are conducted by county offices overseen by clerks or chartered accountants, although in some they are administered at the municipal level in cities or even townships.
No organization tracks local voting offices. The Democrat group Run for Something, alarmed at the prospect of election conspirators filling those posts, this year launched an initiative to support candidates it described as “defenders of democracy.” It has been estimated that 1,700 separate elections were held either for offices to administer elections or for bodies such as county commissions which appoint election officers.
Amanda Litman, co-founder of the organization, said the group has tracked 32 races in which it has supported contestants. Your contestant has won 17 races and lost 12, while three remain to go. Most importantly, she said, they won eight races against electoral deniers and lost only three.
“It’s generally a good sign that when you’re able to stake the race for democracy, you’re winning,” Litman said.
Still, she added, it’s difficult to track down all the potential election conspiracy theorists who have infiltrated local offices: “It’s a bit unknown.”
Some prominent electoral conspiracy theorists won local posts.
In the Atlanta area, Bridget Thorne, who has attended numerous Fulton County Commission meetings to speak out on conspiracy theories surrounding the 2020 election, won a job on the commission. However, it’s dominated by Democrats, so she’s likely to be limited in her ability to pressure the county Electoral Department.
In Washoe County, the swing area of Nevada that includes Reno, Republican Mike Clark won one of the 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 promoted conspiracy theories about local and national elections. He helped lead a group of volunteers who went door-to-door looking for voters who didn’t live where they were registered and claimed they found thousands. A local TV station retraced their steps and found numerous mistakes made by the group.
Despite this, every Republican on the Mason County ballot won that election. McGuire said he called Duenkel to congratulate him and left him a voicemail but never received a call back. Duenkel also did not respond to inquiries from The Associated Press.
“He got more votes than me and he won,” McGuire said. “That’s what an election professional does — respect the will of the voters and stand behind the results, whether you’re happy with the result or not.”
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