alarm bells ring in red states where election deniers are set to lead election offices

A poll worker speaks to people as they wait in line to vote in the Republican primary election at the Old Wilson Schoolhouse Community Center in Wilson, Wyoming, on Aug. 16, 2022.
PATRICK T. FALLON via Getty Images

In June, Wyoming’s secretary of state came out forcefully against MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell’s effort to spread lies about the 2020 election. Then-Secretary of State Ed Buchanan (R) said Lindell was “NOT the purveyor of election integrity truth” but rather a “peddler of pillows and promises.”

Buchanan quoted Socrates and painstakingly detailed all of the ways Lindell had avoided providing any evidence of his claims. “No credible candidate for any office in Wyoming can say that Wyoming lacks election integrity,” Buchanan said.

Things have changed in the state.

Buchanan left the office last month for a state judgeship, leaving behind an interim secretary. Now, the race to become Wyoming’s top election official is uncontested: State Rep. Chuck Gray (R), a Donald Trump-endorsed election denier who has referred to the 2020 race as “clearly rigged,” is next in line for the job.

Gray is part of a wave of red state candidates for top election jobs who are bringing Trump’s election lies with them into office. Outside of nationwide media attention and the checks of a bipartisan state government, they may end up with more political leverage to act on Trump’s lies than others in more closely watched states like Michigan and Nevada.

In Indiana, Republican Secretary of State candidate Diego Morales has denounced the 2020 election as a “scam” and called for “every Hoosier vote in-person” with only limited exceptions. In Wisconsin ― which could elect a veto-proof Republican legislative majority this year ― Republican Amy Loudenbeck has campaigned on taking election authorities away from the state’s bipartisan election commission, and gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels has said there were “certainly illegal ballots” in 2020.

‘The First Time In Anyone’s Memory’

In Wyoming, Gray is the clearest example of what those beliefs would mean in practice. As a state legislator, he wanted Wyoming to join Texas’ lawsuit to overturn the 2020 election results; as a candidate, he has held screenings of the repeatedly debunked conspiracy theory film “2000 Mules,” saying it “clearly demonstrated how the woke, big tech left has stolen elections with ballot drop boxes.” He has promised to ban drop boxes as secretary of state, claiming they “open up our elections to ballot harvesting fraud.”

And, after a visit to the shambolic “audit” of 2020 votes in the Phoenix area ― a review that found no fraud, but did somewhat inexplicably examine ballot paper for bamboo fibers ― Gray pushed to give the Wyoming legislature audit authority and signed a letter saying the election had been plagued by “corruption and mismanagement,” calling for the results to be decertified where they were “inaccurate.”

Some of Wyoming’s clerks, who administer elections at the county level and work closely with the secretary of state, are bracing for impact.

“It does make it difficult at times when somebody questions your integrity,” said Malcolm Ervin, the clerk of Platte County and president of the state’s County Clerks Association.

“It does make it difficult at times when somebody questions your integrity.”

– Malcolm Ervin, president of the County Clerks Association of Wyoming

Ervin said he has spoken to Gray and that he was hopeful Wyoming’s county clerks could keep up their already-close relationship with the secretary of state’s office. But one fact is unavoidable: None of Wyoming’s county clerks think the state’s elections have been tainted by fraud.

“We just hope that we have the opportunity to convince him that in Wyoming, at least, there were no administration issues in 2020 or any election before or since,” Ervin said.

Others aren’t so optimistic.

In August, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reported that unnamed Republicans had approached the political consultant Rebekah Fitzgerald in an unsuccessful effort to scout candidates for an independent challenge to Gray. And Gray’s colleagues in the legislature even considered removing election responsibilities from the secretary of state’s office altogether, in favor of sending them instead to an office overseen by multiple state officials.

“The alarm bells went off for most everybody who doesn’t share the belief that the 2020 election was stolen,” said state Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R), the co-chair of the legislature’s joint elections committee who authored the proposal and has been Gray’s colleague in the Wyoming House for five years. “It was the first time in anyone’s memory that you actually had someone running to be the secretary of state who doesn’t believe in the sanctity of the election and that things were above board.”

‘The Wound That Will Not Heal’

Gray’s not alone in his red state election denialism: In April, three months after Joe Biden took office, Morales, Indiana’s GOP secretary of state nominee, wrote, “If we count every legal vote, President Trump won this election.” A year later, he referred to the election as “the wound that will not heal until it is honestly addressed.”

Morales — who previously worked as a staffer in the Indiana governor’s office when Mike Pence, Trump’s vice president, led the state — has also called for cutting Indiana’s early voting days in half, requiring proof of citizenship when registering to vote, and creating a task force to investigate “shenanigans,” the Associated Press reported.

“It is not voter suppression, it is just common sense, we need to limit absentee ballots,” he told Steve Bannon in January.

“It is not voter suppression, it is just common sense.”

– Diego Morales, Republican nominee for Indiana secretary of state

In Wisconsin, Republican Secretary of State nominee Loudenbeck has not been as explicit with her pronouncements about the last election.

“I am not running on the premise that there was widespread fraud,” she said last year. But she also hasn’t fully distanced herself from the election denial movement.

Pressed by a caller during a radio interview, Loudenbeck wouldn’t say whether she believed Biden had been freely and fairly elected: “Either Joe Biden is the president or he isn’t, and he is,” she said.

Most important for Wisconsinites, Loudenbeck has campaigned on transferring some responsibility from the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission to the secretary of state’s office, even though Wisconsin Republicans previously stripped the office of most of its authority.

“I think there’s a lot of frustration from the public that there is no one directly accountable to the voters that is involved in the administration of elections,” she told Wisconsin Public Radio this month. She separately told NBC News that the commission was “broken” and that many of its election-related duties should be “transferred in whole or part to the office of the secretary of state.”

The WEC has been the target of GOP conspiracy theories ever since Trump’s narrow loss to Biden in the state, with one county sheriff even pushing to have the majority of the members face criminal charges.

And while Democratic Gov. Tony Evers (D) has provided a check for Wisconsin’s GOP-controlled legislature so far, Republicans are just six flipped seats ― five in the state assembly and one in the state senate ― away from a veto-proof supermajority that would open a door to crackdowns on absentee voting, broader powers for Loudenbeck, or even a newly partisan state elections board.

Michaels, the GOP gubernatorial candidate who’s neck-and-neck with Evers, has said he would replace the commission’s current members with one member each from Wisconsin’s eight congressional districts ― which are currently represented 5-3 by Republicans. Michels has also falsely said, “Trump probably would be president right now if we had election integrity.”

Loudenbeck, similarly, told PBS Wisconsin that she has heard from supporters “that the Wisconsin Elections Commission must be abolished and replaced with a new model that can restore confidence in our elections process.”

In Wyoming, Ervin, the county clerks association president, told HuffPost that Gray could attempt to restrict absentee voting, or heighten the ID requirements to register to vote, on top of existing campaign promises to eliminate drop boxes and push more auditing of election results. The candidate didn’t return a request for comment.

Zwonitzer, who chairs the statehouse’s elections committee, said he’s sensed concern from Gray’s colleagues in the legislature over the future secretary’s rhetoric about the last election.

“It just concerns me, the rhetoric of convincing everybody that our elections are at risk and only you can save them,” he said. “There’s just a lot of trepidation.”

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