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They defeated election deniers, but these secretaries of state still fear ‘losing our democracy’

Secretaries of state are looking to 2024 as the next test of American democracy, with a presidential campaign featuring the very candidate that has led the spread of election denial – former president Donald Trump.Wong Maye-E/Associated Press

Secretaries of state, who have increasingly found themselves on the front lines in the fight for democracy, met last week in Washington to discuss how to keep election integrity top of mind as the next presidential election begins to gear up.

Several of the officials gathered at the winter meeting of the National Association of Secretaries of State had beaten back challenges last year from election deniers in contests that in some places attracted as much national attention as a competitive Senate race.

Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes, a Democrat who defeated Republican Mark Finchem, a former Arizona state representative who routinely spread election disinformation, said races like his provided “good perspective” on “how close we still are to losing our democracy.”

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“A lot more people are going to be a lot more realistic when they see that democracy is something that needs to be nurtured,” Fontes said.

According to States United Action, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to fair and secure elections, 22 of the 27 secretary of state races in 2022 included at least one candidate with a platform that incorporated election denial. Just three of those candidates ended up winning in the general election.

Still, secretaries of state are looking to 2024 as the next test of American democracy, with a presidential campaign featuring the very candidate that has led the spread of election denial – former president Donald Trump.

“By and large, the (2022) cycle was successful in tamping down some of the election denial stuff,” said Secretary of State William Galvin of Massachusetts. “However, having said that, there is still a great deal of suspicion out in the country. And it goes beyond the people running for secretary of state.”

Lawrence Norden, the senior director of elections and government program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan election law and policy institute, said the scrutiny targeted at America’s electoral process in the wake of the 2020 election was unprecedented. Secretary of state races shouldn’t have to be seen as an “existential threat to American democracy,” he said.

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“Election officials should be using the last year as an opportunity to strengthen Americans’ confidence in the election system,” Norden said. “There’s a great opportunity to increase transparency in the process and protections in the process for election workers and voters.”

Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s secretary of state, faced a barrage of attacks after she refused to overturn Biden’s win there in 2020. One such attack even came from Trump himself: In an interview with NBC News ahead of the 2022 election, the Democrat said she was told Trump called for her arrest and execution under charges of treason in a White House meeting. Benson told the Globe she was unsurprised when she first heard of the comment, but found it underscored the importance of truthful election work.

When Benson faced off last year with a candidate whose platform centered on election denial, she said it was essential to frame voters’ options as a “clear choice” – voting in favor of voter protections and election equity, or voting to potentially overhaul the state’s existing electoral processes.

An essential part of her work in 2024 will be fostering collaboration across the state and country, both with election officials at all levels and with community stakeholders.

“We need many others, and we need to build partnerships to ensure others are equipped with information to fight misinformation,” Benson said. “Faith leaders, business leaders, sports leaders, community leaders, and many others who have great influence in the communities they serve – we’re going to be equipping them on an ongoing basis.”

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Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, a Democrat, said he walked a fine line between pushing his message about trust in the state’s electoral processes and trying not to elevate the claims made by his election denying opponent.

Still, in the long term, he said the effects of this widespread election denial rhetoric could end up creating positive change for voters.

“It’s a net plus that more people are interested in the details of democracy,” Simon said. “I hope that is sustained. I just think we need to take the temperature down, come to an agreement on what the facts are and continue our never-ending vigorous debate about what our system ought to be.”


Jacob Fulton can be reached at jacob.fulton@globe.com. Follow him @jacobnfulton.