The critical role secretaries of state will play in midterm elections

Two years later, former President Trump continues to push baseless claims that the 2020 election was rigged, and many Republican candidates vying for office this year are repeating his lies. Amna Nawaz explores three key secretary of state races with Colton Lochhead of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Mary Lahammer of Twin Cities PBS and Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Joe Biden won the presidency in an election deemed free and fair by countless election officials and courts across the country, all of whom rejected false claims of election fraud.

    Two years later, former President Trump continues to push baseless claims that the 2020 election was rigged, and many Republican candidates vying for office this year are repeating his lies. Of the 26 Republicans running for secretary of state across the country, 20 have denied or fueled doubts about the 2020 election results. Only six have defended those results.

    In the vast majority of secretary of state races, the winner will have direct oversight over the election process.

    To explore what's at stake in three key races, in Nevada, Minnesota, and Georgia, we are joined by Colton Lochhead with the Las Vegas Review-journal, Mary Lahammer with Twin Cities PBS, and Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting.

    Welcome to you all. Thank you so much for joining us.

    And, Mary, I want to begin with you, because it's a tight race there for secretary of state in your state of Minnesota between the incumbent, Democrat Steve Simon, the Republican challenger, Kim Crockett.

    Crockett, who's endorsed by Trump, has continued to repeatedly cast doubt on the 2020 election results. So, has she said she will accept the election results if she loses in her race?

  • Mary Lahammer, Twin Cities PBS:

    Yes, it's a great question because it's a nuanced answer.

    The first debate Kim Crockett participated in, the Republican didn't really say that she would accept the results. She cast doubt on 2020, as you mentioned, and initially was casting doubt on accepting the current election results. She later changed her tune a little bit on that one and said she would accept it, as long as it was in the automatic recount margin of error, which, in Minnesota, is 0.25 percent.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, Mary, what about what Crockett has said?

    I mean, she's walked back some of that election denialism. But when it comes to mail-in voting, early voting, has she said where she stands on those issues?

  • Mary Lahammer:

    Yes, she's very skeptical, especially of the expansion of early and mail-in voting, which we started during the pandemic here in Minnesota, expanding that time frame out to many weeks here, more than a month.

    And the secretary of state is a fan of it and says Minnesotans liked it. And they showed up. And we showed up in droves. Minnesota once again, the third time in a row, led the nation in voter turnout. We're very proud of our traditions of high civic engagement here. In a recent poll, more than 80 percent of Minnesotans said they did believe and trust the integrity in Minnesota.

    So, it's fascinating that our secretary of state race is within the margin of error, about 2 percentage points in the latest poll separating the Democrat and the Republican in a state where people vote.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Colton, let's talk about Nevada next. It's another close race so far for secretary of state there between the Republican incumbent, in this case, a man named Jim Marchant, and the Democrat, Cisco Aguilar.

    Now, Aguilar has been endorsed by a Republican congressman, by Adam Kinzinger. But Marchant is a staunch election denier. He repeats the lies about a stolen 2020 election. He's been linked to this dangerous QAnon ideology. I mean, what's at stake in this race?

  • Colton Lochhead, Las Vegas Review-Journal:

    I think what's at stake in this race is just the — there's concern — there are so many concerns about just the integrity of the elections moving forward and whether people can trust the elections.

    Marchant, like you mentioned, has kind of been pushing these election denialism claims. He has been one of the strongest pushers of those, specifically attacking electronic voting machines. He's been leading the push out here in the rural counties, throughout the state, but most strongly in the rural parts of the state, to eliminate electronic voting machines, to move to hand-counting of paper ballots, which would be a complete return, going back — we'd be going backwards decades in terms of kind of modernization of elections.

    And we're actually seeing some of that play out already. One of our — he led the push in Nye County, one of our rural counties out here, to move them away from electronic voting machines. And going into the election, this current election through our early voting system, that county is now moving forward with some hand-counting of ballots already starting, and the movement towards just limiting the amount of voting machines that — electronic voting machines.

    So, people are actually going to be, in that one county, casting some ballots by hand.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Stephen Fowler, let's talk about Georgia, because there was an election denier in the Republican primary who did not advance. So the incumbent Republican, Brad Raffensperger, is now facing Democrat Bee Nguyen.

    Does that mean all the concerns about election denialism or threats to democracy, they're not a part of this race?

  • Stephen Fowler, Georgia Public Broadcasting:

    Well, it's certainly a more limited factor than it would have been if Representative Jody Hice had been the Republican nominee.

    Hice was one of the people that were a key election denier in Georgia, challenging the results of the Electoral College and pushing baseless claims about the election. But Brad Raffensperger has actually been one of the few secretaries of state and few Republicans that stood up to Trump and stood up for these election denial claims.

    So it's really kind of taking a backseat here, because we don't have an election denier running for secretary of state. But the Democrats say that doing the right thing and not committing treason isn't a high bar. So they're arguing that some of Georgia's other voting laws and procedures that have been put in place, especially since the 2020 election, means that the Republicans are doing a more passive way of keeping people from voting, and not necessarily trying to toss out votes like we saw after 2020.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Mary, let's talk about Minnesota for a second again, because I want to see if those messages you mentioned are resonating.

    I mean, what are we seeing so far in terms of the electorate?

  • Mary Lahammer:

    Yes, again, very engaged electorate here, and not just in the secretary of state race, but in all of our statewide constitutional offices.

    The fascinating part of Minnesota is, Democrats have all of the statewide offices. They have the two U.S. Senate seats. They have all four constitutional offices, but at least three out of four of our constitutional offices are now within the margin of error, very, very close races, and, of course, secretary of state, one of the closest.

    And this issue of election denial is front and center. Republican Kim Crockett has tried to walk some of that back by saying she's questioning an election. She at one point was on camera saying that she was the election denier in chief. She said she was joking. It was a joke in front of activists to try and get the base to get out to vote and said, people can't take a joke.

    But she says she wants to raise questions about elections.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Colton, what about in Nevada? Is that election denial message resonating? And what has been the Democrats' strongest message in response to that?

  • Colton Lochhead:

    It's hard to say if it's resonating. Unlike other states, Nevada is a pretty average turnout state. We do have a little bit more of a transient voter base here, kind of people moving in and out of the state pretty regularly.

    And with some of the recent polls we have seen is just it's a tight race, but there's still a lot of undecided voters out there. In terms of — and that election denialism has been the most prominent part of this race. It is the number one issue in this race. And Democrats are hammering that point home throughout the election, basically since the — even before the primaries, a primary in which Jim Marchant actually questioned his own victory, did raise claims that he wasn't sure he could trust his own victory, since it was done on election machines.

    But that has been the absolute most prominent thing. Democrats are raising concerns that Marchant's — if Marchant were to win, that he could unravel the election systems in Nevada just from the top.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And, Stephen, what about in Georgia? You're already seeing early voter turnout shattering records. What does that say to you about how Georgians are viewing this race?

  • Stephen Fowler:

    Well, there certainly is a bit of election fatigue, in the sense that Georgia was ground zero for not one, not two, but three different counts of the 2020 presidential election.

    And to this day, there are still investigations into attempts to overturn the election. So there's not really that high of a tolerance for election denialism in Georgia.

    That said, we are seeing record early voting turnout, and we are seeing a record number of people pay attention to a midterm, that we're seeing close to presidential level turnouts in some cases. And so Republicans are using that as an argument that it's easy to vote and hard to cheat in Georgia and Georgia's election laws make it easy to vote.

    But Democrats, like gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams and Democratic secretary of state nominee Bee Nguyen, are saying that just because a lot of people are voting doesn't mean the voting laws could have kept more people from voting.

    So, I guess the bottom line here in Georgia is that there is a lot of interest in this race, a lot of interest in this midterm, and we're going to see record turnout from both parties in this case to decide who controls the state.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I think it's fair to say a lot of interest in all three of these races, three key races to watch. My thanks to all of you for joining us.

    That is Colton Lochhead, Stephen Fowler, and Mary Lahammer.

    Thank you.

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