Midterm ballots in nearly every state include candidates who believe the 2020 election was fraudulent or “stolen.”
That leaves American election systems at a pivotal moment: If people who deny Joe Biden won the presidency win their own elections on Nov. 8, could they really execute their plans and dismantle the machinery that keeps American democracy running?
Elections expert Sylvia Albert of Common Cause predicted the scenario is inevitable: “We will see somebody who denies the 2020 election win office. We will.”
The candidates’ ideas for reform are varied, but radical. Some want to end voting by mail or early voting. Pennsylvania’s Doug Mastriano floated the idea of requiring voters to re-register if he’s elected governor. Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake proclaimed her primary victory and posed with a sledgehammer she said was intended to be used on electronic voting machines (the same kinds of machines that were used to tabulate her victory).
Could hand-counted ballots and in-person-only voting really be the future?
Trey Grayson, a former Kentucky secretary of state, said election experts need to raise the alarm about how these proposed changes could alter U.S. elections. But individual officials are not all-powerful.
“Just because a denier is elected to an office, doesn’t mean that the denier has free rein to create chaos or subvert the will” of the voters, said Grayson, a Republican.
Many voting rights, such as the right to a mail ballot, are established in state law and cannot be changed unilaterally by one governor or one secretary of state. That said, there are ways in which some of these candidates could use their offices to significantly impact some mainstays of American voting systems.
How might that look? We delved into these campaign ideas to see just how far people who deny the legitimacy of the 2020 election results could go if elected.
State officials can’t unilaterally ban voting by mail, but they could limit it
President Donald Trump showered the 2020 campaign trail with false claims about what he described as the fraudulent nature of voting by mail.
Fraud by mail ballot is statistically rare — and there is no evidence fraud contributed to Biden’s win — but the mail-in ballot still serves as a popular talking point for candidates seeking favor with the pro-Trump electorate.
A multi-state coalition of candidates has been vocal in its opposition to widespread mail voting.
That position comes with inherent contradictions.
Take Nevada secretary of state candidate Jim Marchant, leader of the America First Secretary of State Coalition. He opposes most mail voting but accepted that he won the Republican primary in August through an election where more than half of Nevada’s voters cast mail ballots.
Another member, Arizona secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem, was a state lawmaker who traveled to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump supporters stormed the Capitol to protest the congressional certification of the 2020 election. During a July campaign speech, Finchem said, “I don’t believe in mail in ballots at all. That’s where the fraud happens.”
Many of these candidates indicate they oppose a system that allows anyone to get a ballot ahead of Election Day. But they said they are willing to make exceptions for the military, for example.
Finchem’s path to undo mail voting would be difficult — a 30-year-old state law allows any voter to cast a ballot by mail. And about 75% of Arizona voters right now are on a recurring list to get a mail ballot.
Similarly, in Michigan, the right to vote by mail has been constitutionally protected since 2018, when voters there approved a constitutional amendment providing all voters access to absentee ballots for any reason.
That means any wholesale changes to the law would require the support of state legislators — people who won their own offices under a system that allows mail balloting.
But there are some ways Finchem and other statewide officials could add barriers to voting by mail without legislation.
One: They could change some states’ election procedure manuals.
Arizona’s manual is drafted by the secretary of state for approval by the attorney general and governor. An official could write a manual with onerous requirements for verifying signatures on ballots, for example.
Any sweeping changes to rules or laws would likely face legal challenges. But election deniers in office will have the power of their voice.
“They have an official megaphone to amplify election conspiracy theories and continue to sow doubt about the election system and that makes a crisis much more likely,” said Ben Berwick, counsel at Protect Democracy, a nonprofit founded in late 2016 that says its mission is to prevent the U.S. from “declining into a more authoritarian form of government.”
In Michigan, drop boxes are on the ballot in more ways than one
Ballot drop boxes are another point of contention for some of these candidates. Dinesh D’Souza falsely singled them out in his “2000 Mules” film as being a means of corruption. There’s no evidence of that; they’re often more secure than standalone mailboxes.
In Michigan, Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon said that if she wins against Democrat incumbent Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, she would ban these receptacles from being used for ballot collection.
That would require legislation, said Christopher Thomas, a fellow with the Bipartisan Policy Center and former election director for secretaries of state of both parties in Michigan. “If she had a Republican legislature, she might be able to pull that off,” Thomas said.
That’s not out of the question.
Republicans have control of Michigan’s House and Senate. Newly drawn voting districts offer Democrats a better-than-before chance of wresting control from the GOP, but everything rests on Election Day.
Michiganders’ November ballots also include a measure to expand drop box access. Proposal 2 would require that the state provide at least one drop box for every 15,000 voters in a municipality. It would also establish at least nine days of early voting and require the state to pay postage for absentee applications and ballots.
Any efforts to block election certification would likely face litigation
Some candidates said they would have refused to certify the 2020 election, Nevada’s Marchant and Arizona’s Finchem among them.
This raises concerns that, if elected, they would use their power to try to manipulate results in 2024.
Any efforts to refuse certification of results would face legal challenges, just as they did in 2020. In New Mexico, Otero County refused to certify the 2022 primary results as commissioners said they didn’t trust the machines. In June, the state’s Supreme Court ordered the county to certify results.
Pennsylvania’s Mastriano vowed to decertify election machines he believes were rigged. Mastriano is also aligned with the America First Secretary of State Coalition and was outside at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. His campaign funded buses for people to travel to the rally that occurred before the attack.
If Mastriano won against Democrat Josh Shapiro, he would have the power to appoint the person who could decertify machines, which would mean that those machines could no longer be used. Unlike most states where the secretary of state is elected to oversee elections, Pennsylvania’s chief elections officer is appointed by the governor through a position known as the secretary of the commonwealth.
As a state senator, Mastriano in 2020 sought to delay certifying the election results and pushed to give the General Assembly control of which electors to send to Washington, rather than follow the will of the voters. State Republican leaders rejected that idea. Such a move, along with his suggestion to “restart” voter registration, would face litigation.
Attorney Kevin Greenberg represents the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. He is unapologetically opposed to Mastriano’s proposals on grounds they would violate state and federal laws.
If Mastriano as governor “does even a fraction of what he said he is going to do on voter registration lists and voting machines, we will have chaos, attempted voter suppression and years of litigation,” Greenberg said. “It will make the litigation of 2020 and even 2022 seem like child’s play.”
Federal law could prohibit wiping voter rolls, but one official could make changes
Wiping the voter rolls would violate the purpose of the National Voter Registration Act, Eliza Sweren-Becker, a lawyer for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, previously told PolitiFact. The law sought to increase voter registration, and maintaining voter rolls without requiring everyone to actively re-register prior to a specific election ensures greater access.
But Marchant has vowed that as secretary of state he would remove Nevada from a consortium known as the Electronic Registration Information Center. More than half of the states, including Republican-led Florida and Alabama, belong to the consortium in part because it provides an efficient means of sharing data about voters who have moved or died.
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, a Republican, said that his state uses the database to “preserve a clean and accurate voter list.” Since 2016, the state has used it to remove tens of thousands of voters who died, moved or had duplicate registrations.
As secretary of state, Marchant would need only to provide written notice in order to withdraw. Marchant falsely claimed the consortium is linked to liberal billionaire George Soros.
The dangers of officials replacing machines with hand counts
The Bipartisan Policy Center found that machines lead to faster, more accurate results. Electronic tabulators are used by about 90% of jurisdictions nationwide.
Lake and Finchem filed a lawsuit to get rid of Arizona’s longtime use of election machines, but a judge dismissed it, in part due to lack of standing. In his ruling, the judge wrote that officials take steps to ensure security of election machines including “testing by independent, neutral experts.”
The Arizona state legislature authorized the use of electronic voting systems in 1966; but state law does not require them. Arizona’s secretary of state has the power to decertify the machines, meaning they can eliminate them. So if Finchem wins that seat, it’s possible he could decertify machines and refuse to certify new equipment.
But any effort to eliminate voting machines could face significant hurdles — not the least of which would be adapting to the alternative: hand counting.
Counting millions of ballots statewide by hand would pose a series of logistical challenges, and could drag on for months. That could run afoul of state laws that require official results by a certain date in order to meet certification deadlines.
When contractors hired by Arizona Republicans counted the presidential and Senate races on Maricopa County ballots, they started in April 2021 and it took until September for them to release their findings (which confirmed Biden won).
In Nye County, Nevada, longtime Republican election clerk Sam Merlino retired earlier than planned in protest over a change to count ballots both by hand and electronically. His replacement is a Marchant ally, Mark Kampf, who told PolitiFact he is working to recruit up to 40 volunteers to help with the hand count.
“We have so many checks and balances it seems like we are going backwards,” said Merlino. “I’ve been doing it for 20 years, and I trust the system.”
Sadmira Ramic, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, predicts problems.
“A hand count will not only possibly lead to inaccurate results, but people who are possibly election deniers are counting the votes, which opens up the possibility of tampering,” she said.