Election conspiracists claim some races for local offices

Nov 19, 2022, 5:52 AM | Updated: 6:04 am
FILE - Paddy McGuire, Democrat incumbent Mason County auditor, left, shakes hands with his election...

FILE - Paddy McGuire, Democrat incumbent Mason County auditor, left, shakes hands with his election opponent Republican Steve Duenkel, right, before a candidate forum, Oct. 13, 2022, in Shelton, Wash. Between is Mason County Commissioner Sharon Trask. (AP Photo/John Froschauer, File)

(AP Photo/John Froschauer, File)

As voting experts cheered the losses of election conspiracy theorists in numerous high-profile races on Election Day, Paddy McGuire prepared to hand over his office to one of them.

McGuire, the auditor of Mason County in western Washington, lost his reelection bid to Steve Duenkel, a Republican who has echoed former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. Duenkel, who invited a prominent election conspiracist to the area and led a door-to-door effort to find voter fraud, defeated McGuire by 100 votes in the conservative-leaning county of 60,000.

“There are all these stories about the election denier secretary of state candidates who lost in purple states,” said McGuire, referring to the state office that normally oversees voting. “But secretaries of state don’t count ballots. Those of us on the ground, whether we’re clerks or auditors or recorders, do.”

Republicans who supported Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election lost bids for statewide offices that play key roles in overseeing voting in the six states that decided the last presidential election, as well as in races across the country.

But an untold number won in local elections to control the positions that run on-the-ground election operations in counties, cities and townships across the country.

“Without a doubt, election denial is alive and well, and this is a continuing threat,” said Joanna Lydgate of States United, a group highlighting the risk of election conspiracy theorists trying to take over election administration.

Of the nine Republicans running for secretary of state who echoed Trump’s lies about the 2020 presidential election or supported his efforts to overturn its results, three won — all in Republican-dominated states.

In Alabama, state Rep. Wes Allen isn’t even waiting to take office before making waves. Last week, he announced that once he becomes secretary of state he will withdraw from ERIC, a multistate database of voter registrations. The system is designed to notify states when voters need to be removed because they’ve relocated, but it’s become a target of election conspiracy theorists.

Allen echoed those conspiracy theories during 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 exit ERIC drew a stark 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 capability to conduct proper voter list maintenance?” Merrill’s office said in a statement, referencing how ERIC flags when a voter has moved out of state and can be removed from Alabama’s rolls.

In deeply conservative Wyoming, Republican Chuck Gray was the only candidate for secretary of state on the ballot. Once he won the GOP primary in August, his ascension was guaranteed.

In Indiana, Diego Morales ousted the incumbent secretary of state, a fellow Republican, during the party’s nominating convention by echoing Trump’s conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election. He reined in his rhetoric during his successful general election campaign.

Morales did not respond to a request for comment. He was the only one of 17 Republican election conspiracists in a group called the America First Secretary of State Coalition to win his general election race.

The record is far murkier at the local level, where elections are actually run and ballots are counted.

There are thousands of separate election offices in the U.S. In many states, elections are conducted by county offices overseen by clerks or auditors, though in some they are administered at the municipal level in cities or even townships.

No organization tracks local election offices. The Democratic group Run for Something, alarmed at the prospect of election conspiracists occupying these posts, started an initiative to support candidates it dubbed “defenders of democracy” this year. It estimated 1,700 separate elections were being held either for posts to run elections, or for bodies such as county commissions that appoint election directors.

Amanda Litman, co-founder of the organization, said the group was tracking 32 races where they supported candidates. Their candidate won in 17 races and lost in 12, while three have yet to be called. Most significantly, she said, they won eight races against election deniers, and lost only three.

“It’s generally a good sign that when you’re able to make the stakes of the race about democracy, you win,” Litman said.

Still, she added, it’s hard to track all the potential election conspiracy theorists who got into local office: “It’s a little bit unknowable.”

Some prominent election conspiracy theorists did win local posts.

In the Atlanta area, Bridget Thorne, who attended numerous meetings of the Fulton County Commission to talk about conspiracy theories revolving around the 2020 election, won a post on the commission. However, it’s dominated by Democrats, so she likely will have limited ability to bring pressure on the county’s elections department.

In Washoe County, the swing area in Nevada that includes Reno, Republican Mike Clark won one of the five county commission seats. He told a local newspaper that “I don’t have any personal knowledge” of whether President Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election.

And in Mason County, Duenkel spread conspiracy theories about local and national elections. He helped lead a group of volunteers who went door-to-door checking for voters who didn’t live where they were registered, and claimed they had found thousands. A local television station retraced their steps and found numerous errors by the group.

Still, every Republican on the ballot won Mason County this election. McGuire said he called Duenkel to congratulate him and left him a voice mail, but never got a call back. Duenkel also did not respond to requests for comment 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 one is happy about the outcome or not.”

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Learn more about the issues and factors at play in the midterms at https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections. And follow the AP’s election coverage of the 2022 elections at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections.

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Associated Press coverage of democracy receives support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Election conspiracists claim some races for local offices