By Andrew R.C. Marshall, Joseph Tanfani and Peter Eisler
(Reuters) - Two far-right U.S. politicians who want to upend the way votes are cast and counted are tied or leading in races to become the top election administrators in their states, according to recent polls.
Republicans Jim Marchant of Nevada and Mark Finchem of Arizona promote wild conspiracy theories about how the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. A victory in November could allow them, as secretaries of state, to restrict voting access or seek to block certification of results in these two critical battlegrounds for presidential elections.
Marchant and Finchem want to curtail or abolish early voting, mail-in voting and ballot drop-boxes, claiming without evidence that they breed fraud. Both advocate banning electronic voting machines and returning to hand-counted paper ballots to secure elections. Election experts and officials of both major parties have said such changes would actually make elections more prone to fraud and error, while making it harder for citizens to vote.
Finchem and Marchant are among the strongest of 13 secretary-of-state candidates who falsely claim the 2020 election was rigged. Two, in the Republican strongholds of Wyoming and Alabama, are expected to win easily. Four others are running competitive campaigns in Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana and New Mexico. The remainder are long shots.
The movement to seize control of election administration is part of a broader phenomenon that makes November’s midterm elections unique in American history. Election deniers are campaigning in every state, according to politics website FiveThirtyEight. Out of 552 Republican nominees for Congress, governor, secretary of state and attorney general, 262 — nearly half — have rejected or questioned the 2020 result.
The prospect of controlling state voting offices is bringing national money into once-sleepy secretary-of-state races and drawing support from some of Trump’s most prominent allies. Right-wing provocateur and former Trump White House advisor Steve Bannon declared last week on his podcast that Democrats “are not going to be winning anymore” because the likes of Marchant and Finchem will be “in the counting room,” rooting out ballots they deem illegal or illegitimate.
At a recent Florida conference featuring right-wing secretary-of-state candidates, Marchant cast himself as an outsider and claimed that “vicious” elements of his own party are scheming to help his Democratic rival. He has claimed Nevada elections have been rigged for the last decade by a “deep state cabal” bent on establishing "a socialist, communist, tyrannical government."
Marchant vowed to “simplify” the election system. “It’s way too complicated,” he told Reuters.
Finchem, an Arizona state representative since 2015, appeared at the same conference, sporting a cowboy hat and Old West mustache. In an interview with Reuters, he dismissed accounts that he's a "far-right fringe" politician as "propaganda crap." Finchem has been linked to the Oath Keepers, the far-right extremist group, and once accused “a whole lot of elected officials” of being sex-trafficking pedophiles, an apparent reference to the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Trump has endorsed Finchem's campaign, but not Marchant's. In an interview at the Florida conference, Marchant said Trump has been influenced by the "uniparty," a derisive right-wing term describing a hostile political bloc of Democrats and mainstream Republicans.
“He’s not really helping us,” Marchant said of Trump. “We have decided that we're just going to do this on our own. . . We don’t need him!”
A spokesperson for Trump didn't respond to requests for comment on Finchem, Marchant or other secretary-of-state candidates echoing his false voter-fraud claims.
Recent polls show Marchant and Finchem doing well. An August Reno Gazette/Suffolk University poll put Marchant ahead by nearly five points, with 31.6% compared to 26.6% for Democrat Cisco Aguilar, and 26% undecided. A mid-September survey by the Trafalgar Group has Finchem leading Democrat Adrian Fontes by six points - 47.5% to 41.1%, with 11% undecided.
The Florida conference was organized by America First Secretaries of State, a group created by Marchant, and sponsored by a Marchant-led political action committee (PAC) largely funded by The America Project, which was co-founded by millionaire Patrick Byrne.
Byrne resigned as CEO of internet retailer Overstock.com in 2019 and has since become one of the top financiers of the election-denial movement. Byrne’s America Project has donated $155,000 to Marchant’s PAC, Conservatives for Election Integrity.
Before the conference, Byrne met with Marchant and Finchem at a $500-a-head fundraiser at the same hotel. Byrne took the conference stage the next day and said the 2020 election “heist” was part of a decades-old plot by communist China to turn the United States into a food-producing colony.
Byrne didn't respond to a request for comment.
In Arizona, Finchem has raised more than $1.2 million, far exceeding the totals in previous Arizona secretary-of-state races and nearly doubling that of his Democratic opponent, according to his most recent campaign finance disclosure. More than half of that sum came from out-of-state donors.
"Secretaries of state have suddenly become the subject of great interest,” Finchem told Reuters.
Marchant, who built a fortune in the internet and telecoms industry, has financed much of his campaign himself. As of June 30, he had donated nearly $200,000 in personal funds, leftover funds from a previous congressional campaign and money from his PAC, campaign finance records show.
The unusual level of media attention on the controversial campaigns of Finchem and Marchant may help their chances in these typically low-profile races, said Robert Cahaly, chief pollster and strategist for Trafalgar Group.
“It may be the only name some voters have ever heard of,” he said.
The money and notoriety heaped on those candidates has also galvanized their opponents, who have generated substantial donations by casting themselves as alternatives to extremists.
Aguilar, Marchant’s opponent, said his campaign has raised more than $2 million with help from national groups sounding alarms about election deniers. One such group, MoveOn, said it will spend more than $1 million to help Democratic secretary-of-state candidates this year.
Semedrian Smith of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, a political organization working to defeat election deniers, said her organization and an affiliated nonprofit have raised a total of $16 million.
“If one election denier wins in November, that could easily put us in a constitutional crisis,” Smith said.
‘THE GOLDEN THREAD’
Finchem effectively launched the post-2020 election-denial movement in Arizona by organizing a meeting where Trump’s allies gathered to plan an attempt to overturn the results.
During the Nov. 30, 2020 event – held in a Phoenix hotel because Arizona’s legislative leaders wouldn’t allow it in their chambers – Trump’s lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Jenna Ellis, among others, aired conspiracy theories about machines switching votes and trucks carrying fraudulent ballots. Trump called in to say he had won.
Finchem drew a standing ovation for denouncing “tyranny” and urging attendees to “put on the armor of God” to fight Satan.
The Arizona lawmaker was outside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021 riot and was subpoenaed by the congressional committee investigating it. Finchem denies participating in the violence and has said the committee called him as a witness.
Finchem’s Democratic opponent, Fontes, is the former election administrator in Maricopa County, Arizona’s largest and the target of an expensive vote audit, approved by state senators, that found no fraud evidence.
Fontes, in an interview, called Finchem a “wide-eyed conspiracy theorist.”
“Elections in America are basically the golden thread that holds the whole fabric together,” he said. “We’re in some really, really unpredictable, scary ground.”
Finchem moved to Arizona in 1999 after retiring from the city of Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he worked for 21 years as a firefighter and a police officer. He identified himself as a member of the Oath Keepers, a far-right extremist group, on a candidate questionnaire in 2014, according to a news report. Finchem also appears on a leaked membership list for the group, which shows he signed up for an annual membership, according to a spokesman for the Anti-Defamation League, which reviewed the database.
Finchem told Reuters he was “not aligned” with the Oath Keepers but did not respond to further questions.
On a financial disclosure form required of state legislators, Finchem lists his Kalamazoo pension as his only source of outside income. “I’m a pauper,” Finchem told Reuters at the Florida conference. Then, cradling a bourbon at the hotel bar, he quoted the book of Exodus, urging voters to choose “Godly men disinterested in personal gain.”
(Reporting by Andrew R.C. Marshall, Joseph Tanfani and Peter Eisler; editing by Jason Szep and Brian Thevenot)