Sept 30 (Reuters) – Two far-right U.S. politicians who want to disrupt the way votes are cast and counted are tied or ahead in races to become their states’ top election administrators, recent polls show.
Republicans Jim Marchant of Nevada and Mark Finchem of Arizona are promoting 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 access to the vote or seek to block the certification of results in these two critical battlegrounds for the presidential elections.
Marchant and Finchem want to reduce or abolish early voting, mail-in voting and ballot boxes, claiming without proof that they breed fraud. Both advocate banning electronic voting machines and returning to hand-counted paper ballots to secure elections. Election experts and officials from both major parties have said such changes would make elections more prone to fraud and error, while making it harder for citizens to vote.
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Finchem and Marchant are among the strongest of 13 candidates for secretary of state who falsely claim the 2020 election was rigged. Two, in Republican strongholds Wyoming and Alabama, are expected to win easily. Four others are running competitive campaigns in Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana and New Mexico. The others are long strokes.
The movement to take control of the election administration is part of a larger phenomenon that makes November’s midterm elections unique in American history. Election deniers are campaigning in every state, according to the political website FiveThirtyEight. Of 552 Republican candidates for Congress, governor, secretary of state and attorney general, 262 — nearly half — rejected or questioned the 2020 result.
The prospect of controlling state polling places is bringing national money into once sleepy races for secretaries of state and attracting support from some of Trump’s most important allies. Right-wing provocateur and former Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon said on his podcast last week that Democrats ‘won’t win anymore’ because Marchant and Finchem will be ‘in the counting room’, rooting out the ballots to vote that they consider illegal or illegitimate.
At a recent conference in Florida featuring right-wing candidates for secretary of state, Marchant posed as an outsider and claimed “vicious” elements in his own party were plotting to help his Democratic rival. He claimed the Nevada election had been rigged for the past decade by a “deep state cabal” bent on establishing “a socialist, communist, and tyrannical government.”
Marchant pledged to “simplify” the electoral system. “It’s far 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 reports that he was a “far-right” politician as “propaganda bullshit”. Finchem has been linked to the Oath Keepers, the far-right extremist group, and has previously accused “many of the chosen ones” of being sex trafficking pedophiles, an apparent reference to the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Trump endorsed Finchem’s campaign, but not Marchant’s. In an interview at the Florida conference, Marchant said Trump was swayed by “one-party,” a derisive right-wing term describing a hostile political bloc of traditional Democrats and Republicans.
“He’s not really helping us,” Marchant said of Trump. “We decided we were going to do it on our own. . . We don’t need him!
A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to requests for comment on Finchem, Marchant or other candidates for secretary of state echoing his false allegations of voter fraud.
Recent polls show that Marchant and Finchem are doing well. An August Reno Gazette/Suffolk University poll gave Marchant a nearly five-point lead, with 31.6% to Democrat Cisco Aguilar’s 26.6%, and 26% undecided. A mid-September survey by the Trafalgar Group put Finchem ahead of 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 started by Marchant, and sponsored by a Political Action Committee (PAC) headed by Marchant, largely funded by The America Project, co-founded by millionaire Patrick Byrne.
Byrne stepped down as CEO of internet retailer Overstock.com (OSTK.O) in 2019 and has since become a key financier of the Holocaust denial movement. Byrne’s American Project donated $155,000 to Marchant’s PAC, the Conservatives for Election Integrity.
Prior to the conference, Byrne met Marchant and Finchem at a $500-a-head fundraiser at the same hotel. Byrne spoke at the conference 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 did not respond to a request for comment.
In Arizona, Finchem has raised more than $1.2 million, far exceeding the totals of previous Arizona secretary of state races and nearly doubling that of his Democratic opponent, according to his latest campaign finance disclosure. More than half of this amount came from donors outside the state.
“Secretaries of state have suddenly become the subject of great interest,” Finchem told Reuters.
Marchant, who has built a fortune in the internet and telecommunications industry, 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, according to campaign finance records.
The unusual level of media attention on Finchem and Marchant’s controversial campaigns may improve their chances in these usually low-key races, said Robert Cahaly, chief pollster and strategist at Trafalgar Group.
“That may be the only name some voters have heard of,” he said.
The money and notoriety accumulated on these candidates also galvanized their opponents, who generated substantial donations by presenting themselves as alternatives to the extremists.
Aguilar, Marchant’s opponent, said his campaign raised more than $2 million with the help of national groups sounding the alarm about Holocaust deniers. One such group, MoveOn, said it would spend more than $1 million to help Democratic candidates for secretary of state this year.
Semedrian Smith of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, a political organization working to defeat election deniers, said his organization and an affiliated nonprofit raised a total of $16 million.
“If a Holocaust denier wins in November, it could easily throw us into a constitutional crisis,” Smith said.
‘THE GOLDEN THREAD’
Finchem effectively kickstarted the post-2020 Holocaust denial movement in Arizona by hosting a meeting where Trump allies came together to plan an attempt to overturn the results.
At the Nov. 30, 2020, event — held at a Phoenix hotel because Arizona legislative leaders weren’t allowing him in their rooms — Trump attorneys Rudy Giuliani and Jenna Ellis between others, have spread conspiracy theories about vote-changing machines and trucks carrying fraudulent ballots. . Trump called 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 United States Capitol during the January 6, 2021 riot and was subpoenaed by the congressional committee investigating. Finchem denies participating in the violence and said the committee called him as a witness.
Finchem’s Democratic opponent, Fontes, is the former election administrator for Maricopa County, Arizona’s largest and the target of a costly vote audit, approved by state senators, which does not found no evidence of fraud.
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 really, really unpredictable and scary terrain.”
Finchem moved to Arizona in 1999 after retiring from the city of Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he worked for 21 years as a firefighter and police officer. He identified himself as a member of the Oath Keepers, a far-right group, on a candidate questionnaire in 2014, according to a report. Finchem also appears on a leaked membership list for the group, which shows he signed up for annual membership, according to a spokesperson for the Anti-Defamation League, who 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 by state lawmakers, Finchem lists his Kalamazoo pension as his only source of outside income. “I’m a pauper,” Finchem told Reuters at the Florida conference. Then, rocking a bourbon at the hotel bar, he quoted the book of Exodus, urging voters to choose “godly men disinterested in personal gain.”
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Reporting by Andrew RC Marshall, Joseph Tanfani and Peter Eisler; edited by Jason Szep and Brian Thevenot
Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.