Trump-backed election deniers could soon be overseeing elections — as experts warn of ’emergency’

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(WASHINGTON) -- With the last batches of ballots still being tallied in Pennsylvania's Republican Senate primary, Donald Trump weighed in last week to insist his chosen candidate go ahead and "declare victory" even though the counting wasn't complete.

The former president has a long history of insisting elections are fraudulent when he's expecting he won't get the outcome he wants. But historically, election officials around the country from both parties have complied with the law to count up and certify the vote regardless of their politics.

That could change come November: Trump is backing a slate of candidates in battleground states (including Pennsylvania) who have said they support his mistrust in elections, despite any evidence of widespread fraud. If voted into office, these officials would have the power to run elections -- or even try to reject or reverse the results -- as Trump has repeatedly urged them to do.

"We have to be a lot sharper next time when it comes to counting the vote," Trump said in a video message earlier this year. "There's a famous statement: Sometimes the vote counter is more important than the candidate. And we can't let that ever, ever happen again," Trump said, referring to a quote from Soviet Union dictator Joseph Stalin.

The next big test of Trump's influence is Tuesday in Georgia, where he's backed election-denier candidates down the ballot to challenge incumbents who wouldn't do as he demanded in 2020 and overturn President Joe Biden's victory. Democrats, and many Republicans, predict based on the candidates' past statements that if they are chosen to represent the GOP and go on to win in the general election, they would interfere with future contests, especially under Trump's pressure in 2024.

"Just a few years ago, this would have been considered a fringe and extreme view," Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, a Democrat, said of the rising tide of candidates questioning elections. "Now it's been mainstreamed and very much normalized, and that's a big, big problem."

"It's a potential emergency," Simon added, "particularly going into a presidential election."

The secretary of state is usually tasked with overseeing and certifying their local elections. They establish Election Day procedures and play a large role in validating the results, so any refusal to do so -- while likely to face legal hurdles -- could be a vital step in trying to overturn the ballots.

This year, the office is up for grabs in 28 states, including Minnesota, where Simon is facing a Republican who continues to cast doubt on the 2020 results. Simon said that voters in Minnesota and across the country should be able to trust their elected officials -- unless there's evidence of wrongdoing -- to certify the vote of the people, no matter if the outcome is on their side.

"That's what secretaries of state of both parties, to be fair, have done by and large over the last few years," Simon told ABC News. "But this new crop of candidates is really alarming because they seem not to have those same values. They seem to be driven by an outcome."

Some of these candidates have suggested they'll cease absentee and mail-in balloting and continue audits of the 2020 election, among other actions at the position's disposal that risk eroding voters' confidence. Trump and his allies have not provided any proof of widespread fraud in the 2020 election, and more than 40 legal challenges across the country failed.

Former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican critic of Trump and co-chair of States United Democracy Center, a nonpartisan advocacy group tracking the uptick in election deniers running for office, warned that if Trump were to get his loyalists in place for 2024, it would presumably be much easier to ensure a loss wouldn't happen again.

"People tend to focus just on the federal races and federal elections but forget that they're run by the states. And that's why these elections are so important," Whitman told ABC News, describing the thinking behind their strategy: "We change the laws, so we can change the referee, so we can change the outcomes."

Of the 111 candidates Trump endorsed in the 2022 midterms, more than 70% say they believe the 2020 election was fraudulent, according to FiveThirtyEight research. And as of this month, at least 23 election deniers were running for secretary of state in 18 states, according to the States United Action.

Trump has officially endorsed three secretaries of state candidates in GOP primary races. Each of those contenders argues it's more important to continue pursuing the possible truth of his debunked claims about 2020, despite the damage to democratic norms and erosion of voter confidence that experts say is well underway.

Here's a brief look at election-denying candidates in six key states where Trump disputed the results in 2020.

Pennsylvania

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, whom Whitman called a "prime election denier," earned Trump's endorsement and handily won the GOP gubernatorial primary. The Pennsylvania governor's office has powerful influence on future elections.

Mastriano chartered buses to the rally at the Ellipse on Jan. 6, 2021, where Trump spoke; was seen at the U.S. Capitol that day (but said he didn't go inside); and he had been involved in a White House meeting with Pennsylvania GOP lawmakers in December 2020, as Trump worked to overturn the results in the state and in other presidential battlegrounds.

While Mastriano is not running for secretary of state, Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states, like Florida and Texas, where the governor appoints the office who serves as the chief elections officer. Democrats fear that Mastriano -- who has been critical of mail-in ballots and called for an investigation of how Pennsylvania conducted the 2020 election, insisting he wanted to "restore faith in the integrity of our system" -- could appoint a secretary of state beholden to Trump. Mastriano has avoided specifying how he would carry out that duty as governor.

Even Republicans are concerned with Mastriano's win, as indicated by GOP candidates dropping out in the final stretch of the primary race to consolidate votes around the Republican candidate who ultimately fell second to Mastriano.

Georgia

The former president backed a slate of candidates ahead of Tuesday's primary, all promoting forms of election denialism in their platforms.

If Herschel Walker and Rep. Jody Hice were to win a Senate seat and the secretary of state's office, respectively, they could theoretically try to overturn future election results -- by refusing to certify the vote and send it to Washington -- as Trump had pushed Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both Republicans, to do in 2020.

In an infamous January 2021 phone call, Trump asked Raffensperger to "find" nearly 12,000 votes to overtake Biden.

Hice, who is challenging Raffensperger, objected to Georgia's electoral votes being counted for Biden and has said he'd decertify Biden's 2020 win -- a move that election experts say is not possible.

While Georgia has already undergone three separate audits which all confirmed Biden's victory, Hice has said he would appoint a special counsel to investigate.

Arizona

In Arizona, Trump endorsed Mark Finchem, a far-right lawmaker in the state's House of Representatives who attended the rally at the Ellipse on Jan. 6.

Like Mastriano, the House select committee investigating the Capitol attack has issued Finchem a subpoena for "information about efforts to send false slates of electors to Washington and change the outcome of the 2020 election." (Also like Mastriano, Finchem was at the Capitol on Jan. 6 but said he wasn't inside.)

Trump praised Finchem for an "incredibly powerful stance" on election integrity, well in advance of the GOP primary on Aug. 2. Finchem is sponsoring a bill that would treat Arizonians' ballots as public records and make them searchable online, which experts warn could be exploited.

"These folks are supported by Trump, if only for the sole reason that they have said that they would seek ways -- or have demonstrated already to seek ways — to undermine the election or actually return the election results," Semedrian Smith, deputy director at the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, told ABC News. "It's absolutely terrifying to imagine that folks who already claim now that they are willing to overturn the election results, it's hard to imagine that they're not absolutely going to do that down the road."

Nevada

Jim Marchant, a former member of the Nevada Assembly running in the Republican primary for secretary of state on June 14, has said he would not have certified Biden's victory had he been in the office in 2020.

Like Mastriano and Finchem, he was involved with a fraudulent election document attempting to award Nevada's six electoral votes to Trump instead of Biden, which was submitted to Congress and the National Archives. Marchant doesn't have Trump's endorsement but has said Trump allies encouraged him to run.

Marchant's website states that his "number one priority will be to overhaul the fraudulent election system." He has said he supports changes to state law to allow the legislature to override the secretary of state's certification of an election.

Wisconsin

Wisconsin is one of nine states with a board or commission in charge of election oversight instead of just the secretary of state, but conservative leaders there are pushing to dismantle the bipartisan election commission.

State Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, the Republican front-runner for secretary of state, said she supports taking power away from the panel, which she has blasted as "broken," and handing it over to the office she is seeking.

Nearly a dozen other states, meanwhile, have also attempted to diminish secretaries of states' authority over elections or shifted aspects of administration to highly partisan bodies in the wake of the 2020 election.

In a sign of the fractured times, Wisconsin's state GOP on Saturday opted not to endorse any candidates for statewide office ahead of the primary on Aug. 9.

Michigan

Trump, in Michigan, has backed Kristina Karamo, a community college professor who won her party's nomination at a convention last month. She gained prominence after claiming, without evidence, that she'd witnessed irregularities in processing mail-in ballots while working as an election observer in Detroit in 2020.

Karamo will face Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat and former law school dean seeking her second term, whom Trump has attacked as "rogue."

Benson faced an onslaught of criticism in the wake of the 2020 election and told NBC News last week, for the first time publicly, that Trump said in a White House meeting she should be arrested for treason and executed. A Trump spokesperson said Benson was lying, but Benson said the experience showed her "there was no bottom to how far he [Trump] and his supporters were willing to stoop to overturn or discredit a legitimate election."

Simon, a neighboring Democratic secretary of state, told ABC News that all voters, including Trump supporters, should be concerned with the election-denier trend.

"No matter what issue you care about the most, you're not going to get very far unless you have free and fair elections," Simon said. "You want people running them who are going to be fair."

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