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Election deniers are running to control voting. Here's how they've fared so far03:40
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Arizona state Rep. Mark Finchem speaks during an election rally in Richmond, Va., on Oct. 13, 2021. Finchem is now running for Arizona secretary of state, with former President Donald Trump's endorsement. (Steve Helber/AP)
Arizona state Rep. Mark Finchem speaks during an election rally in Richmond, Va., on Oct. 13, 2021. Finchem is now running for Arizona secretary of state, with former President Donald Trump's endorsement. (Steve Helber/AP)
Updated August 18, 2022 at 4:07 PM ET

Election officials and democracy experts are sounding the alarm, as Republicans who deny the 2020 election results have now moved closer to overseeing the voting process in almost a dozen different states.

The high-profile swing state Arizona joined the ranks in early August, when GOP voters there decided to nominate state Rep. Mark Finchem, an election conspiracy theorist, as their candidate for secretary of state.

"These are the people who set the rules, who count the votes, and ultimately who are responsible for defending the will of the people," said Joanna Lydgate, the CEO of States United Action, a nonpartisan organization that has been tracking election-denying candidates running for governor, attorney general and secretary of state nationwide. States United shared its most recent findings exclusively with NPR ahead of their release.

"In 2020, when we had a sitting president try to overturn an election, we saw all across the country state and local officials who stood up and who protected our freedom to vote," Lydgate said. "So if we want to see that happen again in the future we have to make sure that we are putting people in these positions who believe in free and fair elections."

The duties of a state secretary of state vary, but in most cases, they are the state's top voting official and have a key role in carrying out election laws.

Across the country, numerous Republican candidates for these positions — and others with some role in election administration, like governor and attorney general — have embraced the lie that widespread fraud affected the 2020 election results.

Of the 16 Republican secretary of state primaries held prior to August this year, 12 featured at least one candidate who questioned the legitimacy of Joe Biden's win in 2020, according to States United.

And four of those candidates won spots in November's general election: in Alabama, Indiana, Nevada and New Mexico. A fifth candidate, Kristina Karamo in Michigan, won a party vote to become the Republican nominee there during an endorsement convention in April.

Since the beginning of August, another five election deniers have won secretary of state primaries, including Finchem in Arizona, who beat out three other candidates, including another election denier.

Should any of those candidates win in November and be elected a state election head, that could present two fundamental issues, says Rick Hasen, director of the Safeguarding Democracy Project at UCLA.

"One: Are they going to administer elections fairly? And two: Even if they do, are others going to believe that they administer elections fairly?" said Hasen, speaking with NPR's 1A. "It really can lead to a massive decline in both experience on the ground and confidence that our elections are going to be fairly conducted."

Many election deniers have used the false narrative that the 2020 election was stolen as justification to strip back voting access measures like ballot drop boxes and other forms of early voting, as well as election security tools like the Electronic Registration Information Center or ERIC.

Finchem, for instance, says he wants to get rid of early voting and pull Arizona out of ERIC, despite bipartisan agreement that the system is among the best tools states have to detect and prevent voter fraud.

Tammy Patrick, a former election official in Arizona and now a senior adviser at Democracy Fund, called the trend "deeply troubling."

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"We can debate policy issues, like what's the right timeline for voter registration or proper security protocols," Patrick said. "But I never thought we would be talking about individuals governing our election system ... who felt that they should put their fingers on the scale."

Patrick said she speaks to election officials in other countries who look to the U.S. for leadership, and she doesn't know what to tell them. "They say to me things like, 'We turn to you to set the standard ... and if you're struggling after having been a democracy for hundreds of years, what hope do we have?' "

An epicenter of election lies

Arizona's secretary of state race was widely watched, as the state has become an epicenter of the election denial movement since 2020.

Two of the four Republican candidates running to oversee voting there made a name for themselves by embracing election conspiracies.