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Money Pours into Secretary of State Races

The Big Lie is driving donations aimed at politicizing the role of many states’ top election official.

February 15, 2022
Bundles of cash

In a 2018 Johns Hopkins Univer­sity survey, more than 80 percent of respond­ents could­n’t name their state legis­lat­ors. One-third didn’t know who their governor was. About the same propor­tion could­n’t remem­ber who they voted for in down-ballot state races. In other words, Amer­ic­ans spent little time think­ing about state govern­ment.

The intrins­ic­ally partisan nature of the state secret­ary of state job has occa­sion­ally brought some office­hold­ers to national atten­tion. Kath­er­ine Harris co-chaired George W. Bush’s Flor­ida campaign in 2000, then played a key role in the recount (and was even portrayed by Joan Cusack on tele­vi­sion!). Brian Kemp of Geor­gia drew criti­cism when he over­saw his own elec­tion to the governor­ship, super­vising voter-roll purges that dispro­por­tion­ately affected Black voters. Savvy insiders knew these were import­ant jobs.

After the 2020 elec­tion, every­one knew. Donald Trump’s postelec­tion demand to “find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have,” prac­tic­ally made Geor­gia Secret­ary of State Brad Raffen­sper­ger into a house­hold name. By trans­form­ing a histor­ic­ally nonpar­tisan minis­terial duty — the certi­fic­a­tion of elec­tion results — into a partisan high-wire act, Trump instantly made state secret­ary of state a high-profile post.

A new monthly series of Bren­nan Center reports confirms that the stakes have been raised in races to over­see state elec­tions. My colleague Ian Vandewalker found that across key battle­ground states, “contri­bu­tions are three times higher than they were at this point in the 2018 cycle and eight times higher than 2014.* The numbers are partic­u­larly high in Arizona, Geor­gia, and Michigan.”

Arizona Repub­lican Mark Finchem already boasts six times as many donors as every candid­ate in the 2018 elec­tion combined. (He’s also retailed QAnon conspir­acy theor­ies, accord­ing to CNN.)

Notably, funds are flow­ing not just from dark money sources and big donors. These races now attract dona­tions from across the coun­try. Two-thirds of Finchem’s donors live outside of Arizona. The two lead­ing fundraisers in the Geor­gia secret­ary of state race have already collec­ted more out-of-state money than the combined total of all candid­ates in the 2018 elec­tion.

As an advoc­ate for a robust parti­cip­at­ory demo­cracy, I think it’s great that so many people are inter­ested in down-ballot state elec­tions. I am, however, concerned about the reason for this interest — it’s clear that the Big Lie is driv­ing these dona­tions. Finchem has built his candid­acy around a prom­ise to “decer­tify three 2020 county elec­tions,” and in Michigan, Kristina Karamo has said voting machines in the state could have flipped 200,000 votes to Joe Biden. For their part, Demo­crats are rais­ing huge sums by arguing that their oppon­ents repres­ent a mortal threat to demo­cracy. For example, Regin­ald Bold­ing, one of Finchem’s oppon­ents, ran an ad warn­ing, “The fate of our demo­cracy is on the line right now.”

Their tradi­tion­ally low profile notwith­stand­ing, secret­ar­ies of state wield signi­fic­ant power over our elec­tions. They over­see voter regis­tra­tion, main­tain voter data­bases, and manage elec­tions them­selves. The latest Bren­nan Center report paints a worry­ing picture of an increas­ingly partisan approach to this work. Elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion decisions should be based on solid evid­ence and clear stand­ards, not spec­u­la­tion, fear-monger­ing, or outright lies.

[*An earlier version of this sentence stated that contri­bu­tions during this cycle are almost eight times higher than in 2014. New data received after public­a­tion brings the total to more than eight times higher.]