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Trump supporters holding up 'Trump Won' sign at rally

A supporter holds a 'Trump Won' sign at a rally by former President Donald Trump at the Canyon Moon Ranch festival grounds on January 15, 2022 in Florence, Arizona. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The Frightening Wins of GOP Election Deniers

The Big Lie that the elec­tion was stolen from Trump has been pushed by power­ful politi­cians, start­ing with Trump himself. But it may be lead­ers closer to home who are the most dangerous to democracy's future.

Last Tues­day, Repub­lican primary voters in Arizona chose elec­tion deniers as their nomin­ees for governor, attor­ney general, and secret­ary of state. The results make Arizona the only battle­ground state so far to nomin­ate for all three top statewide offices proponents of the false claim that the 2020 elec­tion was some­how “stolen” from Donald Trump.

What made so many Arizona voters support elec­tion denial, while in other states elec­tion deni­al­ists have had mixed success? No doubt there were many factors at play, but in all like­li­hood the vocal endorse­ment of elec­tion false­hoods by many of the state’s polit­ical lead­ers played a key role.

Arizona has been a hotbed of elec­tion denial since before the polls closed. False claims that Sharpie pens were inval­id­at­ing ballots went viral the day after the elec­tion. Protest­ers chanted “stop the steal” outside the Mari­copa County Elec­tions Depart­ment as work­ers tallied ballots. It seems the disbe­lief by some in the state’s 2020 elec­tion results hasn’t left the head­lines in the two years since. Just this week, Attor­ney General Mark Brnovich announced that a compre­hens­ive invest­ig­a­tion disproved claims that offi­cials coun­ted hundreds of votes from dead people.

But this is no spon­tan­eous contro­versy. The fire was stoked by Repub­lican lead­ers in the state. Among the flurry of lawsuits chal­len­ging the result in Arizona was a suit filed in Novem­ber 2020 by the chair of the state Repub­lican Party, Kelli Ward, who asked the court to decer­tify Biden’s win and contin­ued to spread false­hoods after losing the case. Rep. Paul Gosar (R) made claims of voter fraud and opposed the certi­fic­a­tion of Arizon­a’s elect­oral votes in Congress. The state senate judi­ciary commit­tee held a six-hour hear­ing ques­tion­ing Mari­copa County offi­cials about the elec­tion. The senate subpoenaed county ballots, voting machines, and other records and hired Cyber Ninjas, a company owned by a pusher of pro-Trump elec­tion false­hoods, to conduct the review. Arizona Senate Pres­id­ent Karen Fann, State Sen. Wendy Rogers, and other Repub­lican legis­lat­ors publicly promoted the review and alleged “irreg­u­lar­it­ies” through­out 2021.

Arizon­a’s statewide contests are all open-seat races, so there were no incum­bent Repub­lican candid­ates forced to defend their own conduct in admin­is­ter­ing the 2020 elec­tion. Gov. Doug Ducey, a term-limited Repub­lican, acknow­ledged Biden won in Novem­ber 2020. Although he was attacked for certi­fy­ing the result, Ducey stayed relat­ively quiet about the elec­tion contro­versy and the Cyber Ninjas review. And Secret­ary of State Katie Hobbs (D), who is running for governor, defen­ded the secur­ity and accur­acy of the elec­tion she over­saw.

The elec­tion results in Geor­gia, another purple state won by Biden, provide a help­ful contrast. Geor­gi­a’s statewide GOP elec­ted offi­cials pushed back against elec­tion denial — despite the circu­la­tion of conspir­acy theor­ies about, for example, suit­cases of ballots appear­ing during the count in Fulton County. Gov. Brian Kemp and Secret­ary of State Brad Raffen­sper­ger both defen­ded the 2020 elec­tion and their roles in certi­fy­ing the result, and they each easily won their GOP primary with a major­ity of the vote, defeat­ing well-funded elec­tion deniers. Although elec­tion fraud narrat­ives fueled voter suppres­sion legis­la­tion in Geor­gia, legis­lat­ive lead­ers also acknow­ledged that Biden won and called for Repub­lic­ans to move on from claim­ing fraud in 2020.

Pennsylvania, like Arizona, does not have Repub­lican incum­bents running for reelec­tion in statewide offices. Many GOP lead­ers in Pennsylvania rejec­ted claims of wide­spread fraud, although they voiced doubt about 2020 in multiple ways. Recent legis­la­tion that had expan­ded mail voting became a focus of skep­ti­cism about the 2020 elec­tion. Some legis­lat­ors who voted for the bill in 2019 chal­lenged it in court as uncon­sti­tu­tional — a case they lost in the state supreme court this week. Repub­lic­ans criti­cized decisions made by the secret­ary of state, a Demo­crat, lead­ing up to the vote. Legis­lat­ors called for an audit in the days after the 2020 elec­tion, and legis­lat­ive lead­ers signed a letter asking Pennsylvani­a’s congres­sional deleg­a­tion to object to elect­ors for Biden.

Against this back­drop, an elec­tion denier won the Pennsylvania Repub­lican gubernat­orial primary, although he did not gain a major­ity of the vote. The candid­ate in second place was also an elec­tion denier. Both were massively outspent by candid­ates who fared worse with voters.

The Big Lie that the elec­tion was stolen from Trump has been pushed by power­ful politi­cians, start­ing with Trump himself. But it may be lead­ers closer to home who have the greatest abil­ity to affect the popular­ity of elec­tion denial among the people of their state.

© 2021 Brennan Center for Justice

Ian Vandewalker

Ian Vandewalker is senior counsel for the Democracy Program, where he works to address the influence of money in politics and foreign interference in U.S. elections.

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