The scenario that keeps Adrian Fontes up at night goes something like this: It’s December 2024, a month after President Joe Biden has, by all honest accounts, narrowly won reelection. A tight race came down to Arizona and its 11 Electoral College votes, which pushed Biden across the 270-vote threshold necessary to secure a second term.
But Mark Finchem, after winning Arizona’s secretary of state race in November 2022, has refused to certify the results of Biden’s second consecutive victory in the state, just as he suggested he would. Four years after embracing the conspiracy theory that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump, Finchem has followed through on his pledge to keep Democrats from “stealing” the election again.
“What happens to our democracy?” Fontes asked in a recent interview. “It’s upturned.”
Democrats like Fontes, a former elections official and Finchem’s opponent in Arizona’s Nov. 8 secretary of state contest, are desperately seeking to prevent that scenario from having any chance to come to fruition.
Finchem, who met with Trump’s attorneys as they plotted the “fake electors” scheme in an effort to overturn the 2020 election, is among a cadre of election deniers who used this year’s primary contests to almost completely take over the Republican Party. Such candidates won more than half of the GOP’s primaries, including 11 for secretary of state positions and 11 more in attorney general contests ― roles that in most states would give them a direct hand in the oversight and management of elections.
The problem is particularly stark in places like Arizona, one of three swing states ― along with Michigan and Nevada ― where election deniers won GOP nominations for both secretary of state and attorney general.
The ability of election deniers to triumph in GOP primaries has heightened the stakes of typically sleepy down-ballot races, and Democrats in recent weeks have more clearly laid out the implications to voters: The 2024 presidential election and American democracy as a whole, they have argued, hang in the balance of this November’s races.
“These are the offices that make democracy work,” said Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel (D), whose Republican opponent, attorney Matthew DePerno, spread conspiracy theories that electronic voting machines were rigged against Trump; met with Trump officials in Washington, D.C., on the day of the 2021 Capitol insurrection; and launched legal challenges seeking to overturn the results in one Michigan county.
“If we have the wrong people in these offices, it’s not just that democracy won’t function well,” Nessel said. “We won’t have a functioning democracy at all.”
Many experts have long considered the decentralized nature of the U.S. election system ― in which the country’s political contests are managed at the state and local level ― an important safeguard against the type of takeovers that have turned other democracies into so-called “competitive authoritarian” states. That term is used to describe nations that hold elections and maintain the pretense of democracy, but in which one party uses its power to create and maintain distinct advantages that render political opposition effectively powerless.
That diffuse system, however, has now become “the soft underbelly of democracy” in the U.S., said Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth political science professor and a co-organizer of Bright Line Watch, an academic collective that monitors and highlights risks to the country’s democracy.
“The lack of centralization made it hard to rig an election simultaneously across the country,” Nyhan said. “But it also means that the system is permeable. That institutional choice has turned out to create a terrible vulnerability right now.”
It has also given the GOP a massive structural advantage. The Republican Party’s near-total capitulation to its authoritarian impulses has left Democrats as the only bulwark against democratic collapse. To vanquish the threat that Republicans pose to the 2024 election and democracy as a whole, Democratic candidates need to win every race ― at least in major battleground states. Republican election deniers, by contrast, only have to win one such race in order to open the door to the kind of scenario Fontes describes.
“We’re in this position where the poor Democrats have to win every election, have to run good candidates and not make mistakes...just to save democracy,” said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard political science professor and the author of “How Democracies Die,” a book originally published in 2018. “That’s not a position we want to be in.”
Democrats would have to win numerous razor-thin races in order to pull off a clean sweep of swing state contests against the GOP’s most prominent conspiracy theorists.
Polls in down-ballot races are limited, but the Arizona secretary of state’s race is a dead heat, with Finchem holding slight leads that land within the margin of error. In Nevada, former state Rep. Jim Marchant, a Republican, holds a lead in the secretary of state’s race. Marchant has spread conspiracies about the 2020 contest, said he wouldn’t have certified the outcome of that race, and waged a legal challenge seeking to overturn his own loss in a congressional race two years ago.
The Democrats’ prospects look better in Pennsylvania, where Republican election denier Doug Mastriano would appoint the secretary of state if he won his bid for governor. He is currently trailing state Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) by roughly 10 points in polling averages.
In Michigan, incumbent Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) leads her election-denying opponent, Kristina Karamo, according to polls. The attorney general’s race between Nessel and DePerno, however, is within the margin of error.
Arizona, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania collectively represent a critical 51 Electoral College votes, and in a close race, any one state could prove decisive.
The GOP’s embrace of election lies remains broadly unpopular. Sixty percent of independents and 54% of voters overall say they wouldn’t be comfortable casting a ballot for a candidate who spread election lies, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll released Tuesday.
Overall, however, voters appear to be prioritizing economic issues, including rising inflation, over the maintenance of democracy, and the first midterms of a new presidency historically favor the party not in the White House. In a two-party system, that has made election denial a more powerful political force than it might be in a multiparty democracy.
“In a democracy, both parties win,” Levitsky said. “In a democracy, inflation and crime rates piss people off, so they vote for the opposition party. But right now, when we vote for the opposition party, it’s a bunch of authoritarian thugs. That’s the risk: As long as the Republicans are an authoritarian party, every midterm election is going to be that way.”
Democrats like Fontes and Nessel have tried to make those risks clear to voters. A hostile secretary of state like Finchem, Fontes argued, could cause a litany of problems even before it came time to certify an election result. He could decertify electronic tabulation machines, or overhaul the election procedures manual that acts as a rulebook for election officials across the state. Fontes warned that Finchem and the GOP-controlled Arizona legislature could further target mail-in voting, the method by which roughly 90% of Arizonans typically cast ballots.
“We’ve been running against the guy who has basically said he’s willing to pick the winners, and stop people from voting, to muck up the system on purpose,” Fontes said of Finchem. “He has said it repeatedly and in a variety of different ways.”
DePerno, who won Trump’s endorsement in the Michigan GOP primary, is currently under investigation from the state attorney general’s office, which in August alleged that he helped orchestrate a scheme to improperly access and tamper with election machines in three Michigan counties. A special prosecutor is overseeing the case.
As attorney general, DePerno could “wreak havoc” on Michigan’s contests, Nessel said, leaving the state vulnerable to the sort of conspiratorial election challenges that DePerno helped lead in 2020.
“This is a man that has spread more misinformation and disinformation in his career than any attorney that I’ve ever seen. He was hand-selected by Donald Trump in order to do his bidding,” Nessel said. “This is a man who does not even believe in the basic concept that we’re a democracy, that the person who gets the most votes wins an election. And he’s demonstrated that over and over again.”
The Times/Siena poll, however, found that while nearly three-quarters of American voters believe democracy to be under threat, few regard it as a major concern in this election. Democratic candidates acknowledge that it’s been tough, at times, to persuade voters that their democracy is truly in peril.
“I have shouted this from the rooftops, and I’ve done that ever since the experience I had in 2020,” Nessel said. “But candidly, sometimes I feel like I’m screaming into the wind.”
More than half of Republicans still believe the 2020 election was stolen, and nearly half have little confidence that the 2022 elections will be legitimate, according to an Associated Press poll released this week. Nearly three-quarters of GOP voters are fine voting for an election denier, the Times/Siena poll found. That GOP voters want anti-democratic candidates, or at least will tolerate them, has made reaching across the aisle for pro-democracy votes almost impossible.
A third of independent voters, meanwhile, are comfortable voting for an election denier, the Times/Siena poll found, and just 7% consider democracy their top priority ― potentially making it difficult to convince such voters that contests like the Arizona secretary of state race are existential battles for the country’s future.
“It’s kind of hard, because when you run around screaming ‘The sky is falling,’ not a lot of people want to listen,” Fontes said. “Even if the sky is actually falling, and people really do need to be paying attention.”
Many Americans, Nyhan said, may not realize how close Trump came to actually stealing the 2020 election. Instead, people might lean on the more comforting idea that the country’s democratic institutions ultimately held ― and will do so again.
“Sometimes people have taken too much confidence from what happened in 2020, and they say, well, it would be hard to steal an election,” he said. “But you don’t have to steal it in the sense of literally stuffing the ballot box. All you have to do is create confusion and doubt. And I think that’s unfortunately a much lower bar to clear than convincingly stealing an election.”
Voters’ prioritization of other issues over fundamental questions of democracy is something frequently seen in countries where democracy is on the brink.
“Americans are broadly supportive of democracy in the abstract,” Nyhan said. “But at the same time, they may not have well-developed views about exactly what it means. And they may trade off those relatively abstract values for factors... that are closer to their core concerns.”
Across the world, he said, voters have proved “a weaker constraint on authoritarianism than we might hope.”
Democrats running for Senate or Congress, or to be a state’s governor, can prioritize other policies that match voters’ concerns. But that’s a tougher task for down-ballot candidates for whom the economy isn’t really a central responsibility of the office they’re seeking.
In an effort to broaden their appeal, Nessel and other Democratic attorney general candidates have presented themselves as bulwarks against the GOP’s aggressive anti-abortion policies in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade this summer. Nessel has also touted her efforts to target price gouging amid concerns about high gas prices.
Fontes, meanwhile, has leaned on his background as the county recorder in Maricopa County, Arizona’s largest. He oversaw the county’s elections in that role, and says he’s introduced himself to voters as an official who’s “done this before and isn’t trying to upset the applecart.”
Democrats remain hopeful that their warnings will alarm voters who are just now tuning in to down-ballot races that don’t often garner much attention early in campaign cycles. The party’s campaign arms ― the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State and the Democratic Attorneys General Association ― have brought in record fundraising hauls that could help boost candidates in the final stages, and individual campaigns are financially well-positioned for the stretch run.
Democrats have also sought to turn voters’ attention to the contests in the closing stages of the race. Every Eligible American, an affiliate of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, recently launched a campaign aimed at young voters, who typically turn out in lower numbers for midterm elections. “Go Down for Democracy,” as the campaign is known, is laced with humor and sexual innuendos ― a recent ad promoting vote-by-mail is called “Lick It & Stick It” ― that its focus groups say are more likely to engage millennial and Generation Z voters than traditional campaign messaging.
“You’ve just got to tell them, then you just keep telling them and keep telling them and keep telling them,” Fontes said. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was a lot of pressure. But it’s the battle of our generation.”
“We will be looking to the American people to decide if they want to live in a democracy, or if they don’t,” he said. “It’s a binary choice. There’s no middle ground here.”