In most election cycles, you’d probably never learn Bee Nguyen’s name. But next year, the Georgia state legislator who’s now running for secretary of state will be one of just a handful of people in the world who can ensure America has a free and fair presidential election in 2024.
Former President Donald Trump and much of the Republican Party have declared open war on American democracy, maneuvering to overturn any results that are unfavorable to them, just as they unsuccessfully attempted in 2020. In particular, the former president and his allies have launched an all-out effort to take over the machinery of the U.S. electoral system by installing allies in positions of power at the state and local levels.
That certainly happened in Georgia last fall. After now-President Joe Biden was declared the winner in the state, Trump and his allies tried to sway virtually every state official who could potentially change the result. They pushed for an audit of votes in Cobb County, which didn’t turn up any irregularities. Trump personally lobbied the Republican governor, and when that didn’t work, the Republican secretary of state. The Trump Department of Justice cajoled and threatened the U.S. attorney in an attempt to get him to embrace false election theft claims; he resigned instead.
As a possible last resort, a publicist for Kanye West showed up at the home of a Georgia election worker who was the subject of viral election theft conspiracy theories and attempted to frighten her into validating them. (West was a close ally of Trump, though it’s not clear who put his publicist up to this grim task).
It was a methodical attempt to conduct a coup in Georgia. “They were trying to find the weakest link in the chain of democratic transfer to break it,” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes said last week. “And they kept trying each different link in the chain.”
Now, they’re trying it via the ballot box. Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) is running for secretary of state after voting twice in Congress last year to contest the presidential election results. He has received Trump’s endorsement, and if he wins, will control much of the election machinery in the state.
Nguyen is a critical bulwark against this plot, as are candidates in several key races for secretary of state nationwide. The oft-overlooked position typically has tremendous power to shape how elections are run, how (and which) ballots are counted, and how (and which, and when) elections are certified.
Across the country, Republican candidates who have questioned the results of the 2020 election, sought to overturn it, or backed overhauls of state election laws to make it easier to undermine future contests have also lined up to run for secretary of state positions in Arizona, Colorado, Michigan and Nevada. Trump has blessed several of their campaigns.
Nguyen, 40, who is now the most prominent of the candidates in Georgia’s Democratic primary, became the first Asian American Democrat ever elected in Georgia in 2017 when she won a seat in the state legislature representing metro Atlanta. She had a front-row seat to Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election: She rose to liberal stardom after dismantling Republican claims that widespread voter fraud had cost the president victory in Georgia, then fought against GOP lawmakers’ efforts to approve a law to implement a suite of new voting restrictions and exert an unprecedented level of partisan influence over Georgia’s election system.
Nguyen decided to run for secretary of state after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — when the GOP reacted by institutionalizing that coup attempt by attacking voting rights and elections.
Hice’s entrance into the race cemented her decision. His candidacy, Nguyen worries, is the next step in the anti-democratic revolution.
“We are one or two election cycles away from a constitutional crisis,” Nguyen told HuffPost during a recent interview as she drove from Atlanta to Macon for an early campaign stop.
“We only have a handful of opportunities to get this right. If we do not elect secretaries of state in our swing states who will uphold the law and protect our democracy, we’re going to be in trouble for a very long time.”
An Extremist In Every Swing State
Trump and the GOP’s all-out push for a partisan takeover of the country’s election machinery also terrifies independent observers who are already concerned about the immediate threat of American democracy. A survey released Thursday by Bright Line Watch, an academic collective that began polling experts on the state of U.S. democracy in 2017, found that secretary of state candidates like Hice are among their biggest current concerns.
The survey asked experts about the abnormalcy and danger of various scenarios that might pose a risk to the country’s democracy.
“The event rated as most important and abnormal, of all the events tested, was the attack on the legitimacy of the 2020 election by Republican secretary of state candidates,” said Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth professor and one of Bright Line Watch’s co-directors.
Among the experts, 97% rated election skepticism from secretary of state candidates as “mostly abnormal” or “abnormal” in the survey, while 96% rated it “mostly important” or “important” ― the highest concern levels on Bright Line Watch’s scale. That made such attacks the first major concern to emerge around the 2022 or 2024 elections, generating nearly as much fear among experts as the Capitol insurrection and the effort to overturn the 2020 election results.
“It’s not quite at that level, but it’s right below it,” Nyhan said, referring to the events of Jan. 6. “The experts take this very, very, very seriously. It’s easy to understate its importance because secretaries of state are not highly salient public figures anywhere. If people just vote in these races along party lines, it’s very easy for candidates to win who threaten the integrity of the electoral system.”
Even one such candidate would cause tremendous concern. But Hice is not alone: At least 10 current Republican candidates for secretary of state have expressed skepticism about the results of the 2020 election.
“In every swing state, we have an extreme Republican candidate that was either at the insurrection, an author of suppression, or lying about 2020 now running to oversee elections.”
Arizona state Rep. Mark Finchem, who is seeking the Republican nomination for secretary of state, was among the dozens of GOP lawmakers in Washington on Jan. 6 and tweeted a picture from within a crowd at the bottom of the Capitol steps during the insurrection. Finchem called for the decertification of the 2020 results as recently as October.
Former Nevada Assemblyman Jim Marchant, who is running to replace term-limited Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske (R), questioned Trump’s loss, sought to overturn his own defeat in a 2020 congressional race, and says his “number one priority will be to overhaul the fraudulent election system in Nevada.”
And Kristina Karamo, a Republican who spent months waging baseless challenges against Trump’s loss in Michigan, has launched a challenge against Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D).
“In every swing state, we have an extreme Republican candidate that was either at the insurrection, an author of suppression, or lying about 2020 now running to oversee elections,” said Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, the chair of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, a party campaign arm.
Griswold, who first won her seat in 2018, is facing a potential challenge from another election denier.
“We’re seeing Big Lie proponents running to become secretaries of state while Trump allies encourage their supporters to take over local election worker positions,” she said.
Major Republican donors are already pouring money into the effort. Richard Uihlein, an influential conservative donor, has given $7,000 to Hice’s campaign, and the Republican State Leadership Committee, which helps fund state-based GOP campaigns, has already raised $10.2 million – up $2 million from the entirely of the previous cycle, according to Bloomberg.
Right-wing candidates are also coordinating their assault on the election system: At an October conference put on by adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory, Marchant announced that GOP secretary of state candidates in Arizona, California, Georgia, Nevada and Michigan had formed an unnamed organization to help fund, organize and coordinate their strategies. The group has the backing of conspiracy theorist Trump allies like Mike Lindell, Vice News reported.
“I can’t stress enough how important the secretary of state offices are. I think they are the most important elections in our country in 2022. And why is that? We control the election system,” Marchant said at the QAnon conference, according to Vice. “In 2022, we’re going to take back our country.”
What A Malicious Secretary Of State Might Do
Trump and the GOP’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election were far more sophisticated than they appeared at the time, as recent revelations from Congress’ Jan. 6 select committee have made clear. But Trumpworld’s focus on secretary of state races now is part of another total war on the country’s electoral system that’s meant to ensure no such post-election coup is necessary next time — or if it is necessary, that it works.
In Georgia, Raffensperger, other elections officials, and Democrats who pushed back on Trump’s election conspiracy theories have been subject to relentless death threats and other threats of violence.
After the hearing where Nguyen exposed right-wing claims of fraud as utter nonsense, her private information was immediately shared online. Across the country, one-third of elections officials reported that they are afraid to do their jobs in a recent survey; in Arizona, the secretary of state’s elections department has seen “almost 100% turnover” in the last four years, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D) told HuffPost. Almost all of the departures have come in the months since the 2020 election, she said.
Those attacks have contributed to a mass exodus of elections officials, all while new laws in Georgia and other states have made it easier for state lawmakers to purge local elections workers from their positions.
Republicans and their allied conservative groups have launched a blitz to fill the open positions with Trump sympathizers and election skeptics, with a simple goal in mind: To ensure that the GOP’s attempts to limit voting rights and tailor electorates to achieve their desired outcome.
Gaining control of the top elections office in key swing states would make it easier for Republicans to make it harder to vote ― or to go even further if they decide to.
“Their strategy is to be able to install just one or two of those secretaries of state [candidates] in swing states so that they could potentially overturn the results of the 2024 presidential election,” Nguyen said, adding that her campaign isn’t just vital to Georgia but “to the country as a whole.”
After a year in which Republican legislators have passed more than a dozen new anti-voting laws, a malicious secretary of state could take the narrowest possible reading of each of those new statutes in ways that further curb voting rights, said Charles Stewart, a political science professor and elections administration expert at MIT.
“There are currents in American popular opinion that are very, very dangerous. And I think that having people like this in power makes it even more dangerous.”
Hice or a similar lawmaker could close polling locations, implement more restrictive rules for how to process and count absentee ballots, and empower election-skeptical local officials to take their own aggressive actions.
Many of the GOP’s new election laws, meanwhile, criminalize strategies local elections officials used last year to expand voting options during the coronavirus pandemic. A secretary that applies the strictest possible interpretation of those laws could thwart officials’ ability to enact policies that make it easier for voters to cast ballots, especially in heavily populated areas where elections tend to be more complex (and where the electorate is, most often, disproportionately Black, Latino and Democratic).
After an election, a secretary of state could delay or refuse certification of results they don’t like, either from entire states or from key counties that could alter the results. In Georgia and Arizona, Republicans focused their ire on Atlanta and Phoenix, major metro areas that swung the entire outcome of the election in their respective states.
“When the election results come to the state for final certification, depending on the laws, the secretary of state might try to reach more aggressively back into what happened in a county to investigate, to delay certification, to call into question the veracity of the count,” Stewart said.
Republicans in Arizona, Georgia and other states have kicked around the idea of allowing state legislatures to send an alternate slate of electors to Congress in the event of an outcome that doesn’t match their desired result.
A secretary of state that balks at his or her state’s election results could fuel such an attempt, a scenario that worries Hobbs, the Arizona secretary of state, given that “there’s nothing legally or constitutionally that prevents that from happening, from a legislature outright overturning the will of the voters.”
“There’s every reason to be worried,” Nyhan said. “What we saw in 2020 suggests that Trump or another candidate may be looking for a pretext to try to overturn an Electoral College loss. A secretary of state refusing to stand behind the results of their state’s elections could be exactly that.”
Stewart is slightly more sanguine, at least when it comes to a secretary of state’s ability to actually overturn the results of an election. The position isn’t all-powerful, and he noted that federal courts have tossed out virtually every lawsuit Trump and his allies have filed to challenge the 2020 election. Stewart suspects that even in the most extreme cases, the courts would remain a bulwark against an actual attempt to alter the outcome of an election.
Still, Stewart worries that a secretary of state attempting to go along with such a ploy would further undermine confidence in the election in a way that could generate “a constitutional crisis” or an even worse version of the Jan. 6 insurrection.
“I think that there are serious limits on their ability to illegitimately overturn the results of the election,” he said. “But there are things that could happen in popular politics, because these people are in positions of leadership and authority, that could put people’s lives in danger. That could basically continue to sow doubt about the legitimacy of the national government, and really ossify that view within a core of the Republican Party that already believes that the nation is being stolen from them.”
“There are currents in American popular opinion that are very, very dangerous,” Stewart continued. “And I think that having people like this in power makes it even more dangerous.”
Are Democrats Doing Enough?
Nationally, Democrats have struggled to formulate a response to Trump and the GOP’s attempts to curb voting rights and undermine the nation’s democracy. And their inability to push major voting rights and electoral reform bills through the Senate has left activists, organizers and many state lawmakers concerned that party leaders don’t realize the urgency of the moment, or aren’t willing to meet it.
Nguyen, like most of her fellow Democratic secretary of state candidates, does not lack that urgency. She was among the featured speakers at an August voting rights march meant to coincide with the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington; in early October, she was among the activists who were briefly arrested outside the White House during a protest calling on Biden and Democrats to pass their federal voting bills.
The daughter of Vietnamese refugees who fled their country after her father spent three years in a Communist re-education camp in the 1970s, Nguyen’s run is inspired in part, she said, by her parents’ warnings not to ignore an apparent authoritarian threat simply because it may seem like it can’t happen here.
“My folks didn’t talk about it much,” Nguyen said. “But one thing that has resonated with me is they said, ‘All the writing was on the wall, all the signs were there, but we never thought we would lose our country.’ So when I think about the moment that we’re in currently, this is a code red for democracy. The writing is on the wall. The signs are there. And if we do not take this seriously, then we are going to lose our country.”
The challenge for Democrats now is to convince voters that democracy is actually at stake in the 2022 elections. Nearly 8 in 10 Americans believe democracy is under threat, according to an October poll from Marist University. But much of that number is driven by Republican voters who have bought into the GOP’s lies about voter fraud and see Democrats as an existential threat to the country’s democracy.
So far, Democrats have failed to convince independents that the GOP is the illiberal, anti-democratic party independent observers widely regard it as: Those voters, in fact, consider the two parties equal threats to the American political system.
Whether as a result of Republicans’ fear-mongering or national Democrats’ apparent ambivalence, the alarm over the state of democracy right now is clearly more present on the right, where majorities of voters believe the lie that the 2020 election was stolen and scores of voters are hellbent on driving out any elected official who tells them otherwise.
“This is a code red for democracy. The writing is on the wall. The signs are there. And if we do not take this seriously, then we are going to lose our country.”
Democrats believe the radicalism of the GOP’s slate of candidates will help them generate urgency in voters before next November. Hice, for example, has suggested that women should only be allowed to run for office if they have their husband’s permission. Finchem, the Arizona candidate who earned Trump’s endorsement, has deep ties to the Oath Keepers, a far-right anti-government militia group. The crop of secretary of state candidates is radical in ways other candidates are not.
“We don’t have to paint them as extremists because they’re doing it to themselves,” said Kim Rogers, the executive director of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State.
Leo Smith, a veteran Georgia Republican campaign consultant, doesn’t disagree with that assessment. Nominating Hice, he told HuffPost, would doom the GOP with white moderate suburban voters in an election where Sen. Raphael Warnock’s reelection bid and Stacey Abrams’ gubernatorial campaign will likely help Democrats turn out the Black and Latino voters who painted Georgia blue last year.
Democrats and progressive groups say they are pouring record sums into secretary of state races this year: DASS has already raised more than $1 million for its campaign accounts this year, about half as much as it raised during the entire 2018 cycle. Rogers said she expects the organization to ultimately raise five to 10 times its normal amount while individual candidates bring in record sums, too. Over the summer, the progressive group End Citizens United/Let America Vote said it would spend $7 million in 2022 to bolster progressive campaigns for secretary of state and attorney general.
Griswold, the Colorado secretary of state and DASS’s chair, said Democratic leaders are aware of the importance of those campaigns, and that she’s confident about Democrats’ prospects even in states like Georgia, where the races will be overshadowed by higher-profile contests.
“These will never be the best-funded races,” Griswold said. “But we have great candidates. We know how to win. We know how to win in hard places against Republicans. And we’re going to do that across the nation.”
In Georgia, Nguyen has a detailed platform for what she’d do as secretary of state. She wants to improve funding for local election boards, expand the use of translation services to provide alternative election materials to Georgia’s large Latino and Asian populations, and modernize how the state contacts voters about election changes to ensure voters don’t get inadvertently removed from the rolls.
But on the trail, she also plans to make the case to voters that her race — and the democracy she is running to protect — is just as crucial to the enactment of progressive policies as any other contest on the ticket.
“Preserving our democracy and fighting against the subversion of democracy is the most important issue that we are facing right now,” Nguyen said. “If we are unable to do that, we take away the tool to be able to elect people who will do things like give Georgians health care, or help families put food on the table. We have no avenues to achieve the things that we want to see in our state without having somebody who is going to protect free and fair elections.”