Five Key Midterms Races to Pay Attention To

Guest Essay

Credit…Audra Melton for The New York Times

By Barbara McQuade

Ms. McQuade, who teaches law at the University of Michigan, oversaw voting rights suits as U.S. attorney for Michigan’s Eastern District.

The fate of our democracy doesn’t hinge on the battle for the House or the fight for control of the Senate, but on state elections for a once sleepy office: secretaries of state.

No elected officials will be more pivotal to protecting democracy — or subverting it — than secretaries of state. While their responsibilities vary from state to state, most oversee elections, a role in which they wield a tremendous amount of power. Secretaries of state own the bully pulpit on voting, and they control the machinery of elections.

They also have a platform to spread disinformation, such as false claims that voting by mail is not secure. A Republican secretary of state could reduce the number of ballot boxes or polling places in Democratic areas and limit staffing to create long lines that dissuade potential voters. They can also refuse to certify the results in particular counties or even the entire state. In a close presidential race, if even one secretary of state in a swing state were to put his thumb on the scale, we could see an election that really is stolen.

This has happened before. In 2000, Katherine Harris, Florida’s secretary of state, halted the recount process and certified George W. Bush, for whom she served as a campaign chairwoman, as the winner of Florida’s electoral votes. But our current political moment is even more fraught, as Donald Trump casts doubt on the last election, whipping his supporters into frenzy while Republican field generals quietly maneuver conservative hard-liners into positions of power.

Twenty-seven states will choose a secretary of state this fall, and in 17 of those states, at least one of the Republican candidates for the office actively denies that President Biden won the 2020 election. Fourteen candidates have formed the America First S.O.S. Coalition, which aims to “reverse electoral fraud” by eliminating mail-in ballots, requiring single-day voting and committing to “aggressive voter roll cleanup,” measures that could suppress thousands of Democratic votes. If they win office, Republicans will control the voting process in these five crucial swing states where the 2024 election may be decided:

One closely watched race will be in Georgia, where the Republican incumbent, Brad Raffensperger, is fighting for his political life in the May 24 primary after having refused Mr. Trump’s demands to “find” the 11,780 votes he needed to overturn Mr. Biden’s victory in that state. Although Mr. Raffensperger withstood Mr. Trump’s efforts in 2020, he has now joined the crusade warning against the threat of voter fraud, supporting Georgia’s restrictive new voting laws and citing “voter confidence” as the “No. 1 issue” American voters face.

His main primary opponent goes even further. Representative Jody Hice, a former pastor endorsed by Mr. Trump, is an election denier who has said that “I believe with all my heart” that the will of Georgia voters was subverted in 2020. Republicans have held this office since 2006, so most likely, one of these two men will be in control in 2024.

In Michigan, the Democrats are in a stronger position. The Democratic incumbent, Jocelyn Benson, will face Kristina Karamo, a community college instructor endorsed by Mr. Trump, this fall. Ms. Benson, a former election law professor, literally wrote the book on the role secretaries of state play in protecting the democratic process and resolutely withstood challenges to Michigan’s 2020 election.

Her opponent, on the other hand, has made debunked claims that she witnessed election fraud while observing poll workers in Detroit in 2020 and said that the Capitol riot was conducted by “antifa posing as Trump supporters.” Mr. Trump has been stumping for Ms. Karamo for a reason: “This is not just about 2022,” he said at a recent rally. “This is about making sure Michigan is not rigged and stolen again in 2024.” Recent polling shows Ms. Benson with a 14-point lead over Ms. Karamo, but that margin is small considering Ms. Benson’s greater name recognition.

In Pennsylvania, the secretary of state is appointed, so the tossup governor’s race will decide who ends up overseeing elections. While the Democratic contender for governor, Josh Shapiro, the state attorney general, has made voting rights a cornerstone of his campaign, some of the Republican candidates seem determined to undercut them. Recent polling shows State Senator Doug Mastriano, a retired Army colonel with a Ph.D. in history, leading the rest of the Republican candidates.

Mr. Mastriano has embraced Mr. Trump’s claims of a stolen election; according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, he spoke with the president in the days after the election and pushed for a new slate of electors to be sent to Congress. Videos show him and his wife wandering through the barricades after rioters — some of whom he’d paid to send to Washington — breached the Capitol. His election as governor is a strong possibility in a state that tends to seesaw between Democrats and Republicans.

Other candidates for secretary of state include Mark Finchem in Arizona and Jim Marchant in Nevada. Mr. Finchem, a state representative who attended the Stop the Steal Rally in Washington last year, has introduced a resolution to decertify the results of the 2020 election in three big counties and a bill to empower the Arizona Legislature to reject election results. As of the end of the first quarter, Mr. Finchem led all the other candidates in the race in fund-raising, making him the most likely to win the Republican primary and a strong candidate in the general election.

Mr. Marchant has followed the same campaign playbook in Nevada. A former state legislator, he has not only called it “almost statistically impossible that Joe Biden won” the state, but also said he would not have certified Nevada’s slate of electors had he been secretary of state in 2020; indeed, he pushed for his state to submit an alternative slate. While Nevada has gone to the Democratic candidate in the past four presidential elections, three of its past four secretaries of state have been Republicans, and this race could go either way.

For Democrats to fend off the America First slate, they will need to invest in these races, helping candidates build the name recognition they need to combat the onslaught from the right. That will take time, money and a strategy to raise awareness about the crucial role these offices play in protecting our democracy. A nationwide effort like the “SoS Project,” which was started by a group of Democrats following the 2004 election and folded several years later, could help. Individuals can also help by volunteering for secretary of state candidates and by talking to their neighbors and on social media about the importance of these positions.

Races for other offices may attract bigger names, but elections for secretary of state may bring about the most significant shifts in power in 2022. As Mr. Trump has said, sometimes the “vote counter is more important than the candidate.”

Barbara McQuade (@BarbMcQuade) is a professor of law at the University of Michigan. She served as the U.S. attorney for Michigan’s Eastern District from 2010 to 2017.

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