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Conspiracy theorists hope to run state elections systems nationwide

For most American voters, secretary of state is probably a fairly obscure government office. There's a reason that's about to change.

Nevada's Jim Marchant, a former state representative who's been accused of having QAnon ties, had a notable chat with Steve Bannon this week. The Nevada Republican boasted that there's a "coalition" of GOP secretary of state candidates — each of whom are committed to an "America First" agenda — who are working "behind the scenes to try to fix 2020 like President Trump said."

Marchant is in a position to know: He's running his own GOP campaign for secretary of state in the Silver State. If elected, he'll oversee Nevada's system of elections.

In nearby Arizona, Republican state Rep. Mark Finchem has also been linked to QAnon. Reuters recently reported that he's also a prominent advocate of election conspiracy theories, has called for Arizona to decertify President Joe Biden's victory in the state, and was at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Like Marchant, Finchem is running a GOP campaign for secretary of state this year. If elected, he'll oversee the Grand Canyon State's system of elections.

These two may seem like extreme examples, but as NPR noted this week, they have plenty of radical company.

An NPR analysis of 2022 secretary of state races across the country found at least 15 Republican candidates running who question the legitimacy of President Biden's 2020 win, even though no evidence of widespread fraud has been uncovered about the race over the last 14 months. In fact, claims of any sort of fraud that swung the election have been explicitly refuted in state after state, including those run by Republicans.

As we've discussed, it's likely that for many American voters, secretary of state — at the state level, not the cabinet secretary who leads the U.S. State Department — is a fairly obscure government office. These officials tend to work behind the scenes on unglamorous tasks such as election administration, and few reach the household-name level.

But in the wake of the Republican Party's Big Lie, and Donald Trump's ongoing fixation on installing allies in key positions, secretaries of state — and this year's campaigns to elect secretaries of state — have taken on extraordinary importance.

Franita Tolson, an election law expert at the University of Southern California, told NPR, "The reasons why Trump's attempt to overturn the 2020 election failed is because there were state officials who refused to substantiate his claims of fraud. These folks really are gatekeepers."

And with this in mind, there's an organized effort underway to ensure that these offices are filled with radical conspiracy theorists — just in time for the 2024 presidential election.

Trey Grayson, Kentucky's former Republican secretary of state, added, "There's a lot of crazy going around. You have people running for these offices where the most important duty is counting the votes and accepting the results even if you don't like the outcome, and these folks don't appear to be well-positioned to do that."

Donald Trump has already endorsed three extremists in secretary of state races, and the former president will likely continue to intervene in these contests in the coming months.

Voters inclined to focus on top-of-the-ballot contests in this year's elections need to rethink that perspective.