Kristina Karamo, who has since won the Michigan Republican party's nomination for secretary of state, gets an endorsement from former President Donald Trump during a rally on April 02, 2022. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Kristina Karamo, who has since won the Michigan Republican party's nomination for secretary of state, gets an endorsement from former President Donald Trump during a rally on April 02, 2022. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

MICHIGAN—Kristina Karamo, the Trump-endorsed conspiracy theorist running on the Republican ticket for Secretary of State in Michigan, is now one of several candidates running to oversee state elections while simultaneously denying the results of the last one.

Although Karamo didn’t have a primary opponent this week, she’s now joined by Republican nominees for secretary of state in Alabama, Indiana, Nevada, New Mexico—and most recently Nevada—who all support former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, and who have promised to upend election administration if elected in November.

On Tuesday, the Trump-endorsed state lawmaker who won the GOP nomination for Arizona secretary of state—state Rep. Mark Finchem—became the latest candidate to advance to the November ballot for a post overseeing state elections while denying the results of the last one.

And the early successes of candidates like him and Karamo are only raising concerns about what could happen if those who lack faith in elections are actually put in charge of running them.

Conspiracists Rising

Karamo speaks at a Trump rally. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Karamo, who earned an early endorsement from Trump, reportedly gained notoriety and a desire to run for office after the right-wing media embraced her as an election fraud “whistleblower,” for expressing allegations that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent.

Election experts say candidates who dispute the results of a valid election in which there has been no evidence of fraud or manipulation of voting systems pose a danger of interfering in future elections. They warn it could trigger chaos if they refuse to accept results they don’t like.

“They only have faith in elections when their side wins. Their definition of a secure election is only when they or their party wins,” said David Becker, a former Justice Department attorney who leads the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research. “That is not a democracy.”

Karamo’s views are shared by the other two Republican contenders for Michigan’s highest offices. Gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon and wannabe attorney general Matt DePerno echo both Karamo and other lawmaker hopefuls, like the GOP nominee for governor in Pennsylvania—who, in that state, appoints the secretary of state.

Over the last several weeks, plenty of primary challengers have also been successful in targeting incumbent state lawmakers across the country—and establishment Republicans are taking the brunt of it. Notably in Michigan, election denier John Gibbs took down US Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Grand Rapids), who voted to impeach Trump and was widely viewed as far less extreme.

Michigan gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon stands next to former President Donald Trump. (Source: Tudor Dixon Facebook)

The Republican losses continued to mount on Primary Tuesday, as Trump-endorsed candidates ousted incumbent state senators in Arizona and a conservative challenger beat the assistant majority leader of the Missouri Senate. Though not technically an incumbent, Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers also lost a bid for state Senate after refusing to help Trump overturn the election.

In many cases, lawmakers are being defeated by challengers who take more extreme stances on election integrity, transgender policies, school instruction and other hot-button issues.

“We have a far-right faction that is very dissatisfied with what’s happening on the left. So if you are not rabidly a fanatic that just punches every button, then you’re going to have an issue,” said Arkansas state Rep. Craig Christiansen, who lost in a Republican primary earlier this year.

Other conspiracy theorists have been less successful. In Georgia, Republican state Rep. Jody Hice lost his bid to oust Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in the state’s primary. Raffensperger, also a Republican, had drawn the ire of Trump after refusing the former president’s demand to “find” enough votes to overturn Biden’s win in Georgia.

Most of the other seven incumbent Republican secretaries facing primary challengers this year have advanced to the November election—including Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab, who on Tuesday defeated a challenger who promoted election conspiracy theories about fraud in the 2020 election.

Only Indiana’s Holli Sullivan and South Dakota’s Steve Barnett have lost their bids to stay in office, but a handful of state primary elections still need to unfold over the next several weeks.

What Happens When Election Deniers Run Elections?

Nobody is quite sure—but experts are concerned for the future of democracy. Historically, races for secretary of state have been low-key contests overshadowed by campaigns for governor and state attorney general. But they have drawn enormous interest since the 2020 election, when voting systems and processes came under attack by Trump and his supporters.

Secretaries of state work closely with local election officials. Responsibilities vary, but they typically issue guidance on voting procedures to ensure uniformity, dole out funding for local elections and coordinate with federal officials on security.

Experts say a secretary of state who believes the 2020 election was stolen could seek changes to how elections are run. For instance, those who think mail-in voting is vulnerable to fraud could add new requirements for mail ballot requests, reduce access to drop boxes or eliminate lists of permanent absentee voters—all possible scenarios that could potentially unfold in Michigan. 

In Michigan, the secretary of state is not only responsible for elections, but also oversees a host of other licensing activities—including vehicle registration and the regulation of notaries public.

And while Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has promoted voter participation, her opponent Karamo has worked in the other direction—participating in legal efforts to delay and overturn election results, pressing lawmakers to pursue so-called forensic audits and repeatedly promoting unfounded theories of voter manipulation peddled by conspiracists, reports the Detroit Free Press

“If they have the keys to the castle, so to speak, will they properly set rules, count votes and defend the will of the people?” said David Levine, a former election official who is now a fellow with the Alliance for Securing Democracy.

Levine said there are also questions about what a secretary of state who embraces conspiracy theories may do if their party’s candidate lost an election and claimed fraud.

“We need to make sure that we are putting people in these positions who put free and fair elections above partisan interest,” he said.

Although secretaries of state are important positions, they do not have unlimited power, said Sylvia Albert, a director for Common Cause, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for expanded voter access.

“Even in states where the secretary of state has an enormous amount of power, a secretary of state cannot—by themselves—overturn a democratic election,” Albert said. “Even where these individuals may want to take actions to undermine the ability for voters to vote and have a ballot count, they are still limited by the law and checks and balances in place.”

Setting the Record Straight

For the record: There is no evidence that voting machines have been manipulated. A coalition of federal and state election and cybersecurity officials called the 2020 presidential election “the most secure in American history.” Trump’s own attorney general, along with a growing list of his former staffers, have said there was no fraud in the election.

Experts also say hand-counting of ballots is not only less accurate but extremely labor-intensive, potentially delaying results by weeks—in addition to being unnecessary because voting equipment is tested before and after elections to ensure ballots are read and tallied correctly.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.