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Here's where election-denying candidates are running to control voting

Rep. Mark Finchem, of Arizona, gestures as he speaks during an election rally in Richmond, Va., in October.
Steve Helber
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AP
Rep. Mark Finchem, of Arizona, gestures as he speaks during an election rally in Richmond, Va., in October.

Updated February 3, 2022 at 5:13 PM ET

Mark Finchem was at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

He says he didn't go inside, but he snapped some photos of people who did.

"What happens when the People feel they have been ignored, and Congress refuses to acknowledge rampant fraud. #stopthesteal," he tweeted.

The Arizona state representative was there to share what he called "evidence" of an "irredeemably compromised" 2020 election with Republican lawmakers from his home state. To be clear, Republican election officials in the state deemed the results "free, fair, and accurate" and even a discredited GOP-led "audit" run in the state's largest county agreed Biden won.

More recently, Finchem also appeared at a QAnon conference, and in speaking with NPR declined to describe what happened at the Capitol as a riot or an insurrection, instead making allusions to some sort of conspiracy involving law enforcement.

Now, he is running to oversee voting in Arizona in 2022.

And he's not alone.

An NPR analysis of 2022 secretary of state races across the country found at least 20 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.

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The duties of a state secretary of state vary, but in most cases, they are the state's top voting official and have a role in carrying out election laws. Wisconsin and Illinois are the only states included in NPR's analysis where the state secretary of state does not oversee its elections, though at least one Republican lawmaker in Wisconsin has floated the idea of changing that.

Current and former election officials, as well as election experts worry what could become of democracy should some or many of the candidates across the country win.

"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," said Franita Tolson, an election law expert at the University of Southern California. "These folks really are gatekeepers."

In many cases, the races are setting up a deciding moment for Republican voters — just how far down the election denial rabbit hole are they willing to follow former President Donald Trump?

In Georgia for instance, the Republican primary will pit incumbent Brad Raffensperger against two candidates, Rep. Jody Hice and former Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle, both of whom allege that Trump was the rightful winner of the state.

Raffensperger, however, became one of the leading Republican voices in 2020 cutting against Trump's misinformation about the election, culminating in a phone call where he told the then-president directly that he was wrong.

"I think [Trump] knows in his heart that he lost this election," Raffensperger told NPR recently.

The 2022 secretary of state race in Kansas is shaping up similarly.

Incumbent Scott Schwab corrected Trump's false claims about mail voting security in 2020, and at least one Republican challenger, Mike Brown, is seizing on those comments to call for audits and defend Trump.

Trump has endorsed three secretary of state candidates so far — Finchem in Arizona, Hice in Georgia and Kristina Karamo, a community college professor in Michigan who has pushed conspiracy theories about the election and the attack on the Capitol.

Trey Grayson, a Republican former secretary of state from Kentucky, said the trend is worrisome but that it also makes sense since polling shows a majority of Republican voters feel similarly. A recent NPR/Ipsos poll, for example, found that two-thirds of Republicans nationally feel like fraud helped Biden win.

"There's a lot of crazy going around," Grayson said. "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."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.