Once viewed as neutral administrators, these state officials are under growing pressure to pick sides, dividing one of the last bastions of bipartisanship.
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Mac Warner, the secretary of state in West Virginia, meeting with county poll workers last month. He took part in a “Stop the Steal” rally after Donald Trump lost in the 2020 presidential election.
FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. — Standing before a dozen volunteer poll workers gathered in an old wood-paneled community auditorium that would soon be transformed into a polling place, Mac Warner invited his audience to look at his socks.
They were stitched with the hashtag #TRUSTEDINFO2020: a souvenir of a campaign that Mr. Warner, West Virginia’s secretary of state since 2017, had waged with his fellow secretaries across the country before the last presidential election, an effort to raise awareness of disinformation efforts targeting voters.
“Don’t get your information from Facebook,” he told the poll workers. “Don’t get it from Google. Don’t get it from social media. Get it from trusted sources.”
A former officer in the Army with the Judge Advocate General’s Corps who has assisted government ministries running elections in Afghanistan, Mr. Warner earned the respect of his fellow secretaries of state — most of whom, like Mr. Warner, serve as the top election official in their states — in 2020 for his particular commitment to fighting misinformation and security threats at the ballot box.
But some of them have been more reluctant to praise him since December 2020, when he climbed onstage at a rally outside the State Capitol in Charleston the month after Donald J. Trump lost the presidential election, holding up a sign that said “STOP THE STEAL.”
“It’s so important to keep him in office,” Mr. Warner, speaking of Mr. Trump, told an interviewer from Right Side Broadcasting Network at the rally.
Today, Mr. Warner walks a delicate line. He acknowledges that Joseph R. Biden Jr. “was elected,” in 2020, but questions whether the election was run fairly in some states. He has worked to debunk conspiracy theories about voting machines and laments the rise of fringe views within his party. But he also compares the voting rights bills congressional Democrats tried to pass this year to the foreign influence campaigns he fought in 2020, and he blames the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol in part on the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear a long-shot challenge to the election from Texas’s attorney general, which he supported.
“I believe that’s what spurred on the Jan. 6 people,” he said.
In 40 states, secretaries serve as the chief elections officer, overseeing the voting process — a role that only rarely attracted attention until Mr. Trump and his allies, promoting a range of lies and conspiracy theories about his 2020 loss, thrust it into the center of partisan politics.
Mr. Trump has continued to loudly blame his loss on secretaries of state in several states — most often Georgia, where Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, resisted Mr. Trump’s direct entreaties to overturn the election. A handful of secretary of state races have commanded national political attention and spending this year as Trump loyalists like Mark Finchem in Arizona and Kristina Karamo in Michigan have campaigned for the office on claims of the stolen election.
“When I ran for this job in 2019, the first question I always got was, ‘What does your office do?’” said Michael Adams, the Republican secretary of state of Kentucky. “I don’t get that question anymore.”
ImageTesting voting machines in Fayette County in West Virginia. Voting machines are often a target of conspiracy theorists.Credit…Jeff Swensen for The New York Times
Regardless of how the most outspoken election deniers perform on Tuesday, the furious political climate has already transformed an office whose occupants have often prided themselves on their remove from partisan trench warfare. At a time when Republican and Democratic congressmen barely talk to each other, secretaries of state still speak with warmth about their colleagues from the other party. They socialize over cocktails at annual meetings and exchange text messages over election law cases they vigorously disagree about.
But those relationships have been tested by the last two years, several secretaries of state said in interviews. Democrats have been offended by some Republicans’ sowing doubt without evidence about elections in other states. Republicans charge that Democrats have used Mr. Trump’s election lies as a pretext to paint legitimate conservative policy aims as threats to democracy.
“It’s still a good working relationship,” said Steve Simon, Minnesota’s Democratic secretary of state. “But I would say it is fraught with the realities of what’s going on outside of us.”
Secretaries of state, who are elected on party tickets in most of the country, have never been immune to partisan politics. Still, “as we were approaching Election Day” in 2020, said Maggie Toulouse Oliver, the Democratic secretary of state of New Mexico who at the time was the chairwoman of the national association, “we still felt very much on the same page.”
But as Mr. Trump’s election claims persisted, fissures began to appear. Democrats were dismayed to see Mr. Warner and Jay Ashcroft, the Republican secretary of state of Missouri, speak at Stop the Steal rallies at their respective state capitols in late 2020.
At a meeting of the National Association of Secretaries of State in August 2021, in response to a wave of highly partisan reviews billed as “audits” of the 2020 election results, a group of four Republican and four Democratic secretaries of state drew up a resolution setting clear standards for audits. The measure passed unanimously with the exceptions of Mr. Warner, who voted against it, and Mr. Ashcroft, who abstained, and shortly after that left the association entirely in protest of the measure, which he argues violated the group’s bylaws.
Neither Mr. Warner nor Mr. Ashcroft directly claims that the election was stolen. Both have instead maintained that a significant number of ballots were cast “outside of the law” in key states on account of expansions in remote voting made in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and that these issues have yet to be sufficiently settled in court.
Although many legal challenges to the election were rejected by judges on the merits, others were dismissed on technical grounds. One postelection challenge, to the use of drop boxes for voting in Wisconsin, won in the state’s Supreme Court this year.
Some Republican secretaries who stood by the outcome of the 2020 election have nevertheless given credence to lesser claims, directly or indirectly. Frank LaRose, the Republican secretary of state of Ohio, has publicly rebuked conspiracy theorists’ claims about the election in Ohio, but also raised questions about “things that happened in other states” in interviews. “Could it have changed the electoral count?” he said in an interview with The Columbus Dispatch in April. “Who knows.”
In December, Louisiana’s Voting Systems Commission, a panel led by the Republican secretary of state Kyle Ardoin, invited Phil Waldron, a prominent election conspiracy theorist, to testify at a hearing. In January, Mr. Ardoin announced that Louisiana would no longer participate in the Electronic Registration Information Center, a cross-state information-sharing platform used to maintain voter rolls, which had lately become the subject of right-wing conspiracy theories.
This has angered some Democratic secretaries of state, who note that election officials and often secretaries of state themselves have faced personal threats as a result of the conspiracy theories that their Republican counterparts have been reluctant to check.
In October, a Nebraska man was sentenced to 18 months in prison for making threats against Jena Griswold, the Democratic secretary of state in Colorado, on social media.
ImageColorado’s secretary of state, Jena Griswold, and her counterpart in Kentucky, Michael Adams, at a conference for secretaries of state this summer.Credit…Matthew Hinton/Associated Press
But some Democratic secretaries of state said they were sympathetic to the increasingly difficult position that colleagues like Mr. LaRose and Mr. Ardoin are in. Since last year, a grass-roots movement driven by right-wing conspiracy theories has put pressure on election officials, even those in deeply red states, to respond to convoluted claims of malfeasance.
Mr. Adams of Kentucky and John Merrill, the Republican secretary of state of Alabama, have both been vilified by Mike Lindell, the MyPillow chief executive and influential election denier, over bogus claims of fraudulent votes in their states, both of which Mr. Trump won easily in 2020.
In solidly Republican Montana, the state’s Republican secretary of state has had to fend off efforts to gain access to voting machines in several counties by activists and Republican state legislators who had attended an August 2021 conference hosted by Mr. Lindell.
As recently as that August, “we didn’t really see election denialism happening in all 50 states,” Mr. Adams said, noting that it was limited to battlegrounds. Now, he said, “it’s gone everywhere.”
Republican secretaries were also rattled this spring when Republican incumbents in South Dakota and Indiana lost primary elections to candidates who refuse to acknowledge Mr. Biden’s victory in the last election. Running to replace Barbara Cegavske, the term-limited Republican secretary of state of Nevada, is Jim Marchant, a member of the America First Secretary of State Coalition, a Trump-loyalist group funded by prominent election deniers. He is leading in the polls.
Mr. Adams, who ran for office in 2019 on Republican priorities like strict voter I.D. laws and regular clearance of voter rolls, has found that his record on these issues counts for little with many in the crowds he now encounters at Republican events in his state, he said.
“How do you reason with someone that really thinks that Venezuelan socialists are hacking into paper ballot counters that don’t have a modem?” said Mr. Adams, who is seeking re-election next year. “All I can do is just say all day, every day, that it’s not true. And just hope that I’ll survive.”
Several secretaries of state said that, as the prospect of an election denier bloc emerging among their ranks drew closer to reality, it had drawn Democrats and Republicans closer together as they openly wondered what would become of their once-convivial interactions.
“It may be very challenging to have some of these same conversations or bipartisan happy hours with people who are spewing nonsense about us or demonizing those of us who are not in their party,” said Shenna Bellows, Maine’s Democratic secretary of state.
A preview of sorts was offered this July in Baton Rouge at the annual conference for the National Association of Secretaries of State. During a meeting there with federal cybersecurity officials, Cord Byrd, Florida’s newly appointed Republican secretary of state, launched into a speech condemning electronic voting, according to several people in attendance. (A spokesman for Mr. Byrd said this account was “unequivocally false.”)
But the secretaries also took heart when Mr. Merrill, a generally Trump-friendly Republican, offered his own experience as an election observer in Russia as testimony that paper ballots were just as manipulable as electronic voting.
Mr. Merrill is term-limited, and will be leaving his post this year. A spokeswoman for Wes Allen, the Republican running to replace him, said that Mr. Allen believed the 2020 election was “conducted in a safe and secure manner” in Alabama. Asked who Mr. Allen believed had won the 2020 election nationwide, she declined to answer.