GOP primary for secretary of state highlights increasing partisanship of a once moderate office
Republican secretary of state candidates nationwide are running campaigns based on voter fraud claims that investigations have proven wrong time and again. (File photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
Once seen as a mostly non-partisan position despite its partisan election process, the perception of the position of secretary of state is changing.
For proof, look no further than this year’s GOP primary.
In Nevada, as in most other states, the secretary of state is the top elections official. The elected official is tasked with overseeing elections and certifying their results. The latter duty is typically a routine matter that warrants little fanfare, but it became a high profile affair in 2020 as part of Republican President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn his loss to Democrat Joe Biden. Trump’s efforts included spreading unsubstantiated claims of mass voter fraud and directly pressuring Georgia’s Republican secretary of state to “find” more than 11,000 additional votes for him.
Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, a Republican who has served in the role since 2015, similarly found herself under the spotlight for her handling of 2020 elections. She has consistently said no widespread voter fraud occurred.
Now, 10 people are running to succeed the term-limited Republican.
“We have, to date, been very fortunate. People have taken a nonpartisan approach to the position,” says Democrat Ross Miller, now a Clark County Commissioner who served as Nevada secretary of state from 2007 to 2014. “(Republican) Dean Heller when he was secretary of state certainly viewed the office that way. Cegavske did the same.”
Miller noted that in 2009 his office investigated the Association of Community Organization for Reform Now, Inc. — better known as ACORN — for fraudulent voter registration even though the group, which focused on registering low-income voters, aligned with his own political party. That investigation led to criminal charges.
Cegavske’s office investigated materials purported to be evidence of voter irregularities and fraud that were submitted to her office by the Nevada Republican Party after the 2020 election and summarily dismissed them as unsubstantiated.
“That’s what people, voters expect in Nevada,” says Miller of commitment to non-partisanship within the secretary of state office. “I am hopeful that all the candidates that are running this cycle feel the same, because we have been very fortunate to not have a partisan approach.”
Not everyone shares Miller’s optimism.
Many election watchdogs are expressing increased concerns about growing the position’s new hyperpartisanship. A February report from the Brennan Center found that fundraising for secretary of state candidates has skyrocketed in the current election cycle, especially in swing states like Nevada.
“It’s clear that the Big Lie is driving these donations,” wrote Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center.
UNLV professor David Damore says the growing partisanship of the role of secretary of state has been a concern nationally for more than a decade but has become especially salient since the anti-democratic rhetoric of Trump.
For Cegavske’s refusal to, in her words, “put my thumb on the scale of democracy” and back the unsubstantiated claims of mass voter fraud, she was censured by her own party.
“While I have been loyal to the Nevada Republican Party during my over two decades as an elected official, I have been unwavering in my commitment to oversee elections and administer Nevada’s election laws in a neutral, nonpartisan manner,” read a statement released by Cegavske after the censure vote.
Damore says voter access has become a partisan issue, with Democratic states moving toward increasing access and Republican states moving toward less access. This is despite the fact that increasing voter access isn’t definitively tied to helping one party over the other, he adds.
Much of the action is happening not within secretaries of state offices but within state legislatures, which are increasing or restricting voter access via legislation, or at the county level, where elections are actually administered.
Referencing election reforms passed by the Nevada State Legislature during a 2020 special session and regular 2021 session, Damore added, “Democrats have tried to put as much into (Nevada Revised Statute) as they can, realizing that at some point you probably have to protect from this type of swing (toward partisanship).”
Still, that isn’t stopping a slew of Republican candidates from running for the position of secretary of state under promises to reform elections.
This year’s candidates
Seven candidates are running for secretary of state in the Republican primary. Of them, only two — Jim Marchant and John Cardiff Gerhart — have been outright labeled election deniers by States United Action, a nonpartisan group tracking the trend nationally. But almost all are flirting with narratives that suggest some alignment with — or at the very least a willingness to overlook — the position that election results cannot be trusted.
Jim Marchant, one of the first to throw his hat into the race, has garnered national attention for his full-throated commitment to Trump and false narratives surrounding election integrity. The former Nevada assemblyman and failed congressional candidate was among a handful of Republicans who cried fraud after the 2020 election. Marchant sued Cegavske in her role as secretary of state, as well as Clark County Registrar of Voters Joe Gloria, in an attempt to overturn his 5-point loss to Democratic U.S. Rep. Steven Horsford. The case was thrown out.
Marchant has proudly owned the fact that he is a part of a coalition of Trump loyalists who are running for secretary of state. He’s said he would not have certified Biden’s win in 2020 and would consider sending “alternate electors” to Congress in 2024.
Marchant reported receiving approximately $136,000 in campaign contributions in 2021 — the highest amount for any of the announced Republican candidates at that point. (Reporting for the first quarter of 2022 is due later this week.)
Jesse Haw, a real estate developer who briefly served as an appointed member of the Nevada State Senate in 2016 during the Raiders stadium special session, announced his run in January. In that announcement, he claimed he will have “over $550,000 in support.”
On his campaign website, Haw claims that “a handful of extreme liberals in Carson City have made it easier to cheat and harder to get caught.” In campaign ads and on social media, Haw emphasizes the issue of voter identification and suggests Nevada is 50th in election integrity — something independent fact checkers have determined to be “mostly false.”
But in interviews, such as one on Amy Tarkanian’s AM radio show this month, the candidate has taken a more moderate tone, acknowledging that the secretary of state position does not come with unchecked power over elections. He suggested the route forward will include proposing legislation to the Nevada State Legislature or possibly taking the issue directly to voters via an initiative petition.
Richard Scotti, a former district judge, on his campaign website leads with a vow to “restore election security & transparency.” In an interview with Vegas Legal, Scotti said elections “have been lagging” in the areas of security and technology: “Our elections are vulnerable to unscrupulous people voting if they are not citizens; or impersonating someone else to vote; or voting if they are not registered; or voting twice; or voting if they are from out of state.”
In an interview with the Nevada First Agenda Association on GrabetTV, Scotti notes that as secretary of state he would “decertify Dominion machines,” “file a lot of lawsuits to make sure we have a constitutional process,” “clean the voter rolls” and “make sure that we stop the federalization of our elections here because that violates so many parts of our constitution.” In a debate, Scotti endorsed a move toward paper ballots — a popular push among election outcome deniers.
Scotti reported receiving approximately $120,000 in campaign contributions in 2021.
Gerard Ramalho, a longtime news anchor forced into retirement after he was laid off by News 3, launched his campaign for secretary of state by criticizing the media, advocating for voter-identification laws and against “ballot harvesting” — the loaded Republican phrase referring to having somebody else deliver your ballot to a mailbox or polling place. When asked directly in an interview on his former television station who won the 2020 presidential election, Ramalho sidestepped, saying only that “the results are final” and his focus was on “moving forward” to secure election integrity.
Ramalho reported receiving approximately $40,500 in contributions last year.
Socorro Keenan, identified as a retired talent agent, told Veterans in Politics last November that Cegavske did not follow through with her “judiciary” duties in 2020. Keenan also told a Logandale crowd last month that she seeks to make the Nevada standard: “1 ID, 1 vote, 1 ballot; no need for machines.”
Keenan, who filed her first quarter 2022 contributions and expense report Tuesday, has raised only $400 in contributions.
John Cardiff Gerhardt, who in 2020 ran for Nevada Assembly as an independent in a heavily Democratic district, has openly embraced QAnon conspiracy theories and suggested that a “cabal” is attempting to control the state government. He has also said he doesn’t believe the pandemic is real.
No fundraising data is available for Gerhardt.
The final GOP candidate for secretary of state, Kristopher Dahir is notable for being the only one in the pool whose campaign website leads with a promise to follow existing election law rather than subvert it. The Sparks city councilman has publicly defended Cegavske, telling the Review-Journal she “has served our state for 26 years” and “follows what legislators have put in place.”
He added, “That’s the job of the secretary, and it would be the same for me.”
Dahir reiterated the fact that the secretary of state does not make election law in an op-ed to the Gazette Journal, calling out his Republican opponents for making “a great many promises that simply cannot be accomplished” because the secretary of state lacks the authority required to make them happen.
Dahir filed his first quarter 2022 contributions and expenses report Tuesday, three days before the deadline. He reported receiving approximately $26,000 in contributions in the first three months of the year.
Two additional people are running for secretary of state as third party candidates: Janine Hansen as an Independent American and Ross Crane as a Libertarian.
Cisco Aguilar, former chair of the Nevada Athletic Commission and founder of a sports technology company, is the sole Democrat running for secretary of state. A second Democrat — former Assemblywoman Ellen Spiegel — announced last fall she intended to run for secretary of state but later switched to the state controller race, axing the need for a Democratic primary and solidifying Aguilar’s spot on the November general election ballot.
Aguilar reported receiving approximately $486,000 in contributions in 2021.
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