Once the 2020 presidential election results showed Georgia had gone from a reliable red for Republicans to a true blue win for Democrats, state Rep. Bee Nguyen thought that was the end of the campaign.
Little did the 39-year-old Atlanta Democrat know, it was the beginning of her role as one of the country's earliest opponents of the "Big Lie," false claims about election fraud.
Nguyen gained national notice last December at a state legislative hearing for a 12-minute takedown of then-President Donald Trump's campaign lawyers, who sought to overturn the Peach State's tally.
"Certainly, the alarm bells have been ringing prior to this year," she told USA TODAY.
Trump tried a more direct approach in January, when he unsuccessfully pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger during a phone call to "find" enough votes to change the outcome.
Raffensperger has weathered a backlash from the former president and his allies, namely U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., who spearheads a primary campaign to oust Raffensperger.
That is one reason Nguyen decided to launch her own bid for Georgia’s chief election officer.
"If we do not elect secretaries of state who are unwilling to overturn the results of elections – no matter what those results are – we are in huge trouble," she said.
In the 2022 midterms, secretaries of state contests are emerging as just as important as who controls governors' mansions or Congress but with more direct ramifications for overseeing elections – including the 2024 presidential race.
It's been almost a year since President Joe Biden won the White House.
Trump's false claims of a stolen election and attempts to overturn the outcome have been discredited by multiple state audits and more than 60 failed lawsuits that were rejected by courts, including the Supreme Court.
Biden won the 2020 presidential race by roughly 7 million votes nationwide in the popular vote and 74 electoral votes.
Yet there remains a persistent belief among many right-leaning voters — dubbed the "Big Lie" by Democratic and Republican critics for those who believe in the conspiracy theories — that the 2020 election was “rigged” against Trump.
That, in turn, has stoked interest in secretary of state roles, which typically oversee election administration and certify the results.
In at least four swing states, GOP candidates whom Trump has either endorsed or supported are coordinating their efforts at the behest of those in the former president's orbit.
A common thread among those candidates: They have questioned the 2020 voting process, if not outright said the outcome was stolen.
At least three Trump-approved candidates met in Dallas last week to discuss election integrity – a favorite topic among Trump and his allies when they attack, without evidence, the legitimacy of the 2020 results.
For voters, the effort among the Trump faction to corner secretary of state positions means more pressure to understand down-ballot races beyond congressional and gubernatorial races or risk voting in officials who could invalidate citizens' ballots.
Democrats will face more pressure to hone their messaging, reinforcing the legitimacy of past results as well as ringing the alarm about what's at stake in the future.
Many liberals contend the focus on state-level roles is part of a larger strategy to undermine or steal the 2024 presidential contest, while others fret it could lead to violent insurrections like the one at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
The Big Lie persists
"I will tell you that I do not believe that Joe Biden was legitimately elected," Boris Epshteyn, a former special assistant to Trump, said in an interview.
Polling this year has shown the belief that the 2020 election was corrupted by fraud is growing, and not just among the GOP.
In a Reuters/Ipsos poll in May, 56% of Republican respondents said they believed the 2020 presidential race was marred by illegal votes. Roughly 25% of all respondents said they held the same belief.
CNN released a survey last month that found 78% of Republicans said Biden did not “legitimately” win enough votes. It showed 36% of Americans saying he did not win.
Misgivings about the election drove more than a dozen GOP-controlled state legislatures to pass stricter election rules in the months since.
They also fertilized Republican primaries in next year’s midterm elections for a crop of secretary of state candidates in crucial battleground states who are wedded to Trump's claims about the election.
At least two-thirds of the 15 declared contenders seeking to be the Republican nominee for secretary of state in five crucial battlegrounds – Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin – have either said the 2020 election was stolen or cast doubt on the results, according to a Reuters investigation.
'America First' secretaries in 2022
In Arizona, Nevada, Georgia and Michigan, Republican secretary of state candidates are in regular communication and formed a coalition backed by Trump allies to win in 2022.
Those four states total 49 electoral votes among them and would have changed the 2020 outcome had they all gone for Trump.
"We're trying to get America First secretaries of state elected throughout the country ... we're concentrating in the swing states," said Jim Marchant, a Republican candidate for Nevada secretary of state.
Voters typically struggle to name who is on the ballot for secretary of state in their backyard, but the country’s debate about election integrity and voting rights has changed much of that before the midterms.
Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the Crystal Ball, a political analysis newsletter at the University of Virginia, said these races are part of the national conversation as much as elections for Congress or governor.
"Election administration in general has become a bigger topic because of Donald Trump's frankly irresponsible claims about the integrity of the election, but also Democrats and others defending themselves against those claims," he said.
Marchant told USA TODAY the idea for coordination came from within Trump's circle.
"When (the Trump people) asked me to run for secretary of state, they asked me to put together this coalition," he said. "It's something that would help us fundraise ... and then adopt certain policies that we all want to see in secretary of state offices."
The group supports voter ID laws and "aggressive" poll watchers, he said, who can more closely monitor election counts at the local level.
Marchant, whom Trump endorsed for Congress last year, filed a suit claiming voter fraud in his roughly 16,100-vote loss to Rep. Steve Horsford, D-Nev.
The case was dismissed by a Clark County judge.
Marchant declined to name which Trump allies helped herd the candidates into their coalition but indicated they were "people that are pretty, pretty influential," including individuals who speak to the former president directly.
Common threads among Trump's picks
Trump spokeswoman Liz Harrington did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the former president's involvement with the coalition, but Trump's picks have voiced skepticism about the voting process or the results.
Hice, the Georgia congressman, peddled false claims about the state's election system, including tweeting out that voting machines changed votes from Trump to Biden.
In March, the former president endorsed Hice.
Republican state Rep. Mark Finchem, who is running to oversee Arizona's election process, maintained the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. He attended the "Stop the Steal" rally, which exploded into the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Trump knighted the 68-year-old Republican with his support in September, saying, “Mark was willing to say what few others had the courage to say.”
Finchem declined a request for comment.
Michigan educator Kristina Karamo is a political activist who gained popularity among right-leaning voters after she alleged she witnessed two instances of illegal voting in Detroit last year. She received the coveted Trump nod last month.
"I would say my goal is to ensure that the election results are 100% the result of legal activities and that legal votes are not nullified by illegal ballots," she said.
Michigan's certified election results show Biden won the state by 154,188 votes, and an investigation led by Republican state lawmakers found no basis for claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election.
In a statement, Trump promoted Karamo as one of the speakers at a rally scheduled for Tuesday outside the state Capitol, "where Patriots will demand a Forensic Audit of the 2020 Presidential Election Scam."
Karamo declined to say when asked three times by USA TODAY whether she believes enough voter fraud existed in the 2020 election to have changed the outcome.
"The goal is citizen oversight, so whether or not the fraud that existed changed the outcome or not, that's a secondary point," she said. "The primary point is it shouldn't exist at all in the state."
In March, Marchant told The Associated Press he believed the 2020 election was "stolen" from Trump. The former Nevada assemblymen said he wouldn't say "stolen" now, but he asserted there are "enough anomalies" to justify an audit of all 50 states.
"The way I look at it, if Joe Biden won, so be it, God bless him," Marchant told USA TODAY. "If there's enough doubt right now, for me anyway, to doubt the election, I don't know why the other side will not let us do an audit. I mean, if they're certain about their win, why are they blocking us so vehemently?"
Gathering in Dallas
Marchant, Karamo and Finchem trekked to Dallas last week as part of an election integrity summit where the candidates discussed, among other policy ideas, advocating for traceable ballots to be used in elections.
A spokeswoman in Hice's office said the congressman did not attend.
The trio visited Authentix, a Dallas-based anti-counterfeiting company that has offices in Saudi Arabia, Ghana, Singapore and the U.K., according to its website.
In a tweet Oct. 6, Finchem and other Arizona state officials stood outside Authenix's offices saying they were interested in "establishing a ballot audit trail and use of currency grade fraud countermeasures on all future ballots."
Trump said he's considering another presidential run and flirts with the idea by holding rallies in states such as Iowa. Aides have discouraged Trump from announcing another White House bid before the midterms, according to The Washington Post.
Trump and his allies understand the importance of having friendlier ears in the offices that oversee elections.
"If we have honest people like Mark Finchem and Jody Hice, who are the secretaries of state, you can rest easy and believe that they will do the right thing, they will do it by the law and will do it by the Constitution," Epshteyn, the former Trump aide, said.
"That's what we need in this country," he said, "those who follow the rules and procedures and do not try to rig the election for their party, which is what Democrats have been doing for way too long."
Dems fret 2024 steal – or worse
In 36 states, secretaries of state are elected by the voters and hold varying degrees of power. They mostly are responsible for maintaining registration rolls and statewide voter databases and certifying election results.
In Hawaii and Alaska, there is no secretary of state position. Other states appoint the positions, and some give the responsibility to the lieutenant governor or a state board of elections.
Anxiety over the country’s elections has defined 2021 as GOP-controlled legislatures enacted more restrictive voting laws and congressional Democrats look to counter those changes with new federal rules.
Republican state legislators have tinkered with the administrative side of elections by changing secretary of state powers in the past year.
A report by the Voting Rights Lab found that 17 state legislatures introduced bills that would allow them or other partisan officials to "exert greater control over the conduct of elections."
Sarah Walker, executive director of Secure Democracy, a nonprofit group that works to improve election integrity, said that is alarming in the context of 2020, when secretaries of state, including Republicans, were a bulwark against pressure from Trump and his allies.
"If (Brad Raffensperger) loses in Georgia, it could send a chilling message through the GOP that if you are to uphold democratic norms that you could be ousted by your own party," she said.
Walker said voting rights advocates fear conspiracy theorists are in the driver's seat among far-right groups before 2022, which could result in abuses of power.
In Arizona, a six-month election audit led by Republican legislators reaffirmed Biden won the state's largest county by more votes than originally counted.
Yet the Grand Canyon State's GOP-controlled Legislature enacted a law that prohibits the secretary of state from representing the state on lawsuits dealing with elections.
Another proposal would allow the Arizona Legislature to revoke the secretary of state's certification and select its own slate of presidential electors.
A heavier burden on voters
Walker said the past two years exposed critical weaknesses in U.S. election administration.
"Rather than restoring our system of checks and balances and strengthening accountability and transparency, what this is going to do is drive more disinformation and undermine voter trust," she said.
Democrats hope to increase their fundraising reach into the 26 states holding elections for secretary of state.
The Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, the political arm for incumbents and candidates, reported raising $1.1 million in June.
Officials with the group aim to double that amount by the end of this year. The association has a $10 million goal during the entire cycle.
Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson of Michigan, who seeks reelection in 2022, said Republicans are trying to chew away at the credibility of elections by attacking administrative officials such as herself.
"Part of that strategy is the attempt at putting people in places of authority who if called upon may utilize the office and the power that comes with it to stand in the way of the voters' voices," Benson said.
Democrats' messages about the stakes of 2022
Last December, Benson faced dozens of protesters, some armed, who swarmed outside her house, shouting through megaphones against the certification of the election and demanding a forensic audit.
She said Democrats must have a message that repeats the truth about the 2020 outcome and raises a "code red" about what's at stake.
"I really welcome the additional attention on secretary of state races this year," she said. "The big question to me, however, is what are voters going to do?"
Others running to stop Trump-aligned candidates from seizing election administration seats said there's a bigger threat.
There are concerns that political violence like the Capitol invasion Jan. 6 will become a regular part of America’s elections.
Federal prosecutors have charged more than 600 Americans in more than 40 states with participating in the riot, and arrests continue almost daily.
There have been reports about dozens of death threats aimed at election officials fueled largely by the "Big Lie."
“The writing is on the wall. This is a point of inflection for our country,” said Nguyen, the Georgia Democrat, who said her life has been threatened. “The decisions that we make now, they are going to determine the future of our democracy indefinitely, and I don't know how many chances we are going to have.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Secretary of state races emerge as new 'big lie' battleground in 2022