Election skeptics slow to get sweeping changes in GOP states

Then-Republican candidate for Indiana Secretary of State Diego Morales speaks during an interview in Indianapolis, Sept. 20, 2022. Republicans in a handful of red states won their campaigns for secretary of state last year after claiming they would make sweeping changes to keep fraud out of elections. So far, their efforts to make good on their promises are a mixed bag _ in part because they face opposition from lawmakers in their own party. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Republicans in some heavily conservative states won their campaigns for secretary of state last year after claiming they would make sweeping changes aimed at keeping fraud out of elections.

So far, their efforts to make good on their promises are mixed, in some cases because their rhetoric has bumped up against skepticism from members of their own party.

Voters in politically pivotal swing states such as Arizona, Michigan, and Nevada rejected candidates seeking to oversee elections who had echoed former President Donald Trump’s false claims about the 2020 presidential election. But newly elected secretaries of state in Alabama, Indiana, and Wyoming who had questioned the legitimacy of that election won easily in those Republican-dominated states.

They are now facing the task of backing up their campaign pledges in states where Republicans have already set strict election laws.

In Indiana, Secretary of State Diego Morales has been relatively quiet. He has not been making the rounds at the Statehouse trying to persuade lawmakers to embrace the wide-ranging tightening of voting rules he promoted as a candidate.

After defeating the incumbent secretary of state for the Republican nomination last summer, Morales dialed back his description of Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential election as a “scam” and his calls for tighter voting laws. That push included cutting Indiana’s 28-day early voting period in half and requiring new voters to prove their U.S. citizenship when registering.

No bills for such steps were introduced for this year’s legislative session. Morales, who was an aide to Mike Pence when the former vice president was governor, also did not seek any money in his budget request to lawmakers for creating an “election task force,” which he had discussed as a candidate, that would investigate voting “shenanigans” around the state.

A concept backed by Morales for requiring voters to include a copy of their driver’s license with a mail-in ballot application is being sponsored by a Republican lawmaker, but he said he wasn’t working with Morales on the proposal.

Morales’ office has declined interview requests from The Associated Press since he took office on January 1. Kegan Prentice, the office’s legislative director, said Morales was “currently focused on the ongoing transition.”

During remarks at an early January inaugural ceremony, Morales continued his campaign theme of promoting “election integrity” without giving specifics.

“My priority is to make Indiana a national model for election confidence and integrity,” he said.

Indiana House Speaker Todd Huston, also a Republican, said recently he had talked with Morales and told him he was “comfortable” with the state’s election laws.

“I think our election laws are as good as any in the country,” Huston said.

Morales was among the otherwise unsuccessful candidates associated with the America First Secretary of State Coalition, which called for large-scale changes to elections with candidates aligned with Trump’s views. The group supported losing candidates in several battleground states.

They claimed widespread fraud and manipulation of voting machines, but there has been no evidence of either as exhaustive reviews in states lost by Trump have not revealed wrongdoing. That hasn’t stopped Republican candidates, particularly in contested primaries, from parroting the false claims that have taken hold among the party’s supporters.

A large segment of Republicans, 58%, still believe Biden’s 2020 victory was not legitimate, according to an October poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

While Alabama’s Wes Allen and Wyoming’s Chuck Gray were not on the America First coalition’s candidate list, they also raised doubts about the 2020 vote.

Allen repeated a debunked claim calling the 31-state Electronic Registration Information Center organization a “Soros-funded, leftist group,” a reference to liberal billionaire George Soros. The voter registration data-sharing partnership is designed to maintain accurate voter rolls by identifying people who have moved or died. It’s funded by states after receiving initial startup support from The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Allen’s first official act was to withdraw Alabama from the group, citing privacy concerns. Indiana and Wyoming weren’t part of the organization.

Even though Wyoming gave Trump his widest victory margins in 2016 and 2020, Gray’s election denials worried some of his fellow Republicans. The former state legislator and right-wing radio host often showed “2000 Mules,” a film that made unsubstantiated claims about ballot fraud, during his campaign events last year. He solidly beat a fellow Republican lawmaker who said the 2020 presidential outcome wasn’t in doubt.

A few Republicans questioned whether Gray should be stripped of his election oversight role given his views, but that idea has received little support. Instead, he has received a warm welcome from Wyoming lawmakers considering several election bills that are moving ahead.

One would prohibit “ballot harvesting,” or gathering others’ completed ballots for delivery, while another would implement new requirements for voting machines that would, in part, ensure they could not be connected to the internet.

But so far, there is no legislation to follow through on Gray’s campaign proposals to ban ballot drop boxes or electronic voting machines, which despite mainly paper balloting in Wyoming, are available in every county to help voters with disabilities.

That reflects the reality of trying to implement the most far-reaching election campaign promises in a heavily Republican state.

In January, Gov. Mark Gordon made a point in his state of the state speech of saying that Wyoming counts on election integrity because of its “professional and dedicated” county clerks.

But going off-script, Gordon hinted at Gray’s challenges ahead: “And I’m thrilled that our secretary of state takes that charge very seriously.”

Republished with the permission of The Associated Press.