CARTERSVILLE, Georgia — At a brewhouse about an hour from Atlanta, voters from the Bartow County Republican Party gathered to hear from Congressman Jody Hice, a Republican politician who represents the tenth district but is currently eyeing a new role as he runs for secretary of state of Georgia.
A cold Saturday morning in January may not seem likely to draw a crowd to hear from a secretary of state candidate, but 2022 is not an ordinary political year. Georgia is still a state where Republicans and Democrats duke it out over election conspiracies.
Over coffee, Hice offered his campaign message: He thinks the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump in Georgia and he wants to bring election integrity back to the state. Though it’s similar to what Trump has said for months, there’s no evidence of widespread voter fraud in this state or anywhere else in the country.
“I don't believe Biden won Georgia,” Hice told VICE News. “Seeing what I've seen here in Georgia, I believe President Trump won this state.” Hice told VICE News his focus is Georgia, but he thinks there’s a “possibility” the election was stolen from Trump in other states as well.
Hice, a pastor and founding member of the rightwing Freedom Caucus, voted to toss the electoral results for Georgia even after the Capitol riot on January 6. Hice told the crowd that he and his wife prayed about whether he should challenge Raffensperger and ultimately “we felt like this was the next chapter for us, that we needed to pursue this.”
Not long after that, in March 2021, Hice received a glowing endorsement for his candidacy from Trump.
Secretaries of state had their moment in 2020, and the 2022 election is already proving to be no different. Trump has endorsed three Secretary of State candidates running in Arizona, Georgia and Michigan who all say that Biden did not win in 2020. His campaign to cast doubt on the 2020 election extends to 2022, where at least 27 states will elect new secretaries of state. There are 21 people running who think Trump won in 2020, have pushed for overturning election results, or have spread other lies about the election. Trump’s choice in state is important, too—Arizona, Georgia, and Michigan are key swing states that he lost in 2020.
Secretaries of state are charged with not only registering voters and carrying out elections, but also counting and certifying the results of those elections. It’s that last part that has some concerned: A secretary of state in a key swing state might refuse to certify the 2024 presidential election results.
Trump has endorsed three Secretary of State candidates running in Arizona, Georgia and Michigan who all say that Biden did not win in 2020.
And voters are taking notice of these races. Though Hice does not have election administration experience, he told VICE News he’s “uniquely qualified” for the role due to his work on election issues from the state and federal side.
“I'll be the first to admit I will have a lot to learn. I've never been a secretary of state before,” Hice said. “There will be a learning curve. But I know the issues and I know we've got a staff and a team to put together to make sure that the laws of Georgia as it relates to elections are upheld and that those who break the laws suffer the consequences.”
In 2020, Trump famously asked Brad Raffensperger, the Secretary of State of Georgia, to help Trump to steal the election. In a recorded phone call in January 2021, Trump told Raffensperger, “All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have because we won the state.”
Now, Raffensperger is running again—but finds himself facing Hice in a tough primary on May 24 that ultimately gets back to how the secretary of state didn’t help Trump take Georgia. Raffensperger’s approval rating is at 36% with Georgians.
Raffensperger did not “find” Trump those additional votes, though he did become a prime target for Trump’s rage afterwards. In October 2021, Trump called Raffensperger a “RINO”, or Republican in name only, from a rally stage in Perry, Georgia.
The secretary of state race in Georgia is almost tame compared to a group of candidates running for secretary of state in states like Nevada, Michigan, California, and Arizona.
Raffensperger also faced targeted harassment directed towards him and his family: A task force launched by the Department of Justice last year has charged at least two people for threatening election workers, including a Texas man suspected of threatening Georgia election workers.
“If we want our country back we have to exterminate these people,” Chad Stark, the Texas man, wrote in a Craigslist message. “Milita up Georgia it’s time to spill blood.”
Raffensperger believes that he was one of the officials that Stark threatened. But he is still reluctant to directly take on Trump. When pressed by VICE News about the former president’s role in the spread of the Big Lie and subsequent threats to Georgia officials, Raffensperger said, “I’m not looking in the rearview mirror, I'm looking forward and I'm looking forward to 2022.”
The secretary of state race in Georgia is almost tame compared to a group of candidates running for secretary of state in states like Nevada, Michigan, California, and Arizona. They are self-described “America first” candidates, and in October 2021, appeared together at the Patriot Double Down Conference, a QAnon conference in Nevada.
The group includes Jim Marchant, candidate for secretary of state in Nevada, Kristina Karamo, a Trump-endorsed Secretary of State candidate in Michigan, Rachel Hamm, who is running for the position in California, and Mark Finchem, an Arizona state representative now running for Secretary of State with Trump’s endorsement as well. “These are the candidates here,” said Marchant at the conference as they grouped together on stage. “Patriots that are going to help us take our country back.”
Finchem told VICE News that he was running for secretary of state because the current official in that role, Katie Hobbs, “doesn’t respect the separation of powers.”
Two months after the conference in Arizona, Finchem joined a rally outside of Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s office in Phoenix, demanding he investigate claims of fraud from the 2020 presidential election.
“You're asking me, ‘OK, no matter what happens in an election, would you certify it?’ Only a moron would say yes.”
Finchem is a staunch advocate for the so-called audit in Arizona which was conducted last spring by Cyber Ninjas, a company that had no prior experience with election audits.
When asked about the election reviews that did occur, and that did not find evidence of widespread voter fraud, Finchem told VICE News, “That is absolutely crap and you know it. You didn't look at the findings.”
At Trump’s first rally of the year in Florence, Arizona in early January, Finchem got a primetime speaking slot. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he told the crowd, “We know it and they know it. Donald Trump won.”
Trump has already said what he expects from his chosen secretaries of state if they win. In a video for a Pennsylvania Republican group, the former president said, “There’s a famous statement– sometimes the vote-counter is more important than the candidate. And we can’t let that ever ever happen again.”
When asked if he would certify the 2024 election results, no matter the outcome, Finchem told VICE News, “It's a hypothetical I can't answer. You're asking me, ‘OK, no matter what happens in an election, would you certify it?’ Only a moron would say yes.”