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Women Secretaries of State Are the ‘Last Line of Defense’ Against Far Right Lies

Supporters of Trump and his Big Lie threatened their lives over the 2020 election. Amid this year's midterms, they're undeterred.

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Image for article titled Women Secretaries of State Are the ‘Last Line of Defense’ Against Far Right Lies
Photo: Provided by Jena Griswold, Bee Nguyen, and Katie Hobbs campaigns; Acting Secretary of State Leigh M. Chapman photo provided by PA Department of State

Before Katie Hobbs began working in politics and was elected Arizona’s first Democratic secretary of state since 1995, she was a social worker who helped run a domestic violence shelter. Within two years of that election, handfuls of armed Trump protesters would be camped outside her house threatening her life over the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.

Primaries for midterm elections are taking place across the country right now, as this year marks the first major election year since the 2020 election sowed nearly unprecedented levels of election disinformation and, come Jan. 6, 2021, deadly violence, thanks to the former president. Even prior to the proliferation of the Big Lie and the former administration’s insistence that counting mail-in ballots was somehow fraud, secretaries of state had their hands full with keeping the ballot box accessible at the height of a deadly pandemic that seemingly swept the country overnight. They were also reckoning with the aftermath of reports that Russia had interfered in the previous presidential election in 2016, raising new, alarming concerns about election security and disinformation.

For years, state-level secretaries of state largely slipped under the radar; it was an office that few voters even seemed to know was on their ballots. Yet, it was ultimately the leadership and resolve of women secretaries of state like Hobbs and her counterparts in other key swing states that made the difference between a Biden presidency and a second term for the Trump administration. Two years later, secretaries of state are reckoning with the enduring consequences of the far-right’s lies, the ongoing threat of violence, and the wave of voter suppression laws that has recently swept state legislatures. And it’s important to note who’s on the frontlines of protecting democracy at this increasingly fraught, even dangerous time: women.

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As Arizona’s secretary of state, Hobbs, who is currently running for governor, is tasked with ensuring free and fair elections and the counting of all votes. When Joe Biden narrowly defeated Donald Trump by 0.3% in 2020, Hobbs was suddenly launched into the national spotlight. Her life and her family’s lives were being threatened over the Big Lie. Thousands of Trump supporters across the country blamed Hobbs and the other predominantly female secretaries of state in swing states for “stealing” the election from Trump, without a shred of evidence.

“Far-right trolls threatened my children, they threatened my husband’s job as a therapist at a children’s hospital, they called my office saying that I deserve to die and asked, ‘what is she wearing today? So she’ll be easy to get,’” Hobbs told Jezebel in a phone interview. “I don’t think anyone signs up for public service for any of that. But despite those threats, I continue to fight for the will of the voters because that’s what I was elected to do.”

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She wasn’t alone. Jocelyn Benson, who was also elected Michigan’s secretary of state in 2018, had a similar experience when, like Hobbs, she ensured the counting of all votes in her state, and Biden defeated Trump by about 3%. It wasn’t just “frivolous lawsuits” and “sham legislative hearings” attempting to overturn the election in her state—Benson tells Jezebel she also faced threats to her life. “They were showing up outside my house, protesters demanding that I not certify the election because folks didn’t like the results.”

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Bee Nguyen, a Democratic state representative in Georgia who’s currently running for secretary of state, tells Jezebel that trolls posted her address on a right-wing gun website after she questioned the former president’s “expert witness” during a House hearing over the Big Lie. The threats to her life required her to form a safety plan. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘How did we get to this moment, when we’re seeing election workers and officials being threatened across the country?’” she told me.

According to Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, who’s running to serve another term in this role, we’re “currently seeing the worst attacks on democracy in recent history.” Griswold, the youngest secretary of state in the nation and her state’s first Democrat to serve in this role in 60 years, sees these attacks on democracy as three-pronged: a recent surge in voter suppression bills, including 30 new bills in 19 states last year alone; rampant disinformation; and a rising tide of violent, right-wing extremism targeting election officials and intimidating disproportionately marginalized voters, since the Big Lie. “As we saw in 2020, Democratic secretaries of state are the last line of defense in protecting democracy—and women are a big part of that.”

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Voter suppression is on the rise since the Big Lie

Nguyen, who holds the seat formerly held by 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, tells Jezebel she recently asked the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State about the greater representation of women among secretary of state offices, compared with other statewide positions. “They said it stemmed from this belief that any title with ‘secretary’ in it is deemed more of a woman’s job,” Nguyen said. “It’s kind of ironic for it to be written off as, like, a ‘woman’s role,’ when as we saw this last cycle, it was women like Katie Hobbs, Jocelyn Benson, Jena Griswold, who were really holding the line for democracy.”

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Nguyen’s own state of Georgia was among the most impacted by the Big Lie, as Trump appeared to directly ask the state’s Republican secretary of state to conveniently “lose” remaining, uncounted ballots from heavily Democratic counties. Biden was eventually certified as the winner in the state that was once a Republican stronghold, thanks in large part to mobilization and voter turnout from Black women. But Georgia’s legislature has since wasted no time in enacting a string of new voter suppression laws.

In 2021, Gov. Brian Kemp signed a law that reduces the number of ballot boxes, narrows the window for early voting, creates additional discriminatory ID requirements, and grants state officials greater authority to possibly circumvent county election officials if they don’t like the outcomes of their elections. Kemp himself narrowly won Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election, during which he served as secretary of state overseeing that election. Prior to that, he had purged nearly 107,000 disproportionately Black voters from the state’s voter rolls in 2017 and shut down polling places in disproportionately Black neighborhoods.

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Voter suppression laws have always been justified by some variation of the conspiracy theories that drove the Big Lie, despite extremely low rates of voter fraud—which, in a handful of documented cases, has been committed by Trump administration officials and supporters. Though these laws are often written in race and gender-neutral terms on the surface, they’re designed to disenfranchise many. Language barriers can make casting a ballot inaccessible to people of color and non-English speakers, and voter ID laws disproportionately target Black and Latinx voters who are less likely to own IDs. Trans voters may also be discriminated against for not having IDs that match their gender identity. Additionally, narrowing early voting and closing voting stations and ballots can disproportionately suppress the vote for low-wage workers who struggle to take time off work, and especially working mothers and parents who aren’t able to access child care.

Nguyen says she’s running for secretary of state in Georgia to protect the voting rights of the state’s increasingly diverse electorate at a time of mounting attacks triggered by 2020’s disinformation. And she’s right: It’s an office that can and has made a massive difference in ensuring elections are accessible to all voters, across the country.

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Secretaries of state are fighting back

In purple states like Pennsylvania, Colorado, Michigan, and Arizona, secretaries of state are fighting back against the rising tide of voter suppression.

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In Pennsylvania, where Biden defeated Trump by less than 1.5%, Leigh Chapman has served as secretary of state since January this year. She oversees communication with counties across the state regarding recent redistricting, and ensures voters in affected districts are kept in the know and able to cast their ballots. Chapman tells Jezebel one of her priorities has also been implementing “language access policies” across the state. In Philadelphia County, for example, she notes this year’s primary will be the first election in which ballots will be available in Chinese, owing to the findings of the 2020 Census. “Language accessibility is a key, often overlooked way to increase access to the ballot box for all voters,” Chapman, who was appointed to and is now running to continue serving in this office, said.

In Colorado, Griswold announced the Vote Without Fear Act in February to prohibit openly carrying a firearm within 100 feet of voting centers and ballot drop boxes. The bill also includes measures to protect election workers from doxing and retaliation, and protect voting equipment and election systems from tampering. She’s led statewide efforts to defeat numerous voter suppression bills from the state’s legislature and was the first state secretary of state in the nation to handle an insider attack on election security. The attack involved a local county clerk who was radicalized by QAnon and deliberately compromised her own voting equipment in an effort to prove the Big Lie.

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In Michigan, Benson takes pride in having overseen the election with the highest turnout in her state’s history with the 2020 presidential election, despite covid and rampant election disinformation peddled by the former president targeting key swing states like hers. Since 2018, Benson, who is currently running for reelection, has seen to the installation of over 1,000 new ballot drop boxes across the state, the recruitment of over 30,000 new election workers, and the modernization of her state’s voter registration process, so that voters can register online, and be automatically registered when they receive their driver’s license or state ID. She also hired the state’s first director of election security. “In this office, we really are the guardians of democracy, and there’s so much we can and have to do to expand the right to vote,” Benson said.

In Arizona, Hobbs has defeated nine baseless challenges to the results of the 2020 election in her state. Had she lost, it would have resulted in tens of thousands of votes from disproportionately voters of color being thrown out. If elected governor, she hopes to further expand protections for voters, and defeat the right-wing disinformation apparatuses that are designed to suppress the vote, and target and intimidate voters of color.

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“Arizonans are really tired of the conspiracy theorists running our state,” she said. “They’re tired of being made fun of on late-night comedy television. They want to move on from the 2020 election, they want leaders that are going to focus on the issues that matter to them, invest in election integrity, education, infrastructure—not more lies.”

Voting rights are a gender justice issue

That the secretaries of state on the frontlines of defending voting rights and shouldering the brunt of threats and harassment from right-wing extremists are women isn’t coincidental. In addition to racial justice, voting rights in this country have always been deeply and inextricably linked with gender justice—just look at the rash of universally unpopular state-level abortion bans, bans on gender-affirming care, and attacks on LGBTQ and particularly trans people across the country. All of this is a direct result of extremists being elected to state legislatures due to gerrymandering and aggressive voter suppression tactics.

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Georgia is a prime example of this. In 2019, Kemp signed a near-total abortion ban, shortly after his victory in 2018 was enabled by the state’s purging of hundreds of thousands of voters. Rampant gerrymandering across the state, which was enabled after Republicans won control of the redistricting process in 2010, also contributed to Kemp’s narrow victory: He won just 50.2% of the vote across the state, but Republicans still retained nearly 60% of the state’s legislative seats and used these seats to introduce and pass the abortion ban.

Today, as we stare down the end of Roe v. Wade, Nguyen knows what’s at stake in her state. “We’re a state where voter suppression has been rampant, and we have among the highest maternal mortality rates in the nation, a governor who’s refused to expand Medicaid. People are dying, especially Black women, and if abortion is banned in our state, more people will die,” she said. “It’s more crucial than ever that we protect voting access so people’s voices can be heard at the ballot box.”

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As a veteran of state-level politics, Hobbs has been inspired by increasing numbers of progressive women running for office up and down the ballot. She also worries that “the worst level of vitriol that I’ve ever seen in politics” recently, particularly targeting women and people of color, could discourage their participation. It’s with them in mind that she’s running for governor, despite threats to her life since the 2020 election.

“As a woman leader, I’ve stood up to that hate and violence,” Hobbs said, “and I’m hopeful that can encourage younger women to see that they can, too.”

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CORRECTION: An earlier iteration of this piece misidentified Leigh M. Chapman as Jocelyn Weber. We regret the error.