Republican Mark Finchem maintains that the 2020 presidential election wasn't on the up-and-up in Arizona.
During the 30-minute secretary of state debate against Democratic rival Adrian Fontes on Sept. 22, he continued to argue - without providing evidence - that some votes were "outside of the law."
But when asked by moderators if the state's 2022 midterm primaries in August were also fair, the GOP nominee to be Arizona's chief election officer was caught flat footed.
"What changed? The candidates," Finchem said. "I have no idea. We've not really dug into what happened with our processing of ballots. The machines were the same."
Yet Finchem isn't the only candidate on the ballot this November who has peddled false claims about 2020 that election experts and pro-democracy groups warn could undermine the next presidential contest - and subvert American democracy.
Across the country more than 300 candidates who have either questioned or renounced the 2020 outcome without providing evidence will be on the ballot in 2022.
They are vying for Congress, governor, attorney general and secretary of state, and a significant number are running in vital battleground states that propelled Joe Biden into the White House.
The USA TODAY Network examined seven of those swing states Biden won in 2020 - Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Nevada - representing a total of 84 electoral votes.
Many were targeted by former President Donald Trump and his allies as part of a multilayered plot to overturn the 2020 election, including using slates of fake electors in those seven battleground states, according to sworn testimony given to the Jan. 6 congressional committee.
Experts warn that any who win these crucial seats will have various tools that could throw the country into chaos in 2024.
"The reason that this is a major threat is that if part of the country or half the country believes that their candidate - the person they supported, and the issues they care about - was illegitimately defeated because of a conspiracy, you cannot have a functioning democracy," Matthew Dalek, a political historian at George Washington University, told USA TODAY.
Secretaries of state, for example, could hastily order ballots stop being counted, as Trump demanded two years ago in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Georgia.
Others might refuse to certify the results altogether, as 147 Republican members of Congress did for the 2020 results.
Many of those same lawmakers are running for reelection in November along with other political newcomers who have said they would have done the same had they been in power.
Dalek said leaders who embrace conspiracy theories about any result are a threat even if overt steps to interfere with an election aren't taken because, as the Capitol riot demonstrated, sowing mistrust can quickly radicalize supporters.
"And that's not just on Trump - that's on all the election deniers and conspiracy theorists," he said. "It's not a very far leap from the public rhetoric of elected officials in positions of authority to individuals and groups lashing out violently."
Election deniers in seven states Biden won
Many of the contenders in the seven battleground states examined by the USA TODAY Network have outright denied Biden won.
Days after the 2020 election, Michigan gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon, a Republican, tweeted: "Steal an election then hide behind calls for unity and leftists lap it up."
She's one of eight candidates in Michigan who claim there was election fraud in 2020, even though more than 250 nonpartisan election audits conducted statewide and approved by voters showed Biden's victory was secure and accurate.
In Wisconsin, Republican Tim Michels, who is running for governor, said he would consider decertifying the 2020 election result, which will be more than 2 years old at the point he becomes governor, if elected.
Nevada secretary of state candidate Jim Marchant, a Republican, has said he would not have certified Biden's win had he been in charge at the time. He has called the electronic voting machines used in Nevada vulnerable and uncertifiable.
Nevada's current chief election officer, Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, has repeatedly rebuked her own party, saying there was no proof of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.
She went as far as to issue a "Facts v. Myths" pamphlet that called out conspiracy theories and defended the use of voting machines.
The Nevada GOP censured Cegavske in April, saying she failed to fully investigate the fraud claims.
In Pennsylvania, GOP state legislator Doug Mastriano, who is running for governor, was reportedly the "point person" to help electors willing to sign their names to false elector documents.
During the primary he said that, if elected, he would require Pennsylvania voters to "re-register," which legal scholars have said would violate federal law.
Mastriano, who was present at the Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection, suggested he would appoint a secretary of state who'd be willing to "reset" the voter rolls.
"We might have to reset, as far as registration, start that whole process over here," he told Newsmax earlier this year.
Republican Audrey Trujillo, who is running to be New Mexico's election chief, has called the 2020 election a "coup" while touting spurious theories about election rigging and hacking of tabulation machines.
She has since backpedaled, saying that Biden "is our president" as some election deniers have tried to walk back their previous comments or actions.
But few places have as many election deniers running for prominent office as Arizona, where beside Finchem's bid for secretary of state, voters will have two other election deniers for major office on the ballot.
In a July 2021 radio interview, Senate candidate Blake Masters described Trump's loss as a stolen election but has since tried to backpedal, saying he doesn't "actually know if there was fraud in Arizona."
Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, who is leading or tied in the most recent polls, is among the most prominent figures running in 2022 who has amplified Trump's false claims of a stolen election. In interviews, she has referred to Biden as an "illegitimate president" and said that she would not have certified his win in Arizona.
Election deniers in the seven states with fake electors:
More than 300 election deniers
Outside of those seven states, there are hundreds of candidates on the ballot nationally who've denied the legitimacy of Biden's presidency, which experts say represents an unprecedented challenge to the country.
Democracies have historically relied upon what scholars call "loser's consent," which means after an election those who didn't win still accept the results as legitimate.
"And when you lose that, you lose the very essence of democracy," said Rick Hasen, a professor at UCLA Law School, who's written several books on elections.
An analysis by Washington, D.C.-based Defend Democracy Project, a nonprofit group founded by two former Obama campaign and administration officials, lists 308 so-called election deniers who will be on the 2022 ballot.
At least one is running in every state except North Dakota, according to the report.
Some are running for seats that have nothing to do with the U.S. election process, such as an agriculture commissioner candidate in Florida and a state treasurer contender in Nevada.
But many others are looking to control vital parts of the American electoral process.
The project's analysis tabulates that 13 election deniers are on the ballot for secretary of state alone, with an additional 12 running for attorney general and 23 for governor.
The numbers are more staggering when you look at the congressional level, where lawmakers vote to certify the Electoral College results.
The project lists 220 House candidates and 19 Senate candidates with links to election denials running this fall, most are incumbents who voted against certifying Biden's win in January 2021.
"You've got conspiracy theorists running for spots that are really clutch positions," Rebecca Parks, the project's research director, told USA TODAY.
"The concern is we're going to have secretaries of state, governors and state legislatures who won't certify the results of an election they don't agree with," Parks said.
Leading up to the Arizona primary, for example, Lake teased during a campaign stop how her team was "already detecting some stealing going on," without providing any evidence.
"If we don't win, there's some cheating going on," she said during a July campaign stop. "And we already know that."
When the polls closed, however, Lake won the GOP nomination for Arizona governor by roughly 40,000 votes.
Asked how she won a race her campaign had telegraphed as being rigged, the former TV news anchor said her supporters "out-voted the fraud."
"The question is: In 2024, are you going to similarly espouse fictions about the election to cast doubt on the results," said Adav Noti, senior vice president and legal director of the Campaign Legal Center.
A candidate who is still questioning the outcome of an election that has been thoroughly proven to be fair, he said, illustrates what they will do if an unfavorable result comes in on election night.
"If anybody isn't willing to say no to that, that tells you what you need to know about them," Noti said.
What's being done to stop election deniers?
In terms of what's being done to combat election deniers, experts and campaign strategists are hoping a number of guardrails will protect the country's democratic norms.
Republican consultant Michael DuHaime, a former strategist for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani, said "parroting that lie" about the 2020 results was a proxy for supporting Trump, who remains the most popular figure in the GOP, during the primaries.
He predicts once the midterms end there will be a rise of "pro-democracy Republicans" within certain the party ranks who will resist many election deniers.
"After this election, I think there'll be a concerted effort by some Republicans to come together in a way to support pro-democracy Republicans - people who support the rule of law and are willing to speak truth to power," DuHaime said.
At least one Republican election denier who is poised to oversee a small part of the 2024 presidential contest is facing resistance from within his own party.
Wyoming state legislator Chuck Gray, who was endorsed by Trump, coasted to victory in the primary to be the Equality State's next election chief after repeatedly asserting that the last election was "rigged" without providing evidence.
The Democrats didn't put up a nominee this year, and no independent filed before the deadline, but within the last month a bipartisan proposal is being looked at that would curtail Gray's power by creating a separate agency to administer the state's elections for the next four years.
One reason pro-democracy Republicans haven't jumped to help Democrats defeat election deniers in 2022, DuHaime said, is in part because "Democrats are certainly not pure on this."
Stacey Abrams has regularly refused to concede losing Georgia's 2018 gubernatorial race claiming then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp used voter suppression tactics to pave his win.
As late as August, Abrams declined to formally concede and continued to blame the state's "broken" election system for her loss.
In the years after the 2016 election, former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton cited foreign disinformation as a way to cast doubt on those presidential election results, saying there was "widespread understanding" the 2016 election "was not on the level," she said in a 2020 interview with The Atlantic. "We still don't know what really happened."
Two years ago, he Office of the Director of National Intelligence did show evidence Russia sought to influence American voters' opinions of Trump and Clinton. A Senate Intelligence Committee report, however, said investigators found no evidence "vote tallies were manipulated" as a result.
DuHaime said those claims might not have been as widespread among candidates in the next midterms or connected to a violent attempt to block the results, but "both parties are somewhat at fault."
"I'm not such a foolish partisan that I would say Republicans are not worse right now," he said. "But you sound hypocritical when you're so critical of the other party, or refuse to acknowledge the shortcomings of your own."
But those outside of GOP circles say this cannot wait and are calling for a larger effort to coordinate donors and campaigns against election deniers on this year's ballot.
Those campaign strategists and organizations are hoping a number of guardrails, starting with the voters and courts, will protect the country's democratic norms.
Democratic strategist Rodd McLeod, who works in Arizona, said the campaigns running against election deniers in tight races are gearing up to be more aggressive at targeting their opponents as Election Day approaches.
"I don't think the bulk of (America's) electorate believes that we have unfair elections or that there's cheating or shenanigans going on," he said. "But I also don't know if the guardrails we have - the voters, the courts, etc. - are going to be enough."
Voters worried about U.S. democracy
In the final leg of the 2022 midterms, Americans are more anxious than before about the health of the nation's political system.
A Quinnipiac University poll conducted in late August found 67% of registered voters said the nation's democracy is in "danger of collapse." That is a 9-point jump compared to when the poll asked the same question in January.
More recently, an NPR/Marist poll found that the Jan. 6 committee hearings this summer, which spent hours outlining how Trump and his allies plotted to overturn the last election, ranked as a top five issue for registered voters at 9%.
That was below inflation, abortion and health care, but tied with immigration, and was ranked above guns and crime, according to the survey.
Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United/Let America Vote, a progressive voting rights group, said her group is working with campaigns in battleground states to target secretary of state and attorney general candidates who've spread lies about election fraud.
That is particularly important for those races, Muller said, because those are the people "who count the votes, and certify the election and who has to go defend those votes in court against any efforts to overturn the will of the people."
And as McLeod said, in many places contenders who are running against prominent election deniers have cast themselves as "democracy defenders." Those candidates are leaning into how their campaigns are referendums on the potential threats.
Fontes, the Democrat running for Arizona secretary of state, launched his first general election ad on Sept. 16, calling Finchem a "dangerous extremist" who would "overturn legitimate election results."
Similarly, Arizona gubernatorial contender Katie Hobbs put out a spot featuring a Republican voter who criticized Lake's refusal to accept the 2020 results.
"If you refuse to accept the will of the people, then you shouldn't be governor," Hobbs, who currently serves as secretary of state, said in a Sept. 14 tweet accompanying the ad.
Pro-democracy organizations say it will be important to elevate the fight in the coming weeks given how most Americans will have at least one of these candidates on their ballot in November.
States United Action, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting U.S. elections, released a study in early September that found that roughly 55% of the entire nation's population will see at least one election denier on their ballot running for an office to oversee elections.
"A single election denier winning a statewide office in a single state is a five-alarm fire for our democracy," Joanna Lydgate, CEO of States United Action, said.
"Many of these down-ballot contests had narrow margins in the last midterm election, and voters can't afford to sit these races out."
USA TODAY Network staff writers Eric Aspenson, Stacey Barchenger, Dave Boucher, Algernon D'Ammassa, Ronald Hansen, Tara Kavaler, Rio Lacanlale, Mary Joe Pitzl and Bruce Siwy contributed reporting.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hundreds of candidates who denied 2020 results running for office