Column: Trump's Big Lie isn't just a national scourge. Local candidates are also fighting for democracy

For several weeks, Joy Banks felt as though she — or at least her rights as a voter and citizen in good standing — were being held hostage.

Republican Kari Lake lost Arizona’s 2022 gubernatorial election fair and square. But the Board of Supervisors in rural Cochise County refused to certify the result, embracing an underhanded, undemocratic strategy — if you don’t like the outcome of an election, simply ignore it — that has become a central tenet of the MAGAfied Republican Party.

“They had my vote. They had 40,000 votes and they were just hanging on to them,” said Banks, who co-owns a family-run electrical contracting business in tiny Huachuca City. “I’ve never felt so hopeless about my government.”

The board eventually backed down, under a judge’s order. The two GOP members who voted against certification have been indicted on state felony charges.

But Banks was so unsettled she decided to run for an open seat on the three-member board. She’s one of many candidates across the country campaigning for office to counter election denialism and political chicanery at the local level — an effort that has grown all the more critical after President Biden’s disastrous debate performance.

As a Democrat, the 70-year-old Banks is a considerable underdog in Cochise County, a deeply conservative pocket of southeastern Arizona. But she said it’s important to take a stand against the bad faith that’s eroding trust in our elections and threatening the very foundation of the country.

“The battle,” she said, “is right here.”

Donald Trump is, of course, promoter-in-chief of the false notion the 2020 election — deemed “the most secure in American history” by independent experts — was wrongly and fraudulently decided. In last week’s debate, the former president again refused to pledge, without qualification, that he would accept the result if he loses in November.

Alarmingly, Trump’s Big Lie has spread over the past 3½ years like a poison coursing through the nation’s bloodstream.

Public Wise, a left-of-center voting rights and research organization, counts nearly 350 elected officials in seven battleground states who have undermined or cast doubts on election integrity. (The organization focused its research on Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which are seen as critical in the fight for the White House, control of Congress, or both.)

Those dubious ranks include nearly 200 state representatives, 78 state senators, 76 officials at the county and local levels, and four in statewide positions. Many are seeking reelection in November.

“We really believe that democracy is at stake this year, and in general,” said Lauren Gepford, head of Contest Every Race, a Democratic organization that seeks to do just that: field a candidate for every competitive office, however long their odds of winning.

Joy Banks, Democratic candidate for the Cochise County Board of Supervisors in Arizona

As a Democrat, Joy Banks is a decided underdog in her bid for the Cochise County Board of Supervisors. But she said it’s important to try.

(Hector Acuna / Herald/Review)

“We want to get more people on the ballot that look like their communities and will bring the narrative back to one that’s more about how we all get along in our communities and do the best for America and our cities and towns, rather than disinformation and the vitriol that the country has really gone toward,” Gepford said.

Her organization has recruited more than 7,000 candidates since its founding in 2018. Nearly 100 are running this year to challenge election deniers, or to stand up for election integrity in several of the aforementioned battleground states.

One of them is Lucas Reinke, a 39-year-old warehouse worker who was elected in April to the Winnebago County Board of Supervisors in Wisconsin, perhaps the most competitive state in the country.

“I just want to make sure everyone in the county has the ability to vote for the candidate they think can do the best job and do so without fear of intimidation or retribution,” Reinke said. “And to make sure it’s easy for them to do that.”

Gepford’s group is pursuing a vital mission. No candidate — in the bluest bastion of California or reddest redoubt of Alabama — should run without competition, even if it’s ultimately futile. Accountability matters. So, too, does giving a voice to voters, even if they’re outnumbered.

“The philosophy here is that extremism thrives and builds and grows when we don’t put up a fight and when we allow ourselves to have a really unrepresentative democracy,” Gepford said.

It’s particularly important to take on those bad actors who, through cynicism, willful ignorance or a combination of both, have laid siege to our election system.

Especially at a time when President Biden’s reelection chances look increasingly shaky and a pliant U.S. Supreme Court has shown its willingness to extend a get-out-of-jail-free card to Trump for his attempt to steal the 2020 election.

Two years ago, a number of high-profile election deniers lost contests across the country. Arizona sent a whole slate down to defeat, including Lake and candidates for U.S. Senate, attorney general and state elections chief.

It was rightly celebrated as a significant victory for democracy and the sanctity of free and fair elections.

But it was just one skirmish in a continuing fight. If Trump and his allies prevail in November, seizing not just the White House but complete control of Congress, we’ll need principled local leaders to stand up against the forces of MAGA malevolence.

They may be the last thin line of defense.

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