By Donie O’Sullivan, CNN
Two events — a Trump rally and a voting rights march — in the same state on the same day this Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend encapsulated a nation at odds with itself about the future of its democracy.
One side fears a return to the past, hearing echoes of Jim Crow in the present.
The other has been convinced by a sustained disinformation campaign that elections in the United States are rigged.
The latter was out in full force on Saturday at former President Donald’s Trump’s first rally of 2022, in Florence, Arizona. Among the dozen or so Trump supporters there who spoke to CNN, grand conspiracy theories — all of which have been debunked — about how the 2020 election was supposedly rigged (like through voting machines linked to former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who died in 2013) seem to have given way to more refined talking points that closely align with restrictive voting measures being enacted by Republicans across the country.
“There’s a famous statement — ‘sometimes the vote counter is more important than the candidate,’ ” Trump said in a video posted online Friday, underscoring how Republicans motivated by his election lies have sought to undermine the legitimacy of America’s elections. Arizona — which President Joe Biden carried in 2020, becoming the first Democrat to carry the state since 1996 — has been at the center of those efforts.
In Florence on Saturday, Trump showed exactly what kind of “vote counters” he approves of.
Speaking at his rally, Kari Lake, Trump’s pick for governor, said there were a few people she “would like to send right down to the prison here in Florence. Anybody who was involved in that corrupt, shady, shoddy election of 2020. Lock them up.”
Mark Finchem, an Arizona state representative whom Trump has endorsed to be the state’s top election official as secretary of state, has previously echoed QAnon-type conspiracy theories about election officials and continues to maintain that the vote in Arizona was stolen from Trump, which has been widely disproved. Even a partisan audit of results in Maricopa County, commissioned by state Senate Republicans, affirmed Biden’s victory in the county.
Finchem has previously been linked to the Oath Keepers, a right-wing extremist group. Some of its members were charged last week with “seditious conspiracy” related to the US Capitol attack.
“I look forward to the day that we set aside an irredeemably flawed election. That’s the election of 2020. With all the evidence we have, the Arizona election should be decertified with cause by the legislature,” Finchem said, repeating the former President’s lies from the podium at his rally Saturday.
A year’s-long sustained attack on the integrity of American elections has paved the way to make candidates like these the natural choice in 2022 for Trump, who’s trying to exercise his influence over the GOP — including local election officials — at the same time he’s eyeing another bid for the White House in 2024. A recent Washington Post tally found that “at least 163 Republicans who have embraced Trump’s false claims are running for statewide positions that would give them authority over the administration of elections.”
But also at the Trump rally was rare praise for a Democrat.
“She’s our representative, she represents the state, she is not along party lines, she’s what’s good for the country,” Robbie Kimsey, an Arizona voter and Trump supporter, said of Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.
Sinema, along with Sen. Joe Machin of West Virginia, is blocking the passage of a pair of voting rights bills that Democrats hope could counter some of the restrictive voting measures enacted by Republicans at the state level. Sinema has said she is supportive of the bills but not in favor of changing Senate rules to get them passed.
The opposition of these two moderate Democrats is frustrating voting rights activists, including those who gathered in Arizona this weekend.
“She says she wants voting rights, but how do you want voting rights without creating a path for that to happen? That is inconsistent; that is unacceptable,” Martin Luther King Jr.’s son Martin Luther King III told CNN in Phoenix on Saturday.
The King family had traveled to Arizona to take part in a voting rights march, calling on Sinema to act — warning that history would not judge her kindly.
“I think we are really at a defining moment,” Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democratic hopeful for governor, told CNN.
Hobbs said democracy had prevailed in 2020 because election officials on both sides of the aisle had done their jobs — but now, with Trump-endorsed election deniers running for jobs that would give them authority over elections, the future is less certain.
“The election in 2022, I think, is going to determine the future of our democracy,” Hobbs said.
That was a sentiment echoed by Yolanda Renee King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s 13-year-old granddaughter, who was with her family this weekend in Phoenix, telling CNN, “I think it’s so important to vote and it’s so important to have the right to vote, because right now our country is at stake.”
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