Arizona Creates Election-Integrity Unit to Gird for 2020

Arizona Creates Election-Integrity Unit to Gird for 2020
AP Photo/Matt York
Arizona Creates Election-Integrity Unit to Gird for 2020
AP Photo/Matt York
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Warren Petersen, Arizona’s Republican House majority leader, first began questioning his state’s election safeguards last August. That’s when he was watching primary returns from one county being uploaded to a state-run website and noticed the numbers nearly doubled for eight minutes before reverting back to roughly half the higher figure.

“It was bizarre. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Petersen told RealClearPolitics. “The numbers totally changed and then were reduced back to a smaller number. And I thought, ‘How did that happen, and if something could manipulate that number, what stopped it from manipulating the numbers at other points in the election [results] process?’ That created for me and others some distrust.”

Petersen chalked up the temporary tallying balloon to a technical glitch that corrected itself, but the experience was still unsettling, he said.

That sinking sensation shifted to real alarm after a series of far higher-profile clashes over election decisions and irregularities took place during and after Arizona’s hard-fought 2018 midterm contest for U.S. Senate.

Arizona Republicans are still reeling from Martha McSally’s defeat to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in last year’s race to fill the seat left open by Jeff Flake’s retirement. On Nov. 6, voters across the state went to bed thinking McSally had won, only to see Sinema overtake the lead in the days to come when all of the early mail-in, emergency and other types of provisional ballots were counted.

Eventually, Sinema won by a substantial 56,000 votes, the first time the Arizona GOP lost a Senate seat in 30 years. Republicans cried foul, and President Trump stoked national fears about election “corruption” in the Grand Canyon State.

“Just out — in Arizona. SIGNATURES DON’T MATCH. Electoral corruption. Call for a new Election? We must protect our Democracy!” he tweeted Nov. 9.

A month later, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey provided some salve for the GOP wounds by appointing McSally to fill John McCain’s Senate a few months after his death, but confusion and resentment over the 2018 election process have persisted.

‘Emergency’ Voting Centers Spark Complaints 

Republicans complain that a partisan Democratic official in charge of running elections in Maricopa County, home to 60 percent of the state’s voters, set up “emergency” voting centers in heavily Democratic precincts the weekend before Election Day. The GOP cast the move as an unprecedented election maneuver in the state’s history, while the official, County Recorder Adrian Fontes, said it was designed to make voting more accessible to people with Election Day conflicts.

Fontes’ reputation as a brash partisan who had repeatedly tangled with Republicans — and some Democrats — only served to fuel the GOP’s post-election fury. In 2017, for instance, Fontes caused a media stir by telling a fellow Democratic candidate for office to “Go F-yourself” on Facebook.

Shortly after the 2018 election, Republicans filed lawsuits over a decision by Fontes to allow voters to fix their early ballots  -- that is, allow them to clear up discrepancies regarding their on-file signatures and verify their identities -- days after other counties had stopped the practice.

Fontes’ response? “Bring it,” he said on Twitter, referring to the lawsuits. He later called GOP investigations into the election controversies “nonsense” and “childish” and refused to respond to requests for information.

Critics say Fontes disenfranchised voters in other counties by continuing to verify signatures for days after the election had ended on a certain group of mail-in ballots that were dropped off at the polls on Election Day. Before Fontes’ time in office, Maricopa and other counties in the state had stopped that signature verification process at 7 p.m. on election night. Several other Arizona counties, per that norm, stopped that night, not knowing that Fontes and three other county recorders planned to continue verifying the signatures for several more days.

In the aftermath of the unusual November election, the Republican parties in four counties reached a legal deal with election officials that gave all counties more days to verify signatures. Election officials have yet to say whether they will standardize that practice for 2020.

Just last month, however, the GOP-controlled legislature passed a law restricting the use of emergency voting centers, requiring voters to affirm they have an actual emergency preventing them from using the early mail-in system or showing up at the polls on Election Day.

There were reports of other irregularities too. A handful of voters said they strangely received Election Day ballots that had been pre-marked with Democratic candidates. A midday software failure in Maricopa County caused all voting machines to go temporarily offline for up to 45 minutes, and some polling locations experienced long hour-plus wait times. Republicans have also complained that Maricopa County does not comply with a state law requiring it to sync its voter database with the statewide database.

Fontes and fellow state Democrats have aggressively pushed back, arguing that GOP complaints are partisan sour grapes over losses, that no evidence of criminal wrongdoing or widespread voter fraud exists. They point out that those who voted at the emergency centers only numbered in the low 2,000s and there were only 6,933 ballots that received additional signature verification time in the days after the election. Both figures involve far too few votes and ballots to impact the election outcome, they say.

Conversely, liberal groups and Democrats argue that Arizona Republican lawmakers and activists are continuing a national pattern of voter suppression by placing new restrictions on when and how voters can cast their ballots. Republicans counter that they want to ensure that only eligible voters participate in a process that is fair, lawful and orderly.

The 2020 elections in the state are shaping up to be even more dramatic and consequential. Polls suggest a very close presidential battle to win Arizona’s 11 electoral votes and the potential for an even tighter Senate contest between McSally and Democratic candidate Mark Kelly, a former astronaut and husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords.

Arizona Budget Funds Election-Integrity Unit 

Since the jarring 2018 election process, Petersen has been calling for the creation of an election integrity unit in the state attorney general’s office that would have the power and the personnel to investigate and prosecute complaints about election irregularities.

Earlier this week, Petersen and other Republican leaders successfully included $530,000 for such a unit in the budget, which is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Doug Ducey in the coming days.

“Fraud is so hard to prove, and what are you going to do if you’re a private citizen and you see people ballot-harvesting or filling out another person’s ballot? You don’t even know who to report it to,” Petersen said. “It’s not only hard to prove, but it’s hard to prosecute. Things were so suspicious last time, we felt like it was time to do something.” The unit would have four full-time employees, including an investigator, forensics auditor, and legal support staff, and use funds from a legal settlement that has been sitting unused in the attorney general’s office, not taxpayer money, according to Ryan Anderson, a spokesman for the Attorney General Mark Brnovich.

“These notions, these narratives about widespread voter fraud and stolen elections, they continue to persist out there and not just through anonymous Twitter accounts,” Anderson said. “It’s happening with staff and lawmakers. It’s dangerous to have these narratives out there and allow them to linger or persist unaddressed.”

To date, the attorney general’s office has found no proof of widespread voter fraud in the 2018 elections, but there has been a lot of evidence of “systematic or process failures, perhaps election officials manipulating or exploiting the statutes,” Anderson said.

The unit’s purpose is to promote open, honest and lawful elections and its existence alone could act as a deterrent, he argued.

“We recognize that voters in this past election did not necessarily know or have a universal or standard place to report allegations of voter fraud,” he added.

Liberal voting rights groups have cast the unit as a waste of money and a solution in search of a problem.

Darrell Hill, the American Civil Liberties Union’s policy director in Arizona, said there were a lot of accusations about voter fraud with “never any proof provided.”

“Now based on these rumors, they devoted $530,000 to investigate these claims,” he told RCP. “It doesn’t really make much sense to us. There was no debate on whether this was necessary. It’s based on partisanship. It was a very close election and a hotly contested election and it has led to a lot of allegations that in our belief were baseless.”

Dems Welcome Chance to Restore Public Confidence

Democratic officials, however, appear more wary of disparaging the new elections integrity unit. C. Murphy Hebert, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democratic official elected last year, said the current election process isn’t broken but she still welcomed an additional layer of protection.

“The secretary of state feels like the processes in place currently are doing the job of protecting from voter fraud,” Hebert said. “If this unit reinforces that narrative, then it’s a good thing for us. If it provides additional peace of mind for the voters in Arizona, that’s okay.”

Contacted by RCP, Fontes wholeheartedly embraced the new unit, expressing his willingness to work with it as a “partner” to restore public confidence in Arizona’s elections.

“If this unit will help maintain the integrity of Arizona’s elections and election systems, then I’m all for it,” Fontes said in an emailed statement. “Voter confidence is the goal of all election administrations, and one of the best ways to improve it is to work fighting voter fraud while restoring confidence in election systems.”

“Having a respected and objective entity to help do that as a partner would be great,” he added. “We are happy to provide any assistance we can.”

Republicans on High Alert for 2020 Problems

Despite such assurances, Republicans remain skeptical about Fontes’ and other Democrats’ election plans for 2020.

The Arizona GOP commissioned an “audit” of Fontes’ actions in Maricopa County in 2018. Republican attorney Stephen Richer, a lawyer at Steptoe & Johnson, conducted the review, which questioned whether several of Fontes’ practices were intended to skirt state election laws.

The audit scrutinized Fontes’ decision to open the five “emergency” voting centers, all of which were in majority-Democratic precincts and four of which were heavily Democratic.

He noted that the Arizona legislature had rejected an April 2018 push by Fontes to establish weekend voting prior to Election Day.

“With this as a backdrop, it seems plausible that Recorder Fontes expanded emergency voting to partially accomplish what the Arizona legislature considered but refused to authorize: expanding early voting to the Saturday, Sunday and Monday before the Tuesday election,” Richer wrote in the audit.

“Such a ‘back door’ to a legislative proposal would almost certainly violate the intent of emergency voting as defined in the Arizona code and in the Election Procedure Manual (which perhaps is why Recorder Fontes first sought to use legislative channels),” he wrote.

Richer also questioned why Fontes said he only consulted the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors’ lone Democrat about the need for emergency voting centers without talking to the remaining Republican supervisors. And the audit raised the issue of whether Fontes coordinated the location and timing of the opening of the voting centers with the Sinema campaign so it could drop fliers in the areas around the centers ahead of their opening while keeping McSally’s campaign in the dark.

Richer, who said Fontes has yet to respond to numerous public record requests he submitted, is now running against Fontes for the recorder job. Richer half-jokingly referred to his campaign slogan as “Making the Recorder’s Office Boring Again.” Before Fontes, he argued, the position quietly went about its task of trying to run fair elections without much fanfare or partisan flashpoints.

“He’s had those public record requests out for eight months now, and he hasn’t responded to that and that doesn’t inspire voter confidence,” Richer said.

After visiting gatherings of GOP precinct officials over the last several months, he said Republican election workers have “lost confidence in the integrity of the system.”

“I think the state legislature and the [Maricopa County] board of supervisors have done admirable jobs in trying to address some of the question marks in the last election cycle, but I’m still nervous about the process,” he said.

“I want to make sure we do this in a fair and efficient manner. … I would like to ensure that if you’re a hard-core libertarian or a collectivist communist, you feel comfortable with the voting process again.”

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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