Candidates who would have overturned the 2020 election results could hold top offices in Arizona during the 2024 presidential election.
Three statewide elected politicians stopped the previous attempt to steal an election. Gov. Doug Ducey even ignored a call from then-President Donald Trump during the certification.
But Republican primaries for those three offices — governor, secretary of state and attorney general — are chock-full of election deniers, and in almost every case, those who have promised that they would have overturned Joe Biden’s 2020 win in Arizona are leading their prospective Republican fields.
This November is expected to heavily favor Republicans, and by the time the next presidential election rolls around, Arizona is facing the very real possibility that the decision of whether to accept or reject the results of a democratic election falls to future statewide officials who have sworn to overturn the results of any “fraudulent” election.
Willingness to overturn the results of an election is no longer a fringe ideology relegated to the dark corners of the internet . It’s become among the most popular positions within the Republican Party — so popular, in fact, that few Republicans have been willing to flat-out say they wouldn’t have overturned the 2020 election.
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For the 2022 elections, none of those election deniers will be in a position of statewide power. But national, state and local Republican parties are aiming to infiltrate the lowest rung of election administration, election workers.
And they’re recruiting and training people on how to use election rules to challenge votes, Politico reported recently, based on efforts underway in the fellow swing state of Michigan. The goal, critics say, is to create enough chaos that Republican legislatures will have justification to intervene if the election doesn’t go the way they want.
‘Insider threat’ a concern
In Arizona, that idea isn’t far-fetched. Late last month, Republican Rep. Neal Carter attempted to force a vote on decertifying the 2020 election based on the debunked documentary “2,000 Mules.”
“Insider threat is the thing I’m most concerned about coming up in future elections,” Ken Matta, who oversaw Arizona’s election security for two decades under both parties, told the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission at a recent meeting.
“The easiest way they could penetrate into the election process would be through political observers. Secondly, through … being poll workers. It’s a pretty easy point of entry into the process. They could be replacing election staff in our election offices. And they could be holding the highest election office in the land, the Secretary of State’s Office position,” Matta warned.
The burnout election officials, including Matta, are experiencing from years of death threats they’ve endured from election deniers is leaving important election administration positions at all levels open to be filled by “election deniers and conspiracy theorists” who don’t share the democratic mission of elections into managing voting locations, Matta said.
Across the country, but particularly in battleground states like Arizona, election deniers are seeking higher office and low-level elections jobs. They’re being trained by political operatives on the arcane intricacies of election law and their power as poll workers. Parties are adding more poll observers to their rosters, too, though observers don’t have near the power that poll workers do.
‘Now I need to save the world’
Ralph Neas, the special counsel on voting rights for progressive think tank The Century Foundation, first talked with us last August, when he warned that the Maricopa County audit was designed to sow doubt in elections in advance of 2024. If anything, he said, his comments then were understated.
“You got it at the precinct level, you got it at the statewide level. You got it at every level conceivable where they’re trying to take control of the elections apparatus and make sure there’s no way they can lose in 2024,” Neas said.
He calls the attempts by 2020 election deniers to infiltrate the elections process and the threat to subvert voters’ decisions “the clear and present danger to the survival of our democracy.”
To be sure, poll workers and observers should, and must by law, reflect all political parties. And observers, provided they follow the law and don’t interfere with voting, play an important role in overseeing elections. Both Republicans and Democrats recruit and train observers, and active members of both parties sign up as poll workers, who are trained by the county.
But poll workers generally believe in the democratic process of casting ballots. They’re typically longtime local do-gooders who see poll work as a civic duty.
But now, as county elections officials work to find poll workers amid a tight job market, they’re facing the possibility that the people they hire could seek to disrupt voting for those who go to the polls.
Cochise County Elections Director Lisa Marra said when she opened up applications for temporary election workers, she immediately received a flood of Republican applicants, and that the local party chair was promoting the positions online. That’s great, she said. Being an election worker is a civic duty, much like jury duty, and she wants people to be involved.
But many of the applications reflected the broad and growing belief in Republican circles that the election process is rigged. Having somebody inside the office who is actively trying to prove their theory that elections are rigged is a recipe for disaster, she said.
“A lot of these applications are coming through say, ‘I want to be a poll worker. I’m 65, I have never been a poll worker, but now I need to save the world,’” she said. “It’s really interesting.”
Huge request for election records
Eric Spencer, an attorney for the Republican National Committee and the former state elections director under Republican Secretary of State Michele Reagan, recently filed records requests with every county in Arizona seeking records about the roles of observers, election plans and rules for poll workers, in addition to seeking a tour of the elections office.
Among the trove of documents Spencer and the RNC requested are documents that would show “any limitations to serving as a poll worker or otherwise temporary worker based on political views,” like their social media posts, whether they’ll be asking to “disavow certain political views,” whether they’d be denied from serving as a poll worker for their views.
Inside a polling place, only credentialed observers from political parties and the Department of Justice are allowed, alongside election workers and voters. Other observers need to stay outside the 75-foot barrier of a polling place, and their behavior can’t deter voters in any way. Observers inside polling locations, trained by the political parties, can challenge a voter, who then may have to vote a provisional ballot.
Unlike partisan observers, election workers are county employees, and have a responsibility to do the work in a nonpartisan fashion. If they have nefarious intentions, they can cause a lot of damage. Even a small act of sabotage, like hiding an extension cord, could create chaos, Marra said.
Ben Petersen, the RNC’s Arizona communications director, said the group’s records requests are “nothing unusual and various groups on both sides of the aisle do the same.”
And in response to the Politico story, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel said while the RNC trains poll watchers, it isn’t training poll workers, it’s just encouraging Republicans to apply. Their efforts are attempting to level the playing field in places like Detroit, where poll workers are overwhelming Democratic. But Arizona’s rural counties are no Detroit.
‘Rage and massive distrust’
Public records show the political makeup of poll workers is heavy on the minds of local party activists, too.
Robert Montgomery, the Cochise County Republican Party chairman, demanded “at least 50%” of election workers in the county be Republicans, and warned if not, there will be “rage and massive distrust,” according to a log of their communications. Marra responded that that’s not how the law works — state law requires some positions be filled by people in opposing parties, but contains no overall quota of how many election workers have to be Republicans.
At a meeting with the local political party chairs in Yuma County, the GOP chair specifically asked if political observers could call their lawyers to show up to voting locations and support their observers, Yuma County Election Director Tiffany Anderson said. That’s not something they’ve ever done before, she said, and it raises several concerns for elections administrators.
“We were made aware that that was a Republican strategy a couple of months ago,” she said, but the broader national strategy outlined in Politico, is “very concerning.”
Ultimately, the county attorney advised that if poll watchers are also lawyers, they can participate. But poll watchers cannot bring in outside help and essentially deputize them as poll watchers.
There have been other signals that the party’s strategy is to embed activists into low-level election worker positions, she said. AZGOP chair Kelli Ward recently tweeted that election officials are trying to prevent “America First” Republicans from becoming election workers.
But Anderson said that election officials don’t have a legal authority to vet people based on their political beliefs. Plus, in Yuma County, all the election worker spots have already been filled and approved by the local board of supervisors, as required by law.
Blunting ‘potential bad apples’
In Maricopa County, however, election officials are still struggling to hire the more than 3,000 temporary workers they need to help carry out the election.
Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer said he understands people are animated about election procedures, and he hopes election skeptics will become a part of the process. It can be a learning experience for them, he said.
“One of the things I’m excited about is bringing in people who had questions about the process … Maybe they’ll become, if not evangelists, at least more informed and less willing to indulge whatever the latest conspiracy is,” he said.
As in other counties, Maricopa hires its returning election workers first, he said, meaning most of the positions up for grabs will be filled with people who have been doing it for years. Newbie election workers will be teamed up with people with experience, he said, and teams are bipartisan.
“And we’ve taken a number of steps to mitigate any potential bad apples,” he said.
Those steps include creating a new position of “premium” poll workers who receive additional training on de-escalation techniques, troubleshooters in the field and a hotline that poll workers can call if things get out of control.
The RNC offering its own training for low-level elections workers doesn’t worry him, he said, and he appreciates any organization attempting to find temporary workers willing to do the relatively low-paying and stressful job. And at the end of the day, anyone hired will be a temporary county employee. If they create problems or don’t do their jobs, he’ll fire them.
“Can somebody be disruptive? Of course. But I’m hopeful and I haven’t seen a reasonably specific problem yet at this point,” he said.
Anderson said she too is less worried about the threat coming from inside the buildings, and is more concerned that the heightened tensions will lead outsiders to attack election officials or voters, especially as lawmakers call for “vigilantes” to confront suspected election fraudsters.
“The narrative has only gotten more extreme and almost more mainstream, more accessible in a lot of ways,” she said. “So I would say my biggest fear is that more somewhat reasonable people believe that there’s rampant election fraud (and) that that broader belief is going to lead to vigilantes who believe they’re doing the right thing. I fear that that could get someone hurt, seriously hurt, or that they tried to disrupt an election process that is perfectly legal. I want to keep my people safe.”