Republicans advance election bills based on conspiracy theories, political grudges
Fueled by election conspiracy theories and axes to grind against political opponents, Republican legislators gave initial approval to a slate of bills on Wednesday that served as veiled rebukes against the 2022 midterm elections and the officials who oversaw them.
Democrats and Republicans clashed over the insinuation that Gov. Katie Hobbs, who served as Secretary of State during the November midterms she won her seat in, behaved improperly when she refused to recuse herself from her duties. House Bill 2308 would bar any future secretary of state from handling any part of an election they are a candidate in.
“There’s a lack of confidence from some of my constituents in the election itself. I think the optics of that – of a secretary of state running their own election for governor and then certifying that election was a major concern,” said Rep. Rachel Jones, R-Tucson.
In Arizona, secretaries of state oversee elections and give guidance on how they should be carried out, but the actual job of conducting elections — including counting results — rests with the 15 counties. Once all results are finalized by the counties, the secretary of state and governor formally certify the election.
Rep. Melody Hernandez, D-Tempe, questioned why concern didn’t exist in the past, when, for example, GOP secretaries of state Ken Bennett and Michele Reagan were on the ballot in 2014 and 2018. Jones rebutted that times have changed since then and voter discontent has grown, citing a survey from partisan polling company Rasmussen Reports that claimed as much as 71% of U.S. voters stated they believed the midterms were “botched”. The company has been accused of having a GOP bias.
“Do you have any concrete evidence that there were any misdeeds from the Secretary of State (during) the 2022 election or does this just mirror hypothetical concerns from your constituents?” asked Rep. Oscar De Los Santos, D-Laveen.
Jones reiterated that her concern lay with the perception of wrongdoing. She added that it was alarming that Hobbs had access to the results of the statewide recount ahead of time and did not release the report to the public. Under state law, the results of the recount are sent to the secretary of state’s office by the counties, and it is then delivered to a judge. Announcing those results before then is explicitly prohibited.
Mesa Republican Rep. Jacqueline Parker, who chairs the Municipal Oversight & Elections Committee, chimed in to say that Hobbs coerced the county recorders of Cochise and Mohave Counties to certify their results ahead of the statewide canvass.
“They certified that election under duress,” agreed Jones.
In fact, the boards of supervisors in each county are required by state law to certify the election results. If they don’t, they can face felony charges.
Their hesitance to do so, based on groundless conspiracy theories, threatened to place Hobbs in violation of her own responsibilities, leaving her no recourse but to ask a judge to order Cochise County supervisors to fulfill their job requirements. Hobbs’ office also sent letters to reticent county supervisors reminding them of their statutory responsibilities and the penalties for failing to carry them out.
Jodi Liggett, a lobbyist for the League of Women Voters, spoke in opposition to the bill.
“Out of 51 secretaries who ran for higher office from 2002 to 2022, only three publicly recused themselves in any manner,” she said. “Not a single other state has enacted a requirement for recusals in these circumstances. The League believes there already exists a solution to a very valid concern: the courts.”
That recourse has already been sought in Arizona, Liggett pointed out, and has failed to manifest any reasonable argument against the secretary of state’s involvement in the election. Former GOP state Rep. Mark Finchem, who lost his bid for the secretary of state’s office, contested his loss by claiming that Hobbs committed misconduct when she didn’t recuse herself. That lawsuit was dismissed for lack of credible evidence.
The bill was ultimately approved 7-3, with one Democrat voting to support it along with the panel’s Republican members.
Rep. Laura Terech, D-Scottsdale, said that, while she agreed with the intent to codify best practices for election officials into state law, her future support is contingent on adding amendments to address who should take over from the secretary, and what the revised canvass would look like. If the bill forced the assistant secretary of state — who typically takes over from the secretary — to conduct an entirely separate canvass, for example, Terech worried it might incur staffing requirements that could draw out an already lengthy process.
Terech added that, despite her support, she strongly disagreed with the impropriety concerns over Hobbs’ involvement in the midterm elections forwarded by Republicans on the panel.
“I want to be clear that I don’t believe there was any impropriety in the role that the secretary of state played in the 2022 election,” she said.
Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer also came under fire from legislators who objected to his outspoken criticism of election deniers. The embattled Republican head of early voting in the county has weathered accusations of impropriety from members of his party over a political action committee he serves on the board of — a committee that donates to the campaigns of pro-democracy Republicans who don’t espouse election conspiracy theories.
House Bill 2378 would bar election officers or employees who oversee a significant portion of an election from joining a political action committee.
House Majority Leader Leo Biasiucci, R-Lake Havasu City, said the bill was an attempt to ensure election officials don’t influence the outcome of the races they are in charge of.
“This really just says, ‘Look, if you are an elected official or involved in our election process at all, you should not be part of a PAC that is determining one way or another which way a ballot measure or a certain election should be going,’” he told committee members on Wednesday.
Hernandez questioned whether her activities would be scrutinized if she decided to endorse fellow legislative candidates or share a campaign mailer with them. Biasiucci responded that, as she didn’t have a hand in elections, she was exempt.
As with the bill mandating that secretaries of state recuse themselves from their duties, Terech voiced her concern that prohibiting poll workers and volunteers from being politically active could contribute to staffing shortages. But a request from Rep. Cesar Aguilar, D-Phoenix, to add an amendment to exclude poll workers from the list of election workers barred from being involved with a political action committee was rejected by Biasiucci.
“If you are at the point where you are controlling the flow of money that is being expended on an election, then you are somebody who…(is) so invested in the result that it can get hard for the average person to avoid temptation,” said Kolodin, who added an amendment to expand the list of those prohibited to include county supervisors, county recorders and the secretary of state. “Not because (you) have any vested personal interest whether this proposition or that one passes, but because now it’s (your) job, or at least a side job.”
The bill was unanimously approved by all 10 committee members, with Democrats adding the caveat that the bill needed work to pass muster later.
Wittmann Republican Rep. Austin Smith closed out his final remarks by taking one last shot at Richer.
“I can speak to this from personal experience,” he said. “In 2021, Recorder Richer, for the record, did have a pro-democracy PAC that got involved in Republican primaries. Mine was one of them.”
Early ballot signature verification was also targeted. House Bill 2322 would allow observers appointed by each party to be present during signature verification and give them the ability to challenge the decisions of election workers at polling places, voting centers and other counting facilities.
Signature verification on early ballots became a tenet of election conspiracies during the 2020 elections, when Republican candidates began casting doubt on the process and advising their base to vote in-person. Allegations that voting by mail, which is used by more than 80% of Arizonans choose, is fraudulent resurfaced after the November midterms, when a significant party discrepancy between mail-in and Election Day voters emerged.
Jen Marson, a lobbyist for the Arizona Association of Counties, sounded the alarm over privacy concerns and the likelihood of baseless challenges that could result from the bill.
“If you’re going to have a concerned citizen — with not necessarily any election experience background, they’re just invested in the process and they want to make sure things are working well — they need to be trained to know what they’re looking for,” she said. “The other thing we want to be mindful of…is there’s a lot of personal identifying information inside a voter’s file that is visible on the screens when we’re doing signature verification.”
Kolodin, who sponsored the legislation, said he would be willing to work out amendments to address both of those issues. Marson posited that an attestation that observers agreed not to collect or disseminate voter information might resolve privacy concerns.
Still, Democrats on the panel balked at jeopardizing the private votes of Arizonans — a right that is guaranteed by state law. All three Democrats voted against the bill, and with the support of the six Republican members, it was passed out of the committee along party lines.
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.