Auditor general: Arizona election audits wouldn’t begin until 2024 cycle
Turning the Arizona Auditor General’s Office into an elections oversight unit will be a substantial undertaking that will require time and resources, and that means it won’t conduct election audits until after this year, a Senate committee was told Thursday.
Auditor General Lindsay Perry explained to the Senate Government Committee that her office will need 35 new full-time employees for the election integrity team that Senate Bill 1629 would create, which would become the third largest division she oversees. Many of those auditors would be transferred from other divisions while others would be recruited as new hires. All would need to be trained in the intricacies of election law and procedure.
“We have expertise in auditing. You trust us and you value our work in that area. However, we have no experience or expertise in elections laws or processes. Therefore, I would need to train and develop my experienced auditors in all things elections,” Perry told senators.
She said that when the Auditor General’s Office had to expand to conduct new school district performance audits as a result of Proposition 301, a school funding measure that voters approved in 2000, it took about a year for the new divisions to ramp up.
That means the elections integrity team won’t be in the business of actually auditing elections until the 2024 election cycle, Perry explained.
SB1629 is a wide-ranging bill that includes various election reforms. The bill’s centerpiece is the new requirement that the auditor general conduct reviews of voter registration rolls, early ballot signature verification, ballot tabulation and polling place administration in two of Arizona’s 13 smaller counties every election cycle. Maricopa and Pima counties would undergo more limited audits after every election.
The proposal comes on the heels of the so-called “audit” that Senate President Karen Fann ordered of the 2020 general election in Maricopa County in response to conspiracy theories and baseless allegations that the election in Arizona was rigged against former President Donald Trump. Unlike Fann’s review, which relied on unqualified companies with no background in election-related issues and that had attempted to overturn the 2020 election, SB1629 would delegate that responsibility to the auditor general.
Getting the kind of expertise the Auditor General’s Office needs to review elections takes time, Perry said. It would be nearly impossible to ramp up a new division with the needed expertise in time to audit anything for the 2022 election cycle.
“That doesn’t put us with a lot of time to be able to do this effectively and with good information, accurate information,” she said.
Moving so many employees out of other divisions to staff up the election auditing team will have ripple effects in other parts of the Auditor General’s Office as well, Perry told the senators. It will take three to five years to develop new hires into senior auditors. And the auditor general is having the same trouble that other employers in both the public and private sectors are currently having recruiting and training employees amid the “great resignation,” Perry said.
In the meantime, much of the current work assigned to the auditor general would have to be postponed or shifted. Some state agencies and boards would have to do self-reviews, Perry said. Other audits that must be conducted by her office would need to be postponed.
Sen. Kelly Townsend, the committee’s chairwoman, told Perry she’s uncomfortable delaying other audits, and said she’s committed to raising auditor salaries and taking whatever other steps are needed to ensure that the auditor general’s other work isn’t disrupted.
“Shoot for the stars. Whatever you need, tell us and I will advocate for that,” said Townsend, an Apache Junction Republican.
As for where to find experienced people for the new election integrity team, Townsend suggested that participants in Fann’s “audit” would fit the bill.
“They do have experience. So I would check the website for job openings, guys, if you have experience in auditing,” Townsend said.
The audit team was heavily criticized for using inexperienced people, often recruited from the ranks of conservative activists, who believed strongly in the Big Lie, as the 2020 conspiracy theories are often described by critics. Some audit participants testified in favor of the bill on Thursday, making outlandish claims, for example, that they identified many ballots that “were not cast by a human hand.” The audit team made no such allegations in its report to the Senate.
Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, also worried about the auditor general’s other work. He said he was disappointed that his Republican colleagues weren’t “reading between the lines” of what Perry was telling them, and worried that they were setting up the Auditor General’s Office to fail.
“Here’s what I heard: She doesn’t know if she has the people in her office that have the requisite experience to conduct these types of audits. An election audit is very different than an audit of a state agency. An election audit is very different than an audit of a school district,” Quezada said. “It’s going to require movement. It’s going to require a major re-shifting of her office.”
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Sonny Borrelli, a Republican from Lake Havasu City, expressed confidence in the auditor general’s ability to carry out the new duties.
“The auditor general has a habit of under-promising and over-delivering,” Borrelli said.
SB1629 contains a number of other provisions. It would require anyone who’s paid to register people to vote, or any volunteer who registers more than 25 people to vote, to register with the Secretary of State’s Office. Digital images of all ballots cast in elections would be posted online. It would require timely updates of voter registration files to account for changes of address. And it would beef up training requirements for signature verification, which election officials use to confirm the identities of voters’ who cast early ballots.
The bill is one of dozens sponsored by legislative Republicans in the wake of the bogus election fraud claims that Trump and many of his supporters have peddled since Joe Biden defeated him in the 2020 election. But unlike many of the other bills, SB1629 has the consensus support of the entire Senate Republican caucus.
Fann said every provision in the bill was approved by all 16 Senate Republicans, and nothing will be added to it without the entire caucus’s backing. And any other bill that conflicts with the provisions in SB1629 are unlikely to pass muster with the Senate president.
“There’s nothing crazy in here. These are all good, sound election policies,” Fann told the Arizona Mirror. “It should be a bipartisan bill.”
Nonetheless, Democrats, who were on the losing side of the 4-3 vote to approve SB1629 in committee, were wary of several provisions.
Hugo Polanco, a lobbyist representing the Arizona Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, spoke in opposition to SB1629, particularly the provision requiring registration of people who register others to vote.
“Requiring members of the community to register in a government database before signing up their neighbors to vote is an insidious attack on access to the ballot,” Polanco said. “It is clear who this attempt to undermine access is targeting — people of color, people without wealth, and those who work with community organizations to access our democracy.”
Townsend countered that the requirement wasn’t a burden on people’s rights, and said its purpose was to identify bad actors in the voter registration process.
Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales, D-Tucson, also spoke out against that provision, saying voter registration is a driver of democracy.
“If we really believe in our freedom to vote in this state, then we ought to be having and encouraging voter registration drives,” she said.
The Senate Government Committee removed one major section of the bill establishing new rules for early ballot drop boxes, which have been the subject of Republican conspiracy theories about the 2020 election in Arizona and other states, especially swing states where President Joe Biden defeated Trump. That potentially opens the door to stricter legislation on the subject. Later on Thursday, the committee approved Senate Bill 1571, which would require camera or video surveillance of drop boxes, a requirement that was absent in SB1629.
Sen. Wendy Rogers, a Flagstaff Republican and one of Arizona’s most vocal proponents of the false and discredited claims of election rigging from the 2020 election, thanked Borrelli for removing the bill’s drop box section with the amendment.
“That was a huge segment of this bill before it was amended. So, with all of that, I am encouraged,” Rogers said.
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.