Nov 17, 2022 - Politics

Running elections has become politically dangerous in Arizona

A man speaks at a podium in front of cameras.

Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Gates speaks to reporters on November 10. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

There may not be a worse political gig in the country right now than running Maricopa County's elections.

  • Just look at Board of Supervisors chairman Bill Gates and recorder Stephen Richer, who have been called crooks, liars and bozos in the past week. They have also been threatened with recall.
  • The board and recorder split election administration duties.

Why it matters: The widespread and unproven claims of voter fraud that have percolated since 2020 have made it politically dangerous to be an elections official.

State of play: Gates and Richer, who are both Republicans, have defended the county's handling of the 2020 election, drawing ire from far-right election deniers who believe former President Trump was the rightful winner in Arizona.

  • When ballot printers at about 60 polling places across the county weren't working properly on Election Day, it fueled the conspiratorial idea that Gates and Richer were trying to harm Trump-backed candidates.
  • Yes, but: The issue boiled down to a setting that tells the printer the thickness of the paper being used.
  • Impacted voters were told to place their ballots in a secure dropbox on the side of the tabulator.

What they're saying: "There's not an ability for me to put my finger on the scale one way or another. But even if there was, it's not something I would ever do for any party or any person. And to be accused of this on a daily basis is, quite frankly at this point, a distraction I'm ignoring," Gates tells Axios Phoenix.

  • Richer's office said he was unavailable for an interview this week but said "the reaction by some candidates has certainly been disappointing."

1 ironic thing: Gates has himself to thank for the attention he's received surrounding elections.

  • The Board of Supervisors used to yield all elections responsibilities to the recorder but voted in 2019 to take over Election Day operations after issues at the polls in 2016 and 2018.
  • Gates said he doesn't regret that decision, even if it has landed him in the crosshairs of the far-right.
  • He said adding oversight by another group of elected officials allowed the county to stand in joint defense of the election system, which was essential two years ago.

What's next: Gates and Richer are up for re-election in 2024 and will almost certainly face primary challengers from the faction of the Republican party that believes recent elections have been mishandled.

  • Gates says he's focused on finalizing the county's election results and wouldn't speculate on his political vulnerability.

Flashback: Even before the election denialism of 2020, Maricopa County voters punished elections officials for mistakes.

  • In 2016, longtime Republican recorder Helen Purcell was defeated by Democrat Adrian Fontes after she decided to cut the number of polling places for the presidential preference election, which resulted in hours-long lines.
  • In the 2018 primary, 62 polling places weren't ready when polls opened, which Richer used against Fontes to defeat him in 2020.

1 redemption thing: Although Fontes lost his re-election after the 2018 mishap, he convinced voters he deserved another shot at elections administration.

  • He defeated GOP nominee Mark Finchem and will be the next Secretary of State, the top elections official in Arizona.
  • Fontes tells Axios Phoenix that although the election system has been "unfairly, systemically and doggedly attacked," in the past two years, the majority of voters didn't buy it and bucked election deniers.

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