Arizona’s new attorney general to use election fraud unit to boost voting rights

Democrat Kris Mayes will repurpose unit created by Republican predecessor to focus on protecting voting access

A unit created under the former Republican attorney general of Arizona to investigate claims of election fraud will now focus on voting rights and ballot access under the newly elected Democratic attorney general.

The Democratic attorney general, Kris Mayes, told the Guardian that instead of prosecuting claims of voter fraud, she will “reprioritize the mission and resources” of the unit to focus on “protecting voting access and combating voter suppression”. Mayes won the attorney general’s race in November against election denier Abe Hamadah by just 280 votes, a race that went to a state-mandated recount.

“Under my predecessor’s administration, the election integrity unit searched widely for voter fraud and found scant evidence of it occurring in Arizona,” Mayes said in a statement. “That’s because instances of voter fraud are exceedingly rare.”

Mayes also plans for the unit to work on protecting election workers, who have faced threats of violence and intimidation. And she intends for the unit to defend Arizonans’ right to vote by mail, which has been attacked by Republican lawmakers and the state GOP in recent years despite being the most common way Arizonans of all political parties cast their ballots.

In 2019, the Republican-controlled Arizona legislature and then governor, Republican Doug Ducey, added about a half-million dollars in funding for an “election integrity unit” in the attorney general’s office. Since then, the unit has brought a number of legal cases, including charges against four Latina women in a rural part of the state for collecting other people’s ballots, which is illegal in Arizona.

It is not yet clear what will happen to cases currently under way, including the ballot collection charges in Yuma county, Mayes’s office said. A webpage on the attorney general’s website created to allow people to file election complaints for potential investigation is still live.

Until recently, the head of the unit under the previous Republican attorney general, Mark Brnovich, was Jennifer Wright, an attorney who had criticized Maricopa county elections and sent a letter to the county trying to investigate its elections. Wright left the office shortly before Mayes took control.

Since its inception, the unit has come under fire from Democrats who found its very existence unnecessary, called its attorneys into question, and said it played into false claims about elections. Republicans, too, criticized the unit for not going far enough on election fraud. In one notable instance, the unit investigated claims of hundreds of votes cast by people who were dead, finding just one voter among those claimed dead in whose name a ballot was actually cast.

When Brnovich sought funding for the unit, his office defended the move as a way to protect elections and debunk bogus claims of fraud.

Despite several full-time staff employees and hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding annually, the unit has not uncovered any widespread or coordinated voter fraud. Most of the 20 cases it brought over three years target individual, isolated election law violations, like people using a dead relative’s ballot or casting a ballot despite not being eligible to vote.

In an investigation published last year, the Washington Post found that the unit’s work did not strengthen people’s trust in the voting system but instead “deepened suspicions among many of those who deny President Biden won and sapped government resources”.

Brnovich could not be reached for comment on the unit and its fate under Mayes.

Other states led by Republicans have created similar voter fraud units, some with much larger staffs than Arizona’s. A Virginia unit includes more than 20 staff who were shifted from other parts of the attorney general’s office to focus on election issues, and organizations such as the NAACP have struggled to get information on what that unit is doing. In Florida, a new office tasked with election crimes launched by Governor Ron DeSantis has led to the arrest of 20 people who had felony records who erroneously cast ballots while believing they were legally able to vote.


Rachel Leingang in Phoenix

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘We will prosecute death threats’: Arizona’s new attorney general fights to protect election workers
As the state’s top prosecutor, Democrat Kris Mayes has the power to investigate voting crimes and bring charges against those who break election laws

Rachel Leingang

01, Mar, 2023 @11:00 AM

Article image
Former attorney general in key state withheld evidence debunking 2020 election fraud
Republican Mark Brnovich’s successor releases reports that debunked claims of fraud in Maricopa county in 2020 election

Rachel Leingang

22, Feb, 2023 @9:17 PM

Article image
Arizona’s top election official seeks investigation into Republican Kari Lake
Losing gubernatorial candidate may have violated a state law that protects voter’s signatures, Democrat Adrian Fontes says

Rachel Leingang

31, Jan, 2023 @9:49 PM

Article image
Arizona county blames human error for discrepancies in attorney general race
The county found hundreds of additional votes during a mandatory statewide recount

Rachel Leingangin Phoenix

04, Jan, 2023 @10:44 PM

Article image
Democrat Kris Mayes wins Arizona race for attorney general after recount
The state held a mandatory recount that saw Mayes beat her Republican opponent Abraham Hamadeh by 280 votes

Sam Levine in New York

30, Dec, 2022 @4:05 PM

Article image
‘Democracy on the ballot’: the man fighting to keep Arizona’s election out of an extremist’s hands
For Adrian Fontes, the secretary of state election is a battle for the ‘fate of the republic’ against his rightwing election-denying opponent, Mark Finchem

Ed Pilkington in Phoenix, Arizona

26, Oct, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
How Adrian Fontes plans to protect Arizona’s elections from ‘Maga fascists’
The Democrat who defeated a hard-right extremist in the midterms to be the next secretary of state doesn’t mince words

Ed Pilkington

02, Jan, 2023 @10:00 AM

Article image
‘I see things now that I’ve never seen before’: the Maricopa county attorney fighting false election claims
Tom Liddy, a lifelong Republican, is a target of his own party for fending off lawsuits against the county over blatant election lies

Rachel Leingang

19, Jan, 2023 @11:00 AM

Article image
Republicans lead charge to ban noncitizens from voting in local elections
Eight states have passed laws against ballot access, even as some progressive cities are extending local voting rights

Kira Lerner

22, Dec, 2022 @11:00 AM

Article image
‘The Trump playbook’: Republicans hint they will deny election results
Some candidates are already questioning the integrity of the vote and undermining the credibility of the results

Ed Pilkington

02, Nov, 2022 @10:00 AM