Could election denialism in a feuding Arizona county upend US democracy?

Republicans in Cochise county who undermined midterm election gain control in critical swing state for 2024

The 2022 election ended months ago, at least in most of the country.

In a rural county on the US-Mexico border in Arizona, though, the election and its fallout linger, causing heated divisions and offering a view into how conspiracy theories could upend elections across the country.

While statewide candidates in Arizona who embraced election lies lost their races in November, the election denialism movement hasn’t died off, especially in legislative and local offices, where Republicans continue to push for restrictions to voting and ballot counting that would hinder access and make elections less secure.

Fueled by false claims about whether ballot tabulation machines are properly certified or accurate, supervisors in Republican-controlled Cochise county tried to conduct a full hand count of its election results and attempted not to certify the county’s results.

Their efforts ultimately failed, but they reveal how election denialism has taken hold in parts of the United States and could continue to wreak havoc on American democracy.

A rural, red county

The effort to question election results has been led by two of Cochise county’s Republican supervisors, Peggy Judd and Tom Crosby, who were both vocal in their efforts to upend the county’s elections.

Courts intervened, stopping the hand count effort and forcing certification, but the supervisors, including Crosby who still refused to participate in certification, remain adamant that the county’s elections are not secure. As recently as February, Judd and Crosby said they weren’t certain of the county’s results because there wasn’t a hand count.

In the months since the November election, the county’s elections director, Lisa Marra, resigned, citing “outrageous conduct and objectively difficult and unpleasant working conditions”. Crosby and Judd sued Marra when she refused to help with the hand count plan.

In Marra’s absence, the board of supervisors gave the Republican county recorder, David Stevens, near-total control over local elections. Stevens is an election skeptic with close ties to Mark Finchem, the election-denying Republican who lost and refused to concede his race for Arizona secretary of state.

The board’s vote to make Stevens interim elections director prompted the Democratic attorney general, Kris Mayes, to file a lawsuit against the county, alleging the move “threatens the lawful administration and operation of elections”.

The effects of the county’s decisions do not just affect local residents. Arizona is a swing state and will play a decisive role in the 2024 presidential election, as it did in 2020. If the supervisors hinder certification again next year, it could disenfranchise county voters and delay statewide results for this critical piece of the electoral map.

In this red county, nearly 40% of voters are registered Republicans, the county’s largest voting bloc. Many have embraced the supervisors’ conspiracy theories. At a county meeting in February, community members floated ideas that would dismantle the existing election system, praising the supervisors for their “incredible courage”.

Residents who have spoken at county meetings say they want a hand count because they don’t trust machines. Hand counts are less accurate than machine tabulations because they are more prone to human error. They also take longer and are more costly, which can lead to delayed results, elections officials and outside experts have warned. Maricopa county’s so-called “audit”, which hand-counted just two races, lasted several months.

meeting taking place in front of cochise county map
The ongoing election battle in the county has many on edge: ‘I know there’s a lot of trust lost out here in the community.’ Photograph: Alberto Mariani/AP

Some Cochise residents have also suggested limiting voting to one day, rather than the longer period of early and mail-in voting most Arizonans use to vote.

On the same day Cochise supervisors heard from locals who believe elections are not secure, elections committees in the Arizona legislature heard presentations about how elections were stolen and the powers they had to stand up to the federal government, a sign of the continued prominence of election denialism in the statehouse and a further sign that Cochise county is not the only place where these ideas still reverberate.

The ongoing election battles have some in Cochise county on edge. Some have organized a recall of Crosby. Others have filled meeting rooms and given fiery speeches to their elected leaders.

“I know there’s a lot of trust lost out here in the community,” said Elisabeth Tyndall, the chair of the Cochise county Democrats. “And that’s not just Democrats, that’s everybody. They don’t know if they can trust their board of supervisors.”

But for many far-right Republicans, the supervisors represent a stand against the government that has been several years in the making. Some have come from other counties to Cochise, finding a more willing audience than in counties like Maricopa, where the Republican-controlled board has staunchly defended its elections.

Brandon Martin, the chair of the Cochise county GOP who has run for Congress several times, praised the supervisors’ efforts to push for a hand count.

“We had some very strong Republicans in a very conservative stronghold stand up and say, we’re gonna do the right thing, and we’re gonna do the right thing by the people who elected us.”

Why here?

Cochise county lines the south-east corner of Arizona, bordered by New Mexico and Sonora, Mexico.

A former mining stronghold once dominated by union labor, Cochise county was not always conservative. But in the years since the mining industry declined, the area has grown redder as jobs disappeared and the border industry grew.

Judd, one of the far-right county supervisors, attended the January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally near the US Capitol, and Crosby is a former border patrol agent. Their crusade, particularly the decision not to certify the election without court intervention, was in part a protest against the election in Maricopa county, Judd has said.

Judd and Crosby’s call for a hand count echoed Trump and his allies, who insisted that tabulation machines played a role in Trump’s loss. Opponents of machines often claim they are not certified properly, which allows for tampering.

The Arizona secretary of state’s office has shot down those rumors several times. Tabulation machines in Arizona also go through logic and accuracy tests before elections, and a percentage of ballots are hand-counted after an election to ensure accuracy.

Stevens supported the full hand count idea, too, saying he would help try to make it happen. Marra, the former elections director, was opposed, as was the Democratic supervisor Ann English and the county’s attorney, who warned the idea did not comply with state law. Changing the election so close to election day would be a logistical nightmare and confusing to voters, they argued.

After lengthy debate in county meetings, a judge ultimately decided the move was illegal. The case is now on appeal.

The hand count battle kicked off a series of election disputes that culminated in fired-up local Democrats and a national lens on the rural county.

Next came the refusal to certify the county’s results, which could have disenfranchised county residents if their votes were not added to state totals. Judd and Crosby did not vote to certify the election in time, resulting in a lawsuit that sought to compel them to do their official duties. A judge ruled that they had to certify, forcing a vote later that day, for which Crosby did not show up.

While voting to certify, Judd said: “I am not ashamed of anything I did.”

The hand count and certification delay carry a cost, the total of which is not yet clear. So far, the county has approved nearly $120,000 in legal fees related to the issues.

New elections director

Before resigning in February, Marra, who had run county elections since 2017, wrote a letter giving the county two weeks to remedy the hostile work environment or she would quit.

“There have been no deficiencies in any election Ms Marra has conducted,” the letter said. “That the board continues to entertain and give credence to election conspiracy theories damages Ms Marra’s professional reputation and places her safety at risk.”

Before Marra’s departure, the deputy director retired in January, leaving just one employee in the election department. Marra has since been hired by the Arizona secretary of state’s office as deputy state elections director.

Marra’s supporters were outraged at her departure. They worry about who would want her old job, considering the problems she faced.

“She literally stood up against allowing Crosby to get access and Stevens to get access to those ballots [for a potential hand count],” said Sanda Clark, a Democrat who recently ran to represent the area in the Arizona house. “She’s an absolute hero of what happened in Cochise county.”

Tom Crosby
Tom Crosby, one of the county’s Republican supervisors. Photograph: Mark Levy/AP

One of Marra’s concerns – that her duties would fall under Stevens – came true after her resignation. In February, the supervisors voted to put Stevens in charge of the elections director position and make him interim elections director. He will be part of the hiring process and oversee the future election director’s work.

The day before the supervisors voted to give Stevens more control over elections, the Arizona attorney general’s office warned them the plan might run afoul of state law. The solicitor general, Joshua Bendor, said the office had “serious questions” about whether it was legal for the board to give some of its duties in election oversight to another elected official.

Stevens told the Guardian he did not seek out the job; instead, he feels obligated to help because of an upcoming all-mail election about jail funding, which takes place in May. If he did not step in, the election could be canceled, he said: “Basically, if I don’t do it, the election’s gone.”

Stevens’s increased role has caused concerns, especially among local Democrats and independents, who question his friendship and entanglements with Finchem, a prominent election denier, as reported recently by Votebeat.

The backlash

The lingering election drama has sparked backlash from local residents who worry the supervisors’ actions are undermining democracy and costing the county money.

A bipartisan group started a campaign to recall Crosby. The group needs to collect nearly 5,000 valid signatures from Crosby’s constituents to force a vote, an uphill battle in a small community.

A bright-red billboard reading “Recall Tom Crosby” stands off Highway 92 in Crosby’s district, paid for by the Cochise county Democratic party.

Before the election antics, some already wanted to see him recalled. Early last year, he and Judd voted against taking a $1.9m Covid-19 relief grant from the federal government, just as the Omicron wave filled hospitals. Crosby, at the time, said he wanted to “get the county out of the vaccine business”.

Eric Suchodolski, the recall campaign’s chair, said Crosby’s willingness to defy attorneys’ advice on the hand count and certification helped cement the recall idea.

“He’s impervious to any of the reasoning that was put before him,” Suchodolski said. “I mean, if the guy’s gonna ignore his own legal counsel, what pull does any ordinary citizen have to convince him otherwise?”

Gretchen Lamberth, a Republican who is gathering signatures for the recall campaign, said she was “horrified about [Crosby’s] fiscal irresponsibility”, citing the legal fees piling up for the attempted hand count and delayed certification.

She has watched her own political party become captured by a “few vocal folks” who won’t stop talking about election problems.

Crosby filed for re-election in January, seeking another term in 2024. Even if the recall is not successful, Lamberth said she hopes it sends him a message that “these few people you keep listening to are not the way the rest of the county feels”.

Some still want to see Crosby and possibly Judd charged for their initial refusal to certify the election, hoping it will deter other officials from trying to do the same in the future. When she was secretary of state, the Democratic governor, Katie Hobbs, asked the then attorney general, Mark Brnovich, to investigate the delayed certification and potentially bring charges.

Mayes, the new Democratic attorney general, told the Guardian she could not comment on whether the supervisors could be charged.

As the next presidential election approaches, some worry that the attempts at a hand count and calls not to certify the election will only intensify next November.

“I worry about [Crosby] trying to do the exact same thing or worse, because he’s kind of been batted down, he’s going to come back at it again, with maybe a different tack,” Suchodolski said.

For Tyndall, the elections debate left a lingering sense of distrust in the community that she wants to see repaired.

“We are your neighbor,” she said. “We’re the same person that you waved to when you’re rolling the trash can down the driveway in the morning. And I think that we need a reminder that we are a community – we’re not two separate realities.”


Rachel Leingang

The GuardianTramp

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