August 23, 2023
Sarah Gonski
Arizona Capitol Times

Protecting Arizona election officials crucial ahead of upcoming elections

In Arizona, the county recorder’s office is responsible for voter registration and early voting and they also play a vital role in their county’s local, state and federal elections. On July 3, 2023, the Mohave County Board of Supervisors accepted the resignation of County Recorder Kristi Blair. Blair is the sixth county recorder to resign in the past two years – and according to Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, only 6 out of 15 county recorders going forward will have been in office prior to 2021.

Arizona isn’t alone in facing an exodus of election officials. Election officials nationwide, beaten down by harassment, frivolous public records requests, and lack of support, have left the field at a shocking rate – and institutional knowledge has left with those who have resigned. In turn, this could lead to increased election administration errors, and a lack of qualified, confident voices to counter election conspiracies. With more than half of Arizona’s county recorders being newly re-staffed, residents will be relying upon a likely-inexperienced administration team to carry out the election process and are at risk of experiencing some of these very problems.

Ever since the 2020 presidential election elections, Maricopa County has been the epicenter of election denialism – three years later, we’re still seeing the impact of the hyper-politicization of democracy on our elections workers in our state.

Despite underfunded elections departments, Arizona officials did everything in their power to prepare for the 2022 midterm elections, including launching an election command center that allowed officials to respond quickly to media requests and debunk election lies. However, on November 8, 2022, ballot recording machines experienced technical problems in a fifth of the county’s polling places. While election officials reassured voters that it would not affect their vote, many anti-voter candidates, already down in the polls, capitalized on the problems and fueled false statements regarding election integrity, further driving a wedge between tried-and-true secure voting practices and voters in the Grand Canyon State.

Caseless claims about the validity and security of elections stemming from the 2020 election continue today. And like so many states across the nation, Arizona has faced an uptick in hostility towards election officials, perpetuated by election deniers. Increased threats and harassment against election officials in Arizona have transcended beyond party lines. Current Secretary of State Adrian Fontes, Former Secretary of State and now Governor Katie Hobbs, Maricopa County Supervisor Bill Gates, and Recorder Richer himself have been continuously threatened and harassed over election results.

State leaders know that voting rights and the integrity of our elections must be safeguarded – which is exactly why Arizona representatives voted to boot Liz Harris from the State House earlier this year. But continued pressure, mounting backlash, frivolous lawsuits, and even threats of violence from election deniers are contributing to a challenging, even dangerous, election environment. Undoubtedly, this will make the future hiring of qualified election officials more difficult.

The gravity of anti-democratic sentiment nationwide and partisan refusal to fortify voting rights at the federal level threatens the future of voter access. Election denialism further has the potential to erode trust in our democracy and demean the legitimacy of our government – this is what makes it dangerous. It’s more important than ever that we take a stand against election denialism, which will take critical work to ensure fair, efficient, and secure elections.

Thankfully, the majority of the American public remain optimistic, as seen in the 2022 midterm elections where voters of both parties overwhelmingly rejected election denialism – but our work to ensure safe and secure elections must continue.

Above all, federal election infrastructure funding would allow for increased staff wages, critical updates to voting equipment, the patching of security vulnerabilities, and other urgently-needed modernizations. Most importantly, maintaining well-funded and fully-staffed election offices will ensure all eligible voters can exercise their fundamental rights.

Instead of politicizing our election offices, we need to work together to ensure Arizona’s election officials have the proper resources to execute efficient, secure and streamlined electionsAhead of critical state elections and the 2024 presidential elections, we need trust in our officials to do their job – free from harassment and threat. Our democracy depends on it.

Sarah Gonski is an Arizona-based election law attorney and policy expert who advises campaigns, political committees, think tanks, and advocacy organizations at every stage of the political process. Her consulting clients include the Institute for Responsive Government and the Center for Secure and Modern Elections, where she helps develop and implement bipartisan policy solutions to render the election process more voter-friendly, accurate, and efficient. Prior to her policy work, she spent seven years at Perkins Coie working to secure and expand access to the democratic process. In that capacity, she litigated over 100 election law and voting rights cases across the country, including lawsuits seeking to overturn Maricopa County’s results in the 2020 presidential election. Sarah is a graduate of the University of Maryland-College Park and Harvard Law School.