Election deniers could make profound changes to Arizona voting

PHOENIX (AP) – Gathered around a table in the state Capitol just under two years ago, two Republicans and one Democrat participated in a ceremony prohibited by state law that made official Joe Biden’s 10,500-vote victory in Arizona’s 2020 presidential contest.

As he flipped through the pages, pen in hand and cameras rolling, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey paused to silence the “hello boss” ringtone on his cell phone. It was a call from President Donald Trump, who was in the middle of a frenetic fight to overturn the results of an election he lost. Ducey continued to sign the papers, in what some saw as a dramatic affirmation of democracy at work.

How a similar scene would play out in 2024 if the three Republicans running for the state’s highest office win in November is anyone’s guess. Each of them said they would not have signed the 2020 results if they were in office at the time. Kari Lake, the Republican candidate for governor, and Mark Finchem, who is running for secretary of state, have signaled support for a major overhaul of election rules.

Lake, Finchem and Abraham Hamadeh, a candidate for attorney general, are running for offices central to administering or certifying elections and have earned Trump’s support by spreading lies about the 2020 election.

“When you have a stolen, corrupt election, there are serious consequences, even deadly consequences,” Lake said in June while competing in the GOP primary. “Unfortunately, we had a stolen election and we actually have an illegitimate president sitting in the White House.”

Multiple audits in battleground states including Arizona, dozens of court cases and Trump’s own Justice Department have found that there was no widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

Despite this, the Republican candidates on the list continue to deny the legitimacy of Biden’s election. Several are running for governor, secretary of state or attorney general in some of the battleground states where Trump contested his loss, including Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Nevada.

The prospect of those candidates winning in November raises the question of what they might do about the election and the confirmation of results once they take office, especially in relation to the 2024 presidential race. Arizona’s candidates for the state’s highest office offer a window into that possible future.

Election experts say any of the three, if elected, could try to tilt the 2024 election toward Trump if he runs for president again. This could happen through a refusal to certify elections he loses, or long before that through pre-emptive changes to the electoral process.

Arizona has a recent history of extremely close elections, so small changes to its election laws could have a huge impact on the outcome and reverberate nationally.

Republicans say they are motivated by boosting faith in the election, not by returning Trump to power or helping his allies.

For her part, Lake said last month that she would certify the 2024 election if the courts did not uphold any official election challenges. That response is the opposite of her message throughout much of her campaign, when she said she would not certify the 2020 results despite the courts rejecting all challenges.

Finchem said in a text message that he would certify the election “as long as all legal votes are counted and all votes cast are legal.” He did not respond to additional questions about who decides whether the votes are legal and whether he will accept the results of the court proceedings.

Hamadeh said in a statement that he would “faithfully follow the law.”

Arizona’s governor, secretary of state, and attorney general wield enormous power over election decisions large and small. If all three win, the steps they could take would be almost limitless, according to Arizona election lawyers deeply versed in the laws, rules and regulations governing the process.

They could rewrite the state manual for election procedures, a book that lays out the rules for conducting elections and certification in minute detail. It is written by the Secretary of State and must be approved by the Attorney General and the Governor. If all three sign, the changes become legally binding.

That’s even without any more expansive changes that could be made by the almost-certainly Republican-controlled Legislature.

“If you have people who support the Big Lie in charge of our elections, they can do a lot,” said Jim Barton, a longtime Democratic election lawyer in Arizona. “And they can do it in ways that seem pretty boring.”

Finchem, who was outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 but says he did not join the rioters who attacked the building that day, has vowed to rewrite those rules. He said little about what he would change.

It could create rules for accepting voter registration, eliminate the right of county officials to provide mail-in ballot boxes and even refuse to accept voter initiative applications, to name a few, Barton said.

At registration alone, the secretary could adopt small changes, such as when to submit forms or the color of ink that must be used, and forward them as needed to facilitate processing, Barton said. Small changes affecting a relatively small number of voters could add up in a close race.

“Nobody wins elections by 10% anymore,” Barton said. “So you don’t have to say, ‘Oh, I’m not going to count any of the votes from Pima County’ to change the votes. If you make it a little harder for low-income people to vote, then the state is no longer purple.”

And that’s just the beginning if someone really wants to take the reins of election rules and make small but substantial changes.

Eric Spencer, an attorney who represents Republican and conservative organizations and is a former director of state elections, said a number of rules could be changed under the new administration.

This could include eliminating unattended ballot boxes, which are convenient places for voters to drop off their ballots. The trio could also seek changes to the rules for ballot counting machines and the election campaign, where elected leaders certify results, Spencer said.

That’s where “the new triumvirate could make some radical, radical changes,” he said.

For example, the new secretary of state could remove a provision developed by Spencer that required county and state officials to certify election results and could not change vote totals. Spencer developed the rule after a county official refused to certify a local election in 2016 and nearly derailed statewide certification.

Any controversy over the certification could create a pretext for Arizona’s electoral votes to be challenged when Congress meets to count them in early 2025.

As secretary of state, Finchem would also have unilateral authority to certify — or not — election equipment. He told CBS News that vote tabulation machines should be banned unless the manufacturer shares the source code.

No voting system manufacturer releases core software for their systems to protect what they consider proprietary code and prevent hacking. Finchem and other Trump allies argue that they can’t trust the systems if they can’t inspect the software that runs them line by line.

Lake and Finchem have also signaled they want to make sure voter rolls are accurate, which election experts worry could lead them to purge certain voters or force people to continuously re-register.

“We must protect the counting of all legal and quarantined votes that are outside the law,” Finchem said.

Lake, who has emerged as one of the most popular new figures in Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement, avoided revealing the specific changes she would push for in the election. But she offered clues.

She said she wants Arizonans to go to bed on election night knowing the results, which some see as a threat to the vote-by-mail system used by the vast majority of voters.

“I will work with legislators to make sure we have a system where voting is fair,” Lake said. “I’m not sure what that will look like.”

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