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Arizona county backtracks on proposal for full hand-count of ballots in midterm election

Facing state’s threat of lawsuit, county supervisors voted instead to expand its hand-count audit as allowed under Arizona law.

A man walks toward the door of a stone building

The post office in Bisbee, Arizona, in Cochise County, in 2020.

Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Cochise County will not hand-count all ballots cast in the midterm election, as its officials seriously considered as recently as Monday, but will instead increase the number of ballots to be hand-counted under the usual, state-prescribed audit.

The county supervisors approved a plan Monday to expand the hand-count audit, and gave the impression that they would be hand-counting all ballots. On Wednesday, they clarified that actually, the audit would just be expanded to hand-count some votes exclusively on ballots cast in-person on Election Day, more than the 2% of those ballots that the audit typically examines.

And the audit will only look at four contests on the ballot, not every race, as supervisors originally envisioned. Under state law, the audit will also manually tally votes cast on 1% of early ballots.

After initial public confusion about what they approved Monday, the supervisors clarified Wednesday that they would follow state law for how the audit must happen. Supervisor Peggy Judd, one of the two Republican supervisors on the three-member board who are supportive of the hand count, said Wednesday that “all along I intended to follow every law.” That’s after, on Monday, she had said that she “might go to jail” for approving the plan.

The state elections director had sent a letter to the supervisors asking them to confirm they would conduct the hand count in accordance with the procedures and deadlines in the law, saying it would be illegal to do otherwise. In an earlier letter, the secretary of state’s office had threatened to sue the county if the supervisors moved forward with a full hand-count of ballots.

The approved plan, to expand the audit for Election Day ballots, is considerably less work than the supervisors’ original proposal to hand-count all ballots and all races under a process not outlined in state law. That’s because most county voters cast ballots early. In the last gubernatorial election in 2018, only 10,285 voters cast their ballots in person on Election Day, out of 45,927 total ballots cast in the county.

Even the less-extensive plan could still be blocked. Under state law, all recognized political parties must show up and provide enough workers for the audit to proceed. This has been a Republican-led and supported effort in the county, and the Arizona Democratic Party told Votebeat on Wednesday that it isn’t sure yet how it will respond.

“We are monitoring the situation closely and are working with our legal counsel to determine how we can respond,” said Morgan Dick, spokesperson for the state party. Cochise County Democratic Party Chairwoman Elisabeth Tyndall said in an email that she could not speak to whether the county party will participate or not.

Supervisor Tom Crosby, the second supervisor supporting the hand-count plan, told Votebeat after the meeting Wednesday that he knew that the Democratic Party could attempt to block the expanded audit from happening. But he said it would be politically advantageous of them not to do so.

“I guess we will cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said. “If they are calling the shots and want to throw a monkey wrench into it, I can’t stop that.”

At the meeting, Judd said she had thanked the secretary of state’s office for letting some form of an expanded hand count move forward, saying their letter was “amazing.”

“They are still giving us a chance,” she said.

Hand-counting ballots is a sensitive topic in Arizona, after the state Senate-launched hand-count of all ballots cast in Maricopa County’s 2020 presidential election drew international attention to the state, cost taxpayers millions of dollars, and took months, ultimately confirming Joe Biden’s win while stirring up more conspiracies.

Republican state Rep. Joel John wrote to the county Monday warning that, if supervisors proceeded with the full hand-count, he would file a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office charging the county with overstepping its boundaries by working outside of state law. If confirmed, the complaint would have meant the state withheld funds from the county. 

“Arizonans deserve timely, secure, and accurate election results—not a redo of the Cyber Ninjas circus that made us the laughingstock of the nation,” Joel wrote in the letter, referring to the infamous contractor involved with the Maricopa review. “I urge you to do the right thing and reject these unlawful and misguided proposals.”

Judd and Crosby said they wanted the full hand-count because of what they called overwhelming public support. They are the latest in the nation to consider the idea, after unfounded claims that machines switched votes against former president Donald Trump in 2020 fueled the belief among some Republicans that vote-counting machines are not secure.

Many Cochise County residents may not be satisfied with the watered-down version of the plan. During four hours of passionate public comment Monday, many residents told the board they wanted a hand-count of all ballots because they believe vote-counting machines can be hacked. There is no evidence that voting machines were hacked in 2020, all court cases alleging so have been dismissed, and federal agencies and experts have said that 2020 was the most secure election to date.

County Republican Chairman Robert Montgomery told the supervisors to throw the secretary of state office’s letter “in the bucket somewhere.” Montgomery said a full hand-count would be “easy to do,” and there were already 160 volunteers waiting to make it happen.

“Stay tuned, I’ll let you know how to do it,” he said. “We will have sandwiches and snacks and proceed.”

Many other residents, though, told supervisors they were adamantly against the proposal. A few were longtime poll workers and election audit observers in the county, such as Elizabeth Bernstein, who told the supervisors Monday that the county already has “an excellent procedure to see whether the machines are working.”

“We are inviting chaos and risking compromising all of those safeguards,” she said.

The board has so far revealed little about how the expanded hand-count audit will work. It appears it will be run by Cochise County Recorder David Stevens, who has been supportive of the idea of hand-counting ballots.

If the Democratic Party decides to participate and the audit moves forward, under state law it will examine the results of four randomly-selected races on the ballot, be conducted by volunteers appointed by political party leaders with no more than 75% from the same political party, and must be done before the deadline to finalize the election, which is 20 days after the election.

Jen Fifield is a reporter for Votebeat based in Arizona. Contact Jen at jfifield@votebeat.org.

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