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Cochise County elections director resigns after protecting midterm ballots from Republican officials

Lisa Marra, who refused to cooperate with an illegal hand count plan, describes a threatening work environment in departure letter to county.

A woman seated outside holding a quilt with mountains in the background

Cochise County Elections Director Lisa Marra

Courtesy of Lisa Marra

Votebeat is a nonprofit news organization reporting on voting access and election administration across the U.S. Dig deeper into how our democracy works with Votebeat’s free newsletters at votebeat.org/newsletters.

During last fall’s fights in Cochise County over hand-counting ballots and rejecting the election results, county residents say they were glad there was one person standing up to defend elections.

Elections Director Lisa Marra repeatedly explained — to the supervisors, to reporters, and, finally, to a judge — that she would not break the law and release the ballots from her custody, as two Republican supervisors and the county recorder had ordered her to do.

“I believe that is a felony,” Marra testified during a Nov. 4 court hearing challenging the full hand count. The judge later ruled that the full hand count would be illegal.

Now Marra is leaving her post. Her departure after five years running elections in the rural southern Arizona county leaves many residents there concerned about the accuracy and security of future elections. Marra, also president of the Election Officials of Arizona, is known across the nation as a fierce defender of election integrity.

County Democratic Party Chairwoman Elisabeth Tyndall said it was reassuring that a trusted person such as Marra was running elections during the controversies, as she “wasn’t going to just let the election deniers have their way with our votes or our ballots.”

“It is kind of scary what may happen going forward,” Tyndall said, “without having someone as knowledgeable and brave as Lisa in that office.”

Marra  resigned through a letter to the county from her attorney, she confirmed to Votebeat on Tuesday. Marra is to be employed by the county for 15 more days.

Marra’s attorney wrote in the letter that her working environment was threatening, both physically and emotionally, and she was publicly disparaged, according to the Washington Post, which first reported on her resignation and the letter. 

Marra said Tuesday night that she couldn’t provide a copy of the letter or details about it, since it’s a human resources claim.

“Sad their actions have come to this,” she said, apparently in reference to the Republican supervisors.

Marra is one of many election officials across the state and country who have left their roles in the face of harassment and pressure to defend themselves and their work against unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud. In the last few years in Arizona, longtime elections directors in Pima, Yavapai, and Pinal counties, as well as recorders in Yavapai and Yuma counties, have stepped down.

Marra departs as the supervisors prepare to decide if they should reorganize who is responsible for elections in the county, according to a draft work session agenda obtained by Votebeat. In Arizona, election duties are typically split between recorders, who manage early voting and voter registration, and election directors, who manage most other aspects of election administration.  

Republican Supervisor Peggy Judd submitted a request for a Feb. 7 meeting that will discuss, among other election-related topics, “better practices involving possible re-organization of responsible parties.” Judd told Votebeat she was busy and could not immediately talk on Wednesday morning.

Marra has history of defending elections

Marra has worked for the county since 2012 and has been elections director since 2017. 

As the president of the Election Officials of Arizona, after the 2020 election she became an unofficial spokesperson for election administrators, staunchly defending the accuracy of elections during the state Senate’s review of Maricopa County’s ballots led by the Cyber Ninjas.

She’s known in her county for openly taking constituent questions about the process. Tami Birch, a Bisbee resident, said she doesn’t know what she will do without being able to pick up the phone and call Marra. She considers it a loss not just for the county but for the entire state.

“We are losing one of the most dedicated, follow-the-rules, honest, responsive people that I have ever met in the elections system,” Birch said.

Secretary of State Adrian Fontes said Marra’s departure is a “heavy blow to the voters served by the Cochise County Government.”

Bisbee resident Sheri Van Horsen said county residents were stressed when the supervisors pursued the full hand count and were comforted to know Marra was there.

“This is someone who is sanity in a storm of ridiculousness,” Van Horsen said.

County Supervisor Ann English, the only Democrat on the three-member board, complimented Marra and her commitment to following the law when under pressure.

“She never wavered, no matter what the pressure was from outside,” English said.

English said she doesn’t know how the county will find a proper replacement. Birch agrees.

“I don’t know who could take her place, with all her experience, all the strength of putting her foot down, saying, ‘No, I’m following the statute. No, you can’t do that,’” Birch said.

Marra blocked access to ballots

The monthslong saga in Cochise County started more than a month before the midterms, when Republican Supervisors Tom Crosby and Peggy Judd, and Recorder David Stevens, began talking about hand-counting all ballots in the election after the typical machine count, an effort that election experts said would threaten the accuracy of the election and confuse voters.

The county attorney and secretary of state’s office told the supervisors the full hand count would be illegal. State law requires counties to conduct a partial hand count audit of ballots after every election if political parties participate, but does not allow for all ballots to be audited.

As the administrator of elections, Marra is in charge of this statutorily required partial hand count. While the Recorder David Stevens was supportive of expanding that hand count to all ballots cast, Marra and county attorneys said it was illegal. Butthe supervisors to ask Stevens to conduct the full hand count anyway.

Despite the judge ruling that the full hand count would be illegal, the day after the election, Stevens conducted the first step of a full hand count by selecting which ballots would be hand-counted. Under her statutory duty, Marra did as well, and she completed the official, partial hand count a few days later. As concerns spread that Stevens would attempt to do his own hand count as well, Marra reassured the public that the ballots were locked up.

“Security is safe in the ballot cage in warehouse under camera,” Marra told Votebeat at the time. “He does not have access to that building. Access is strictly limited.” 

That’s when Crosby and Judd sued her, personally and in her professional role. The lawsuit claimed that Marra had refused to comply with the supervisors’ orders by not conducting the expanded hand count they ordered, not permitting the recorder and his personnel to access the counting center, and not turning over the ballots to the recorder.

Marra was forced to obtain outside legal counsel to defend herself. Shortly after filing that lawsuit, the supervisors withdrew it, saying that they did not want to interfere with an expected statewide recount. But the suit clearly marked a low point.

“No all day court which is great because I’ve lost so many days dealing with this during a major election,” Marra said on Twitter after the supervisors withdrew the lawsuit. “Fact remains elected officials filed a personal lawsuit against a tenured local Gov’t employee with an impeccable record. Not just in official capacity, sued me personally.”

The supervisors then refused to certify the election results, only voting to finalize them after ordered to do so by a court.

Residents have now started a recall petition for Crosby and are working to gather signatures. At the same time, supervisors at the proposed upcoming work session, which has not yet been posted publicly, plan to discuss not only the reorganization of election administration but also hand-counting ballots.

Even after the hand count drama, Marra appeared to remain committed to the job, saying two days after the lawsuit was withdrawn that the reason why election officials didn’t walk out of the job was because “it’s about every voter and every ballot.”

“Honored every single day to get to do this work,” she wrote. “Especially where it’s needed the most. #Arizona.”

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

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