A Republican’s Defense of Arizona’s Election Integrity

Former President Donald Trump embraces Kari Lake at a campaign rally in October 2022. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Happy Monday! We trust after a restful weekend that you, like Mitch McConnell, are “in good shape, completely recovered and back on the job.”

Up to Speed

  • After three unsuccessful ballots on the House floor, House Republicans voted Friday to withdraw Rep. Jim Jordan as their speaker nominee, with only 86 lawmakers supporting his continued candidacy on a conference secret ballot. After the vote, Jordan told reporters that it was time for Republicans to unite around a candidate: “Let’s figure out who that individual is, get behind him, and get to work for the American people.”
  • The White House is urging Israel to delay its forthcoming ground invasion of Gaza to negotiate the release of hostages still being held there. Hamas released two American citizens, a mother and daughter, on Friday; 212 others are still being held.
  • Sen. Tim Scott said Sunday that he opposed Biden’s proposed $100 billion legislative package that would allot new funding to Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan, and the southern border, telling ABC’s This Week that “we need to have a single focus on bringing Congress together behind the support for Israel.”
  • Liz Cheney is not ruling out a 2024 presidential bid. Wyoming’s former congresswoman, ousted in a Republican primary last year over her opposition to former President Donald Trump, told CNN’s Jake Tapper “no I’m not” when he asked if she was “ruling out” jumping into the race. Regardless of her own political plans, Cheney said she planned to spend the next year “helping to elect sane people” of both parties.  
  • On a new episode of the Dispatch Podcast, Steve and Sarah interview McKay Coppins, the author of the forthcoming biography, Romney: A Reckoning. The conversation touches on how Coppins received extraordinary access to the Utah senator and 2012 Republican presidential nominee. Give it a listen.

An Interview With Stephen Richer, Maricopa County Recorder

We haven’t talked too much in this newsletter about the right’s ongoing “election integrity” fervor, which by definition becomes a bigger deal after votes have been cast. But despite the stop-the-steal movement’s continued abysmal record in court—two of its major players just last week pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy related to their 2020 efforts in Georgia—the issue isn’t going away. Its two biggest Republican proponents, former president Donald Trump and failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate and current Senate candidate Kari Lake, look like Republican standard-bearers going into the 2024 election season. 

So we thought it’d be useful to catch up with one of Arizona’s most important election officials: Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer. 

The county recorder isn’t too important in most places, but the fast-growing Maricopa is an exception. Eighty-nine percent of Arizonans voted by mail in 2020, and it’s the recorder’s job both to get them registered and to process those mail-in ballots. Over the last two years, Richer has become notable for another reason: He’s made himself one of the country’s most outspoken Republican defenders of elections—earning the ire of the likes of Trump and Lake along the way. Richer even sued Lake for defamation earlier this year, alleging her election falsehoods had resulted in “constant harassment, intimidation, and threats to my and my family’s lives.”

Below is a transcript of our interview with Richer. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Dispatch Politics: Pretty soon you’ll be into the first presidential-cycle election of your tenure as recorder. Are you already in the process of getting ready for that contest? How far out do you need to start laying the groundwork?

Stephen Richer: We’re in the midst of a jurisdictional election right now. So we just sent out 1.9 million mail ballots two weeks ago. And then we’ll turn the page and start getting ready for both the March jurisdictional elections that we have, and then as well for the March presidential preference election.

I’m responsible for voter registration and for the early balloting process, which accounts for about 85 percent of voters in Maricopa County. We expect that we’ll have a lot of new voter registrations in 2024, just because a lot of people who otherwise aren’t terribly interested in politics gear up for a presidential election.

Dispatch Politics: There’s been a lot of reporting out of Arizona on some of the new laws and court rulings that might make administering the mail-in portion of next year’s election more difficult. There’s a signature-verification lawsuit that has to do with what signed forms early ballots are allowed to be compared against—a judge said the courts would hear a case on whether you might only be allowed to compare signatures to a voter’s original registration form, instead of all signed ballot materials you have on file. Then there’s a new state law expanding ballot recounts for tight contests. Can you speak to some of the procedural challenges that are facing election officials in Arizona this time around that you might not have had to deal with before?

Richer: Well, the recount law was in place for 2022, but only for the general election. The concern now deals with both the compressed time period between the August election and the November election, the new Electoral Count Act deadline, and whether or not it can be met, if this new recount law—which has broadened it by a magnitude of five as to what qualifies for an automatic recount—triggers a whole bunch of statewide recounts. You can’t begin the recount process until the statewide elections have been canvassed and the official numbers have come.

The lawsuit that you mentioned is something that we’ll definitely keep an eye on. It was filed in Yavapai County. I don’t know that we’ve even gotten a final order yet. It was just on a motion to dismiss. But the judge offered some language that was inconsistent with past practices and the elections procedures manual in past years. That would be a significant disruption to the process, very significant if that were to become the law.

The reason why that would change the process a lot is because—for instance, for my county, we capture images of every single signature that’s ever submitted on an official piece of mail to our county. Anytime you vote by mail, we capture an image of that signature so we can trace its evolution. If you originally registered to vote 40 years ago, it’s very possible that your signature has changed or deteriorated.

Dispatch Politics: The first I had heard about this signature verification issue was in a tweet from former gubernatorial candidate, now Senate candidate Kari Lake, who was …

Richer: Yeah, hailing the preliminary ruling as a miraculous victory. Never mind that she wasn’t the plaintiff. She also said it was a victory over Maricopa County, never mind that we weren’t even part of the lawsuit. I don’t know exactly what she would’ve expected it to do. The only thing that this would do is slow down the process a whole bunch and make us have to cure more signatures. There’s no reason to think that it would affect one political party over the other. So how that’s hailed as a victory—I don’t even think the lawyer for that case thinks it’s like an election-integrity win. I think he probably just thinks it’s a place where he doesn’t agree with how the statute is being read.

Dispatch Politics: Lake’s used the same news story to go after you personally for some of these same comments, talking about additional administrative burdens. She knocked you as complaining about having to do more work to follow the law.

Richer: I mean, how asinine can you be when you start to say something like some of these people did? Even if the interpretation of the law changed, it wouldn’t mean anyone did anything improper retroactively. But look, these people have had such a poor record in all things judicial that I guess they just wanted to latch onto that. It was the closest thing they’ve ever received to a victory in the courts.

Dispatch Politics: Are you surprised that Lake’s continued to go after you to the extent she has—more so than after guys like former Gov. Doug Ducey or other members of the actual Arizona Republican establishment? I mean, to take the obvious example, her recent book has those bizarre fever-dream sections where you’re supposedly trying to abduct and murder her. I mean, it’s pretty stark.

Richer: Yeah, one, I play a role in election administration, and obviously that’s been a fixation of hers. So while I certainly line up with the Ducey-style Republicans, the governor doesn’t play a direct role in election administration. I do. Two, it’s obviously a narrative that predates her and that she’s used to, I guess, what she perceives to be her advantage. Three, I was probably one of the loudest Republicans in the country denouncing these falsehoods about the 2020 election. So I think I was the nail that stuck up. And then more recently I sued her, so I daresay that didn’t endear me to her.

Dispatch Politics: When it comes to the everyday people who have gotten swept up in this election-denial stuff, do you see it as an issue where people encounter real frustrations with the way these elections are conducted and that hurts their confidence in the system and makes them more vulnerable to these arguments? Or do you see it as more purely a bad-actor problem where higher-profile folks go looking for any little hiccup that can blow up into allegations of fraud?

Richer: You know, my colleagues in election administration had a technical challenge in 2022, and undoubtedly that caused some frustration. But when some of these people start to point to that as, “Oh, see, see, see”—it’s such a post-hoc rationalization of what they’ve been saying for three years without any foundation. There was no such thing in 2020, and yet all these claims were there.

I think every person involved in election administration, whether it’s the board of supervisors or the 15 county recorders or the people who are actually working this, all want it to be as smooth as possible. Social-science literature does show that people who have a bad experience at a voting location will lose a little bit of confidence in the process. That’s been documented over the last 20 years.

Now, like I said, the vast, vast majority of Arizonans vote by early ballot, which has consistently been a positive experience in our post-election survey. Prior to 2016, the number-one determinant of which party was going to have more confidence in elections was, did you win the highest-profile race in the last election cycle, or did you lose? And so we would always see this winner’s bump and loser’s drop in confidence. And then 2020 was that on steroids, and it has been way stickier than historically.

Dispatch Politics: If there’s always going to be certain amounts of partisan pressure on belief in the way you’re talking about—especially when you couple that with a social-media environment where false claims can go viral in a heartbeat—what does pushing back against election-denial claims in a fruitful way even look like right now? 

Richer: Well, I think you are asking a question a lot of people are asking now. If you ask some of the political scientists, this is new territory, and they’re trying to get a better sense of the what and who and how to build confidence in elections. There are some who think that it doesn’t really matter—especially with respect to 2020—that you’re not gonna change people’s opinion and should just look at it moving forward. I’m currently studying how much bringing people in and giving them a tour of the elections process improves people’s confidence.    

I think four years from now, we’ll have a better sense of what actually works, but it’s hard to disaggregate it from winning and losing an election. No matter how much stuff the elections community does to try to explain the process, if Donald Trump is the presidential nominee and loses in 2024, and is very vocal about it, then that’s going to have a significant impact. I don’t think that’s a terribly controversial hypothesis.

House Republicans Wash, Rinse, Repeat on Speaker Vote

Nearly three weeks without a speaker of the House of Representatives and there’s no end in sight for a Republican conference that holds a narrow majority of seats in the chamber but has proven incapable of unifying behind anyone.

First, a small cadre of insurgents triggered the defenestration of Rep. Kevin McCarthy. The Californian had been elected speaker in January after 15 torturous rounds of voting on the House floor. Next, a broader collection of House Republicans rejected Majority Leader Steve Scalise. The Louisianan won a secret-ballot election of the House GOP conference to succeed McCarthy as speaker. But then a splinter faction ignored conference rules in a gambit to elevate the runner-up versus Scalise: Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio. 

The House Judiciary Committee chairman was then similarly sunk after a cross section of House Republicans, fuming about McCarthy’s ouster and the refusal of members to play by the rules and back Scalise, declined to support Jordan during three House floor votes. So now, House Republicans will try again.

The deadline to file speaker candidacy papers was noon Sunday, and nine Republicans have now thrown their names in. Among them, House Majority Whip Tom Emmer would appear to be the putative frontrunner. But it’s unclear as of this writing that 218 House Republicans would honor the results of a conference-only secret ballot election and support the Minnesotan on the floor, should he pull enough votes to earn the increasingly meaningless title of “speaker-designate.” If you’re following this race, a candidate forum was scheduled for Monday evening here in Washington, with the election set for Tuesday.

Here are the other eight candidates running, as announced by Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, chairwoman of the House Republican Conference:

  • Rep. Jack Bergman of Michigan
  • Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida
  • Rep. Kevin Hern of Oklahoma (Republican Study Committee chairman)
  • Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana (House Republican Conference vice chairman)
  • Rep. Dan Meuser of Pennsylvania
  • Rep. Gary Palmer of Alabama
  • Rep. Austin Scott of Georgia
  • Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas (former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2010, the year the GOP won a historic majority)

Cognizant of the bitter infighting threatening to derail this next conference election for a speaker designate, Rep. Mike Flood of Nebraska is circulating a pledge for members to sign that would bind them to support whoever comes out on top in Tuesday’s voting. Of course, there’s nothing stopping House Republicans from simply honoring their own existing rules, which make clear that that is exactly what they are supposed to do. 

If House Republicans can’t get their act together this week, some might move (again) to empower Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, the speaker pro tempore, with the authority enjoyed by an actual speaker, so as to allow for legislation to get moving again. That might require cooperation from House Democrats—a concept so far unacceptable to most House Republicans.

Notable and Quotable

“I just think we’ve got to get the government open. We cannot have an entire branch of government offline when the world is on fire.” 

—Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick explaining why he flipped to opposing Jim Jordan on the third ballot, October 20, 2023

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