Arizona county mulls ballot hand-count, but lawyer says no

A poll observer stretches outside a polling station on Election Day, early, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Officials in a southeastern Arizona county were prepared to move ahead with a plan to hand count all ballots in November’s election alongside the normal machine count on Tuesday, but at the last minute the county attorney told the board they had no legal authority to do so.

The advice from Chief Deputy Cochise County Attorney Christine Roberts seemed to stun two members of the county board who are pushing the hand-count, egged on by voters who believe in false claims of fraud in the 2020 election. They had brought the proposal to the three-member board just a day before early voting starts and ballots are mailed to residents across the state for the Nov. 8 election.

“In this case, I don’t get where we would be breaking the law if we chose to train a group of volunteers and put them the driver’s seat for a minute hand-counting,” Republican Supervisor Peggy Judd said. “I don’t know that this is something that we can’t look into. I feel very strongly that we can.”

Judd said she was acting to try to assuage voters who believe there are problems with voting systems in the state, although she praised Cochise County’s elections department and county recorder, who together oversee elections. Republican Supervisor Tom Crosby also proposed the hand-count, while board Chair Ann English, a Democrat, did not take a public position.

County Recorder David Stevens, a Republican, said the proposal came mainly from conservative Republicans who said they had signed up 140 volunteers to hand-count ballots. Stevens acknowledged in an interview and again before the board that there would be concerns about results being illegally leaked before they could legally posted at 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Arizona counties can start tabulating early and mail ballots that are used by more than 80% of the state’s voters as soon as they are signature-verified, but the results are tightly-held. In Cochise County, east of Tucson, only the election director knows those results before they are released.

The heavily Republican county had about 62,000 votes cast in the 2020 general election, but Stevens said a hand count could be done fairly quickly. Under state law, a small percentage of ballots in selected races go through a mandatory hand-count with bipartisan teams to check the accuracy of vote-counting machines after all the votes are counted.

A complete hand-count would be much more difficult. Stevens said 31 races county-wide races will have to be tabulated, plus additional races like school board members.
A similar hand-count push in rural Nevada’s Nye County has prompted a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, which argues it risks illegal release of election results and raised other issues. It is among the first counties in the nation to act on election conspiracies related to mistrust in voting machines.

Local physician Joseph Patterson is pushing the plan and said the hand-count is needed to restore confidence in the election.

“All we’re trying to say is let’s reestablish trust, try to reestablish unity with the people,” Patterson said. “Find results that everybody trusts, accept them and then move on. And let’s get over this fighting, this bickering.”

There’s no evidence in Arizona or elsewhere in the country that fraud, problems with ballot-counting equipment or other voting issues had any impact on the results of the 2020 election. Yet many Republican voters who back former President Donald Trump have been convinced by him and others that there is.

Nearly 45 minutes into the board session called to study the issue and after Crosby began pushing the board to vote to proceed, Roberts dropped her bombshell.

“There’s nothing that allows a separate process within the Election Procedures Manual, nor is it in the (laws), that give the board any power to do this,” Roberts said. “We are three and a half weeks away from an election. The Purcell doctrine says you don’t change election procedures that close to an election.”

That’s a reference to a Supreme Court case where the court ruled that changes close to an election are barred.

But Judd said she’s not giving up, and said she would ask the state attorney general for an opinion on the matter.

Sophia Solis, a spokeswoman for Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat running for governor whose office oversees state elections, said in an email that the proposal comes with a host of potential problems and legal pitfalls.

“To allow hand counts of all ballots would be a wholesale change of state policy, require extensive logistical changes (staffing and space), extend the length of time required to tabulate results by weeks, produce inaccurate results, and potentially damage or misplace ballots, which could impact the ability to conduct recounts or review in legal challenges,” she wrote.

Solis said it also could run afoul of state and federal law on handling and retention of ballots.

English acknowledged that the county attorney’s opinion took the wind out of the hand-count proponents sails.

“Sometimes you ask for legal help and it doesn’t always give you the answer that you like,” English said.

Committee proposed to study shift of county lines in southern Arizona


State lawmakers took the first steps Thursday to what eventually could lead to putting portions of eastern Santa Cruz County into Cochise County.

Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, said residents of the Sonoita area believe their taxes are too high and their services, like access to the justice of the peace court, have been cut. They also have complained that county officials do not promote the developing wine industry in the area.

Gail Griffin
Gail Griffin

“This is strictly a study committee to address the issues that they feel that they’re not treated fairly and not getting the attention that they would like,” Griffin said. But she made it clear that one purpose of this committee being created by HB 2486, given preliminary approval by the House, is to explore what it would take to simply move the line that divides the two counties, making the eastern section of Santa Cruz the new western part of Cochise.

“They seem to think that they have more in common with the adjoining county,” Griffin said of the residents who are complaining.

Griffin told colleagues that the complaints are largely coming from residents of the Sonoita area.

They are unhappy because the justice of the peace court, formerly located in the community, was moved to Nogales in what county officials said was a money-saving move. Griffin said roads also are an issue and increasing taxes.

“And not being able to communicate,” she said.

Griffin also said that a meeting she attended was standing room only, with everyone there apparently agreeing with the idea that the area should be split off from Santa Cruz County.

All that left Rep. Isela Blanc, D-Tempe, unimpressed.

“Folks could certainly address their issues related to the JP court, the roads, the taxes by speaking to their local elected officials and addressing the concerns that they have,” she said. And Blanc said the ultimate power of the residents is to vote for who they want on the board of supervisors.

Isela Blanc
Isela Blanc

Blanc also said her own inquiries lead her to believe that the real issue is that the residents are unhappy with their taxes.

“Are we going to ask for study committees every time a resident of a certain county is dissatisfied with their responsibilities as community members, having to pay taxes?” she asked.

“I don’t think it’s an appropriate response addressing people’s concerns when those people can go straight to their elected officials in those counties, in those communities to ask for information,” Blanc continued. “Do we really need a study committee every time somebody throws a fit because they’re paying a little bit more or less in taxes?”

But Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, objected to the characterization that the Sonoita taxpayers were “throwing a fit,” saying the residents are doing exactly what they’re entitled to do.

He pointed out that counties, under the Arizona Constitution, are administrative arms of the state.

“When we have a collection of constituents who don’t believe they’ve been treated fairly, who else are they to turn to?” he asked.

While Griffin said the committee is going to address the issues of the residents, that’s not the way HB 2486 sets it up.

It requires several of the public who would be appointed by legislative leaders to be “knowledgeable about county boundaries.” And the panel is charged with researching and reporting on “the fiscal and related impacts of a change in the county boundary line,” with a report due by June 30, 2020.

Those issues are complex, including how to deal with existing debts and obligations of each county. Ultimately, a county line can be moved only with an act of the Legislature.

If the Sonoita residents think they’re taxes will drop by suddenly becoming Cochise County residents they may be in for a rude surprise.

The Arizona Tax Research Association reports the current primary property tax in Santa Cruz County is $4.85 per $100 of assessed valuation, with a secondary rate of 88 cents. For Cochise County the primary rate is $5.55, with a 50-cent-per-$100 valuation for secondary taxes.

The measure now needs a roll-call vote before going to the Senate.

Election challenges mount

Kris Mayes is asking a judge to toss a bid by her Republican foe to void the results of the election which shows her winning the race for attorney general.

In new legal papers, Dan Barr, Mayes’ attorney, said the lawsuit filed last week by Abe Hamadeh and the Republican National Committee is filled with various allegations ranging from poll worker misconduct to errors in duplicating ballots when the original could not be read by scanners.

“But their claims are based on no more than speculation and conjecture,” Barr told Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Frank Moskowitz. “Plaintiffs offer little factual support for their claims.

Instead, he said, Hamadeh and the RNC are using the court “to engage in a fishing expedition to try to undermine Arizona’s election.”

And there’s something else.

Democrat Kris Mayes, candidate Arizona Attorney General, smiles prior to a televised debate against Republican Abraham Hamadeh, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Barr said even if everything Hamadeh alleged were true – a point he is not conceding – none of it matters. He said the GOP contender can’t prove any of this would have altered the outcome of the election or the final tally which showed Mayes winning by 510 votes.

Take, for example, the claim that votes were counted wrong when ballots were duplicated. Barr said the lawsuit does not identify a single voter who selected Hamadeh but had the vote wrongly counted for Mayes.

“It’s just as possible that correcting any ballot duplication efforts would lead only to more votes for Ms. Mayes,” he said.

Then there’s a claim that some early ballots were counted even when the signature on the envelope did not match what was on file in the person’s voter registration record. But here, too, Barr said, the claim “would still fail as a matter of law because he alleges no facts establishing that any illegal votes were sufficient to change the outcome of the election.”

Republican candidate for Arizona Attorney General, Abraham Hamadeh, smiles prior to a televised debate against Democrat Kris Mayes on Sept. 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

And Barr told Moskowitz that some of what Hamadeh wants is beyond his ability to grant, such as allowing people who checked in at a voting center on Nov. 8 but did not get to cast a ballot to now have another chance to vote.

A hearing is set for Monday.

The lawsuit over the race for attorney general is the latest legal scrap in what continues to be a series of issues and questions about both how the general election was conducted and whether the results are accurate.

Unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial contender Kari Lake has filed her own lawsuit against Maricopa County.

But Lake, unlike Hamadeh, is not asking that a judge overturn the results showing Democrat Katie Hobbs winning the race by more than 17,000 votes statewide – at least not yet. Instead, she contends the county has failed to “promptly” respond to a Nov. 15 request for a series of documents related to what happened on Election Day.

“Given instances of misprinted ballots, the commingling of counted and uncounted ballots, and long lines discouraging people from voting … these records are necessary for plaintiff to determine the full extent of the problems identified and their impacts on electors,” wrote Tim La Sota, her attorney. He also alleged several violations of election laws, like mixing counted and uncounted ballots in the same container and failing to reconcile the number of ballots cast with the number of people who signed in at voting centers.

And Lake is doing more than hinting an election challenge based on what she learns.

Kari Lake, Arizona Republican candidate for governor, speaks to supporters at the Republican watch party in Scottsdale, Ariz., Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

“The law allows the public and plaintiff only a short period of time in the context of an election to seek relief from the court for violations of their rights,” La Sota said, saying the failure of the county to respond to her request for records “is preventing the courts from performing their duty.”

Lake, who trailed Hobbs in Maricopa County by more than 37,000 votes, wants an order for the county to give her the records sought prior to the returns being formally “canvassed.”

Only thing is, the county is set to do that at 9:30 a.m. Monday. And county offices have been closed since Wednesday afternoon.

The merits of Lake’s claim about public records aside, she is not likely to be the first in line to get her request answered.

More than a week ago, Attorney General Mark Brnovich submitted his own list of questions he wants the county to answer about what happened on Election Day. And these go beyond the highly publicized problems that some voters could not get their ballots immediately tallied at polling places because of the printer problems.

Jennifer Wright, the director of Brnovich’s Elections Integrity Unit, acknowledged that voters whose ballots were rejected by the counter had the option of simply dropping them into “door 3” to be tallied after the polls closed. But she said there is evidence that these were not handled properly.

Wright also wants answers to why some people who chose to go to a second location to vote were given “provisional ballots.” These were not counted because the records showed — inaccurately — that they had voted at the first site.

Overall, she said, statements by the county “appear to confirm potential statutory violations of Title 16,” the state Elections Code.

Wright wants answers by the 9:30 a.m. Monday canvass because “these issues relate to Maricopa County’s ability to lawfully certify election results.” But Wright gave no indication that anything her office ultimately finds or any conclusions reached will alter the outcome of the races.

A county spokesman said responding to the Attorney General’s Office will be a priority.

But that’s not the only thing that is pushing back any response from the county to Lake’s public records bid.

Townsend, ballot watchers, Clean Elections USA, Finchem, judge
Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa

Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Apache Junction, has issued a subpoena with her own list of questions she wants answered – and also ahead of Monday’s county canvass. And many of these relate to the central question of why tabulators were not reading all the ballots printed out at vote centers.

The supervisors have scheduled an executive session with their attorneys ahead of canvassing the returns. But there appear to be the necessary votes on the board, which has a 4-1 Republican makeup, to declare the results accurate.

Any action Monday will come over the objection of the Maricopa County Republican Committee.

On Friday the organization asked the Republican-controlled board to delay certification until the county has “fully responded” both to Wright’s demand and its own public records request “providing critical information that Maricopa County voters were NOT disenfranchised by these failures to such a degree that it has had a material impact on the results of this election.”

Less clear is what will happen in Cochise County which faces the same Monday deadline.

The two Republican supervisors, Peggy Judd and Tom Crosby, voted more than a week ago to delay their formal certification. They claimed the counting equipment had not be properly certified.

From left are Kirsten Engel and Juan Ciscomani

Since that time, state Elections Director Kori Lorick has written all three board members calling those claims “false.”

“These claims are derived from baseless conspiracies about Arizona’s equipment certification process,” she wrote. “Cochise County’s election equipment was properly certified and remains in compliance with state and federal requirements.”

And Lorick said if board fails to act, Lorick warned, the Secretary of State’s Office will sue. And she said that if there is no certification by that Dec. 5 state deadline, the canvass will proceed – without the county votes.

“Your refusal to certify will only serve to disenfranchise Cochise County voters,” Lorick said.

That, in turn, would mean the official statewide tally would not include the Cochise County votes, potentially changing the results of multiple elections.

One could be the race for Congress where final results showed Republican Juan Ciscomani outpolling Democrat Kirsten Engel by about 5,200 votes.

In Cochise County, Ciscomani had nearly 14,000 more votes than Engle. Leaving them out of the statewide total would make her the winner.

Separately, supervisors in Mohave County have so far refused to certify election results there, not because of any claim that the results there were inaccurate but more as a protest against the voting issues that arose in Maricopa County. But the canvass is on the Monday agenda.

Foster child who suffered horrific ordeal sues state

The court-appointed guardian of a 6-year-old foster child is suing two state agencies, several adoption entities and two sets of foster and adoptive parents, claiming the child suffered a horrific ordeal while in foster care.

The allegations include the girl being submerged in scalding water and placed in the home of a pedophile, even as the state repeatedly ignored warnings of abuse and failed to protect her.

The complaint, which was filed on behalf of the child, alleged that after removing her from her mother’s care, the state placed her in a home where “criminals ran pornographic rings, (and) sexually abused children entrusted in their care.”

The complaint said caseworkers failed at every turn to protect the child by not investigating and supervising her placement in a house that turned out to be a “den of physical abuse and violence,” and later in “another place of domestic violence, mental and physical abuse.”

According to the complaint, the state removed the child from her biological mother’s home in April 2013 and placed her with Cochise County residents David and Barbara Frodsham in June of that year. It alleges that multiple complaints were made about abuse at the home, that “nothing was done to protect the children placed there,” and that the abuses included using foster children in a pornographic pedophile ring.

During the child’s placement with the Frodshams, her biological mother repeatedly raised concerns about her daughter’s safety, saying her daughter feared men, insisted on being driven back to the foster home by a female driver and would cry when she had to return there.

The complaint said instead of investigating the claims, caseworkers accused the mother of making false allegations and of instilling the fear of men in her child.

David Frodsham
David Frodsham

The child was finally removed from the Frodshams’ care in January 2015 following the arrest of David Frodsham for driving under the influence. According to the complaint, he was at a state office getting foster benefits and was visibly drunk and belligerent. When the police were called, they found the child and another minor in a parked vehicle.

Later, Frodsham was accused of sexual conduct with a minor, procuring minors for sex, and manufacturing child pornography. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 17 years in prison.

But far from being over, the child’s ordeal would only escalate, according to the complaint.

It said the state placed her in the care of Pima County residents Justin and Samantha Osteraas, despite having been warned by a relative that the home would be a “danger” to children.

It alleges that four days after Christmas in 2016, Samantha Osteraas “submerged and held (her) down… in a bath of scalding hot water.” The child, who was then 5, suffered burns on over 80 percent of her body, and when the police arrived at the scene, they found blood on the floor and pieces of her skin was “falling off her body.”

The complaint said she had to be placed in a medically induced coma, as she was suffering from multiple organ failure. She also lost her toes and would have to undergo operations to replace her skin. She will also need lifelong care as a result of the abuses she suffered, the complaint said.

The Department of Child Safety had no immediate comment at our deadline.

Gym to reopen without state’s approval

Stock Photo/Deposit Photos
Stock Photo/Deposit Photos

Arizonans waiting to get back into exercise routines during the COVID-19 pandemic may not have to wait much longer.

And they also could go to theaters and even to some bars — assuming they operate more like restaurants.

Data from the state Department of Health Services shows that businesses in Cochise, Coconino, Greenlee, La Paz and Yavapai counties already can reopen providing they follow certain health protocols. That means everything from physical distancing and mask requirements to enhanced cleaning procedures.

There’s a limit of 25% capacity for gyms, and 50% for movie theaters and bars.

But an analysis of statistics by Capitol Media Services shows that Pima, Pinal and Maricopa counties are just one benchmark shy of hitting the numbers to reopen. That could happen Thursday when the latest figures are released.

What all that means is all the legal wrangling over whether the state is being arbitrary with who opens and who cannot could disappear for much of the state.

Tom Hatten, founder and CEO of Mountainside Fitness, reacts Tuesday to a court ruling throwing out his challenge to the decision by Gov. Doug Ducey to close gyms through at least July 27. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)
Tom Hatten, founder and CEO of Mountainside Fitness (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

One locally owned chain, however, is not waiting for the new numbers on Thursday to see whether it can legally allow customers. Mountainside Fitness announced Tuesday it intends to reopen at 4:30 a.m. that morning —  with or without the state’s blessing and regardless of whether the health department finds that conditions in Maricopa County have reached the “moderate” level.

Mountainside CEO Tom Hatten, who waged his own court battle with the health department, said he has provided “third-party certification … supported by medical professionals” that the company’s 18 facilities are safe to reopen, regardless of whether the state believes the level of infection in Maricopa County has reached acceptable levels. Yet despite that, the Department of Health Services has so far denied his request to reopen.

He isn’t alone. The latest figures from the health department show the agency has denied 99 requests by gyms and fitness centers to reopen; another 90 locations have been given the go-ahead.

But Hatten isn’t going to wait, accusing the state of “subjective enforcement.”

If he follows through, that puts the burden on the health department to decide what to do next. There was no immediate response.

Health department spokesman Steve Elliott said his agency continues to work with businesses willing to implement additional measures to prevent further spread of COVID-19.

“Our goal is for businesses to reopen in a way that protects the safety of customers and employees,” he said.

Hattten has had some luck in court.

He got Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Timothy Thomason to order the state to provide a “roadmap” of sorts to show when it is safe for various kinds of businesses to reopen automatically — and under what conditions — as well as an appeals process for those who seek a waiver.

It is that roadmap that will allow gyms and fitness centers to reopen at 25% capacity if individual counties pass a three-part test.

First, there have to be two weeks where there are fewer than 100 cases for every 100,000 residents. It also requires that fewer than 10% of tests for the virus come back positive for two weeks straight.

Finally, fewer than 10% of people showing up at hospitals have COVID-like symptoms.

All 15 counties meet the last category, with five hitting the other two benchmarks. What’s left now is to see when the other 10 counties can reach the same levels.

Nothing that’s happening in any of the counties will lead to the reopening of bars and nightclubs, at least not the way they used to operate with dancing, standing around and chatting or even hanging around the pool tables.

The standards set by the health department prohibit these establishments from reopening with those practices until all three benchmarks in a county reach what the state considers “minimal” levels. That means fewer than 10 cases per 100,000, fewer than 5% of test results coming back positive, and fewer than 5% of hospital visits by patients with COVID-like symptoms.

And no county is even close.

There is a way around that, though.

They will be allowed to open in any county where the levels of infection have reached just the moderate standard, the same one that will allow gyms and fitness centers to reopen at 25% capacity.

But here’s the thing: They would have to convert to what the health department calls “restaurant service.”

That doesn’t mean no alcohol. What it does mean is customers escorted to tables, groups limited to no more than 10, no standing or mingling, and limited waiting areas.

And forget dancing.

Under those conditions, the business could have up to 50% occupancy.

Schools and in-person instruction present a different set of issues.

They use the same benchmarks for number of cases at fewer than 100 per 100,000 residents and that 10% standard for hospital visits. But it requires that the percent of tests for the virus turning up positive is below 7% for two weeks — not 10% like for business.

So far only Apache and Yavapai County qualify.


High court to hear keeping juror names secret

The Arizona Supreme Court will hear arguments April 19 on whether the public has a right to know who’s on a jury, so long as there’s not a compelling state interest to withhold those names.

So far, the answer has been no.

The case stems from two criminal trials in Cochise County in which the court denied reporters’ requests to access the jurors’ names, even after the trials’ conclusion.

Freelance journalist Terri Jo Neff’s involvement in the case came after she experienced challenges hearing the proceedings in the murder trial of Roger Wilson in 2020. Due to Covid, Cochise County Superior Court limited who could physically be in the courtroom, requiring others to call in. Neff said the technology was “just horrendous” and she was unable to hear, among other things, most of the jury selection.

The judge in the case, Timothy Dickerson, sealed the names of the jurors, who were instead referred to by numbers during the court proceedings. Neff assumed the names would be released after the trial, which is typical, she said. But when Dickerson still refused to make the names available, Neff became concerned.

“My whole issue was, how can just one judge in one county impose a rule with no public discussion, no discussion amongst the attorneys and all of the stakeholders, that was going to so drastically change what has been Cochise County courts’ policy for decades?” Neff said.

David Morgan, publisher of the Cochise County Record, had already run into a similar problem with the court withholding juror names. Neff joined him in intervening in the Wilson case and another case where a secret jury was used in a trial dealing with financial abuse of a vulnerable adult. The First Amendment Clinic at the ASU Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law represented Neff and Morgan, though Neff has not participated in the most recent appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court.

Neff and Morgan argue that a blanket practice of having “secret” juries violates the First Amendment and state law.

The trial court and Court of Appeals disagreed. The Court of Appeals last year concluded that state law did, in fact, permit trial judges to call for secret juries without having to show a compelling state interest in doing so. The judges also stated that jurors’ identities did not fall under the public’s First Amendment right of access to court proceedings, because the names were “certain confidential information held by the court itself” and were not part of the public court proceedings.

The three-judge panel added that jurors knowing their names would be disclosed may deter them from serving in the first place, saying they could be subject to harassment or unwanted media attention.

The Court of Appeals decision references a 2019 case where the court granted a new trial to Nathan Rojas, a Cochise County man who was convicted of sexual conduct with a minor, after Morgan published a video online of the jurors inside the jury box.

“We concluded that despite the jurors’ assurance that they could still be impartial, the trial court had not abused its discretion in ruling that it could not determine beyond a reasonable doubt that the information had not affected the verdict,” Vice Chief Judge Christopher Staring wrote.

They said allowing for secret juries would avoid “many of the fair-trial concerns faced by defendants in high-profile cases.” If jurors’ names were released initially and then a case garnered more media attention, even if a judge tried to make the jury more secret at that point, “it may be too late to secure jurors’ identities.”

In appealing to the state Supreme Court, Morgan’s attorneys said concerns about privacy and safety shouldn’t translate to a system of completely secret juries in all cases.

“(W)hile such concerns are important and are directly relevant to a small number of actual criminal trials, they can be protected when necessary, because all that Petitioner seeks here is a recognition of the ‘presumption’ of access that can be overcome upon a sufficient showing of need,” the attorneys wrote.

Beyond that, both Morgan and Neff said juror intimidation is currently a non-issue. Basing a decision on something that might happen in the future but isn’t happening now isn’t enough to justify secret juries, Neff said.

“There’s the argument about what could happen, what might happen, what David Morgan might do, but zero evidence that it has ever been a problem, or that it would be a problem – just that it could,” Morgan said.

Neff said she decided not to be part of the latest appeal because she disagreed with the argument that the press should have the names ahead of a trial in order to do their own vetting. Still, she said she hopes the state’s high court concludes that judges must release jury names after trials in most circumstances and must have a compelling reason to withhold them in the first place.

“It really scares me that we may never know the names of jurors in cases in which some people are going away for decades or life,” Neff said. “I’m crossing my fingers that the Supreme Court is going to say they absolutely cannot do that part of it.”

There is a chance that the case backfires. Morgan said some attorneys have warned him of the possibility of creating “bad” law, noting that if the state Supreme Court rules against him, that decision sets precedent across the state. But Morgan said if that happens, he doesn’t think such a decision would immediately make all juries secret.

“Worst case scenario, the court could say, ‘Yes, they’ve got the authority to do that,’” Morgan said. “I don’t think that means every judge would decide to do that.”



Hobbs within striking distance as vote count nears end

Katie Hobbs and Steve Gaynor
Katie Hobbs and Steve Gaynor

New election returns Sunday put Democrat Katie Hobbs in striking distance in the race for secretary of state.

Late updated totals from the Secretary of State’s Office give Hobbs 1,057,229 votes. That’s enough to put her within 259 votes of Republican Steve Gaynor out of 2.1 million votes tallied in that race.

As recently as Saturday she was down by 2,000.

The new numbers also show that Democrat Kathy Hoffman continues to build her lead over Frank Riggs for superintendent of public instruction. She now has an edge of nearly 47,000 votes.

Democrat Sandra Kennedy remains ahead of both Republicans Justin Olson and Rodney Glassman in the race for the two open seats on the Arizona Corporation Commission. But if the current patterns hold, Olson, appointed last year, will get a four-year term of his own as Democrat Kiana Sears continues to trail in fourth place.

But in the race most people are watching, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema now holds on to a lead of nearly more than 32,000 votes in the bid to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake in the U.S. Senate. Her edge just a day earlier over Republican Martha McSally was only around 30,000.

McSally has been claiming for days that the tide will turn based on her belief that the early ballots cast at the last minute are more likely to have come from Republicans.

There is some indication of a small uptick in GOP ballots.

For example, state Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, has increased her lead slightly over Democrat Christine Marsh.

But time may be running out, for McSally, Riggs and Glassman.

Maricopa County reports it is down to the last 162,000 votes to be counted. And that means the GOP candidates will need to turn around a trend that has so far produced more votes in the state’s largest county for the three Democrats — and even for Hobbs — than their Republican foes.

Overall the Secretary of State’s Office reports there are 211,000 ballots uncounted. Aside from Maricopa County that includes about 36,300 in Pima County, 7,000 from Pinal, 4,800 from Coconino, 650 in Cochise and 576 in La Paz.

The new numbers come as Republicans are mounting new attacks on Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes for setting up five “emergency” voting centers.

Arizona law specifically authorizes county recorders to establish procedures to vote for anyone who has an emergency between 5 p.m. on the Friday preceding the election and 5 p.m. the following Monday. But state GOP officials are charging that Fontes acted illegally as there was no actual emergency.

The law, however, has no such requirement. Instead, it defines “emergency” as “any unforeseen circumstances that would prevent the elector from voting at the polls.”

Fontes, appearing Sunday on KPNX-TV, said election officials from other counties have been allowing emergency voting “for decades.” And he rejected arguments that he should force those seeking to vote at the centers to prove they have some legitimate reason to seek special treatment.

“It’s not my business what your emergency is,” Fontes said.

“I’ve got HIPPA laws that prevent me from asking,” he said, referring to the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 which has various provisions designed to protect the unauthorized release of anyone’s medical condition.

Fontes’ claim he cannot ask voters for an explanation hews closely to the position of F. Ann Rodriguez, his Pima County counterpart.

“If the voters say ‘it’s an emergency,’ we open it up and they vote,” she said, saying she’s not “judge and jury” over the matter.

Fontes also disputed charges that he deliberately set up these emergency centers in areas designed to benefit Democrats.

He acknowledged there were two in the largely Democratic West Valley area, one in Avondale and a second in Tolleson set up specifically at the request of the city mayor and the county supervisor who serves that area. But Fontes said there also were emergency voting locations in Scottsdale and Mesa as well as the county offices in downtown Phoenix.

But all the fuss about the emergency voting centers — and the possibility that Republicans may sue – may have little actual impact. Murphy Hebert, a spokeswoman for Fontes, said fewer than 3,000 ballots were cast at the emergency centers, unlikely enough to affect any of the statewide races.

Calvin Moore, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee that is pushing to get McSally elected, has sought to undermine Fontes’ credibility in other ways.

He said that before Fontes, an attorney, was elected county recorder in 2016 he “has an incredibly unscrupulous history of defending narco-terrorists” and that one of his clients was involved in the Fast and Furious investigation where federal agents sought to catch gun-runners.

There are other efforts aimed at discrediting Fontes.

On Sunday, calls were going out to homes in Maricopa County saying Fontes was allowing the election “to be stolen” and offering to connect the recipient of the call to the local county supervisor in a bid to have the board somehow exercise some control over him, something that likely is legally questionable.

When asked to explain who is sponsoring the calls, the woman at the other end, who clearly was in a room with others, responded only that it was “concerned citizens.” When questioned who actually was  behind the calls, the response was, “thank you for your time,” and hanging up.

The number on the caller ID proved to be fake. A spokeswoman for the Arizona Republican Party did not respond to inquiries about whether it is the source of the calls.

How an Arizona official is making Cochise County a “laboratory” for election skepticism

Recorder David Stevens speaks at a Cochise County Republican Club event in 2022. Also at Stevens’ table was friend and secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem, in the Western hat. Photo Courtesy of Kaylee Nix

This article was originally published by Votebeat, a nonprofit news organization covering local election administration and voting access.

David Stevens had never supervised a ballot count. He didn’t know how he would count nearly 50,000 ballots by hand, who would help, or where he would find enough space to do it.

But that didn’t dissuade him.

Less than a month before the November election, Stevens, the Cochise County recorder, told the county supervisors he would be happy to try.

Arizona GOP leaders had spent two years promoting unfounded claims about compromised vote-counting machines, and were scouring the state for a county that would willingly hand-count ballots. They found it in Cochise County, where Stevens grasped onto the idea, devised a plan, and stoked the sentiment starting to take hold locally.

The Republican recorder propelled the proposal to illegally hand count all midterm election ballots, thrusting a rural Arizona county known for historic mining towns and natural beauty into months of chaos, court hearings, and national headlines. Cochise’s two Republican supervisors bore the brunt of the backlash — threatened with jail time and, even now, facing a citizen-led recall effort. But the initial effort would have hit an abrupt stop without Stevens, who mostly remained behind the scenes.

Stevens, an affable former state lawmaker, is originally from Illinois but has spent enough time in rural Arizona to adopt a slight drawl and a penchant for Western wear. He has close connections with GOP state leaders who have worked to upend voting — including former Republican secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem — and a keen willingness to spread doubts about election security, experiment with proven processes, and test the boundaries of state law.

Together with the supervisors, Stevens allowed the county to become a test case for how to disrupt elections in 2024, according to local Democrats and officials at nonprofits focused on guarding elections.

“The fact that you have conspiracy theorists tinkering with the core functioning of systems that have worked so well is deeply, deeply alarming,” said Jared Davidson, counsel at Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit, who said the events that played out in Cochise County boosted Arizona’s status as a “laboratory” for elections.

For his part, Stevens is more than willing to keep tinkering.

Finchem, whose campaign centered around the idea that elections are rigged, and Stevens both said they have been close for many years and share many views, such as a belief that mail voting and voting machines are insecure.

As recorder, Stevens plans to pursue a $1 million state grant orchestrated by Finchem to test high-tech security features on ballot paper, an idea that many election administrators consider costly and unnecessary.

Votebeat found that Stevens is a director of a Finchem-run nonprofit now called the Election Fairness Institute. It posts untrue statements about elections on its website and says it will rely on researchers who have become known for spreading false claims of widespread election fraud.

Stevens said that his initiatives and proposals are focused on improving transparency and security of elections. He runs his office in a nonpartisan and open manner, he said, and has defended the parts of the county’s election system he trusts.

Now, whether by design or default, Stevens is on the verge of gaining more power over how Cochise County’s elections are run.

Cochise County, elections, Maricopa County, Meta, Trump, Twitter, Richer, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Lake, Gates
Lisa Marra, elections director for Cochise County

Lisa Marra, the elections director who defended the system and refused to hand over ballots for an illegal hand count, is resigning because of what she said is harassment and a hostile work environment. This is likely her last week. Stevens acknowledged he might be asked to serve as interim elections director and said he would be willing.

Meanwhile, a Republican supervisor may propose reorganizing Cochise’s election administration altogether, which Marra understood to mean moving her duties under Stevens. Arizona law divides election duties between recorders and county supervisors. That means Stevens currently controls only early voting and voter registration. If supervisors give him oversight of the elections department, he would also take control of ballot design, ballot security, ballot counting, and Election Day procedures.

Bisbee resident Margot Walker said Marra’s presence this fall reassured her, but she now is worried about the future of her county’s elections.

“It’s very disconcerting to watch democracy go down the tubes,” she said, “And people are blindly following, with no basis in real information as to why.”

Flying under the radar

Low profile aside, Stevens has been making his doubts about the election system known since shortly after the 2020 election.

He’s not often quoted in the media. He doesn’t have public social media profiles. He has little to no public persona, said Elisabeth Tyndall, the county Democratic Party chairwoman.

“He has really flown under the radar in the county, as far as the election denialism,” she said. “Those of us who pay attention and read and see the connections have known that it is there.”

Stevens is a longtime resident of Sierra Vista, a city of about 45,000 near the Mexican border that includes a U.S. Army base, Ft. Huachuca. It’s by far the largest city in the county and its political power base, even though Bisbee, 30 minutes east, is the county seat.

As a state representative from 2009 to 2017, Stevens sponsored some bills that would change voting, but nothing as extreme as Republican proposals today. He wanted to cut down the nearly four-week early voting period by about a week, for example, and repeal an act that created rules for campaign finance donations and a nonpartisan commission meant to improve the integrity of elections.

After a career in information technology, he said he spent his four terms in the Legislature focused on improving transparency and technology in government.

In 2016, he won his race to replace the Democratic county recorder who had been in office for more than four decades, telling voters he would concentrate on cleaning up the voter rolls. He says he has succeeded in that, removing more than 30,000 people who had died or moved elsewhere. He won a second term unopposed.

After the 2020 election, as other Republican recorders in the state defended the security of elections, Stevens took a different path. He said he defended his own county’s election but couldn’t defend elections elsewhere in the state. In fact, he told the Arizona Daily Independent a few weeks after the election that he supported putting Arizona’s electoral votes on hold to look into potential vulnerabilities in Maricopa County’s election.

“Take several ballots that only have Trump ovals filled out, and feed them through the machine,” the paper quoted Stevens as saying. “If votes are reported for Biden you have a problem somewhere.” He didn’t note that Arizona law already requires counties to check that machines are counting votes accurately with a test before and after the election, and through the post-election partial hand-count audit.

On conservative radio, he criticized Maricopa County’s uncooperative response to the state Senate’s partisan and dysfunctional 2021 audit of the county’s election, and said the county needed better security practices. He also repeated a false claim that the county deleted election files.

Stevens said he prides himself on working with Republicans and Democrats and going to both parties’ events.

“I enjoy getting out in the public on Saturday afternoon, put a little shine in the boots, wear my cowboy hat, and go out there and try to answer every question they got,” Stevens said.

‘Happy to do it’

When hand-counting all ballots came up, Stevens publicly downplayed his role in promoting the plan.

“Let me start out with, I was asked to produce this presentation,” he said in October at the first work session where the supervisors publicly discussed the idea. “Happy to do it.”

The movement to hand-count ballots began shortly after Trump falsely claimed he lost the 2020 election because the machines that counted ballots were rigged in favor of Joe Biden.

In April 2022, as the primary election approached, Finchem and gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake filed a lawsuit claiming that the machines used to count votes in Arizona were inaccurate and insecure and asking the court to order that all ballots be counted by hand. That lawsuit was eventually dismissed, and the court ordered sanctions against the candidates’ attorneys.

Just after the August primary election, though, GOP leaders and activists began a campaign to push the hand-count idea, and county supervisors across the state received thousands of automated emails asking them to go ahead.

Judd, Crosby, election, ballots, hand counts, Lorick, Brrnovich, Maricopa County, Pima County Superior Court, Cochise County
Peggy Judd

By late September, Stevens was trying to find a way to make a hand count happen in Cochise County, according to a Sept. 23 email obtained by Votebeat that Supervisor Peggy Judd sent to hand-counting advocates. “Along with Representative Griffin and David Stevens there is quite a flurry of investigation in what CAN be done to create a more confident electorate,” Judd wrote at the time.

Recorders in Arizona do not oversee ballot counting and results. That’s the responsibility of elections directors, who report to county supervisors. Stevens knew this, he told Votebeat in October, but he thought it was a good idea to have a public discussion about hand-counting ballots because he had heard from a lot of voters who liked the idea. He told voters to contact the supervisors and ask for a work session.

The supervisors had Stevens give a presentation on the topic, even though tabulating ballots is not part of his job. That’s because they knew that Marra would not be a willing participant, Judd said in an interview at the time.

During his presentation, Stevens made the idea of hand-counting all races on all ballots sound simple. He said that the county would proceed with the normal machine count, but then do a full hand-count audit after. He acknowledged it would cost money to hand-count ballots, but said machines cost money, too. He said it would take more people and more space, but described it as “very doable.”

Cochise County Board of Supervisors, hand count, ballots, Judd, Brnovich, voters, voting, tabulation, lawsuit, Lorick, investigation
Tom Crosby

Supervisors then pursued the full hand-count audit, despite warnings from the county attorney that it would be illegal. The two Republicans on the three-member board, Crosby and Judd, voted to move forward.

“Stevens was never like, ‘That’s not a good idea,’ ” Tyndall, the county’s Democratic chair, said. “He just jumped in with both feet, without really any plan on how to do it, or where. It was very confounding from my perspective.”

Election researchers and consultants generally advise against hand-counting ballots, because machine counts are proven to be more accurate and efficient. Doing a full hand count alongside a machine count could cast doubt among voters about the accuracy of the election, as well.

Hand-counting the 47,284 county ballots cast in November certainly would have taken weeks, potentially delaying the statewide certification deadline. Stevens would have also had to find a space large enough for hundreds of workers, recruit bipartisan teams willing to volunteer, and organize 24/7 security.

The secretary of state’s office sued the supervisors over the plan, including Stevens and Marra as defendants. They testified for different sides, with Marra stating it would be against the law to do a full hand count and Stevens defending the supervisors’ decision, saying that the Election Procedures Manual allowed them to do it.

In a court brief and testimony four days before the election, he outlined his plan, which he said included more than 300 volunteers and four potential locations. He said the county sheriff would help with security.

“I have a high level of confidence,” Stevens said. “At a basic level, it is a very simple process.”

When the judge asked him if the results of the hand count would be used as the final election results if the results were different, Stevens said he “would be bound to report what the audit produced.”

“What happened after that would be out of my hands,” he said.

The judge ruled that the full hand count would be illegal, citing in his order an Arizona Supreme Court decision that said, “when public officials, in the middle of an election, change the law based on their own perceptions of what they think it should be, they undermine public confidence in our democratic system and destroy the integrity of the electoral process.”

Stevens believes the judge “threw out” a line from the election procedures manual that would have empowered the supervisors to expand the hand count. That line says that “counties may elect to audit a higher number of ballots at their discretion.” But that’s in a section related only to early ballots, not all ballots.

Former Republican state Sen. Frank Antenori, who lives near the small Cochise County community of Dragoon, said the judge was wrong and the full hand count would have been legal. He said he knows Stevens as someone who follows the law.

“I don’t know if he champions anything other than doing it by the book,” he said.

Despite the ruling, Stevens, the day after the election, began preparing to move forward with an expanded hand count anyway, though something just short of a full hand count. He did so even though the supervisors had not publicly discussed this idea since the judge’s ruling. As concern spread about Stevens’ attempt, Marra reassured the public that the ballots were locked up.

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

The expanded hand count never happened. The supervisors moved on to their next hurly-burly: refusing to certify the election results.

‘One of my best friends’

Finchem, Lake, election, governor, secretary of state, lawsuit, hand counts, ballots, sanctions, attorneys,
Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, and Kari Lake confer last year on the House floor.  (Capitol Media Services file photo by Howard Fischer)

As the supervisors missed their certification deadline, Finchem and Lake were claiming fraud and refusing to concede their races.

“New election, recall everyone, overwhelm the polls,” Finchem tweeted the day of the certification deadline. “A disgrace,” he wrote when Maricopa County voted to certify its election. “Hey, look at this crime scene!” he wrote when Secretary of State Katie Hobbs canvassed the state election, including a manipulated photo of Hobbs and other state officials in orange jumpsuits.

Stevens said he doesn’t think Finchem’s views on voting are “that extreme.” He met Finchem while serving in the legislature.

“He is one of my best friends,” he said.

Finchem and Stevens share an inclination for cowboy hats and election doubts, but project different personas. Stevens is a towering man, standing 6-foot-5 but is soft-spoken and accommodating. Finchem, in contrast, is combative and rambling.

Finchem described Stevens as a man of fidelity and integrity. “He is always open to new ideas looking at how the electoral process functions,” Finchem said. “This is one small area of the relationship we have. He is trustworthy and that’s rare.”

In early July, Stevens was listed as a co-host for a fundraising event for Finchem at the Copper Queen Hotel in Bisbee, along with the hotel’s owner, according to an event flyer obtained by Votebeat. The event does not show up on Finchem’s campaign finance reports for that period, so there’s no mention of who paid for the decorations, food and drinks. Finchem did not respond to a question about who hosted the event, and the hotel owner did not return a phone call.

Stevens told Votebeat he was not a co-host of the event, he didn’t even attend, and he did not approve of his name being on the flyer.

“My name was attached to it without my knowledge.” Steven said. “I tried to get it off, but it was too late. I did not attend that fundraiser.”

A handful of protestors showed up to the event to demonstrate outside, and Finchem later posted a video of him walking out and yelling at the group, “Say hi, all you Marxists. Say hi.” Protestors told Votebeat the ballroom set up for the event was nearly empty.

Stevens said he doesn’t believe it’s ethical for recorders to support or run political campaigns, and he didn’t campaign for Finchem or endorse him.

But in September, the Arizona Daily Independent published a story about how Stevens publicly opposed Finchem’s rival Adrian Fontes, titled “County recorder says Adrian Fontes spread misinformation and fostered chaos.”

“As someone who has dedicated their entire life in service of the State and our nation, and who understands the importance of election integrity, I cannot remain silent and allow the voters of Arizona to cast their ballot for someone who regularly thumbs their nose at our laws and standards,” Stevens said in the article, referring to Fontes.

Stevens told Votebeat that if Finchem won, he would have considered becoming his chief technology officer. Finchem confirmed he wanted Stevens in that role. Instead, Stevens is now considering a run for state representative or senator in 2024.

Generally, election administrators who are elected face outside pressure from political parties, said Mitchell Brown, an Auburn University political science professor who studies election administration, but it’s their job to remain “neutral public servants.”

For the most part, they do, she said. But those who are considering running for higher office may be more tempted to court their party’s favor and get onboard with their party’s platform, Brown said.

“It’s an inherent tension for some people,” she said.

Finchem, Stevens, and an election nonprofit

Finchem and Stevens have a new initiative. Since 2018, Stevens has been listed as a director for a nonprofit Finchem runs. He said he serves in a consulting role and has not yet been paid for any work he has done for the nonprofit.

The nonprofit’s purpose has changed over time. At first, it was called Pathway Research and Education and its website said the focus was research on energy, education, tax, infrastructure policy, and land management. An archived version of the website from June to September 2022, which no longer exists, says it was trying to raise $1.6 million to support what it calls a multi-state national bus tour “to provide reality-based understanding of current threats to America in their local areas.” It told visitors to send checks directly to Finchem’s PO box in Phoenix.

Sonny Borrelli

Recently, the nonprofit changed its name to Election Fairness Institute. Republican state Sen. Sonny Borrelli and state Rep. Leo Biasiucci were added as directors. Finchem said it will focus on looking at the relationships between people and defects in the elections process. He did not elaborate further.

The current website has numerous posts that repeat false claims about 2022 elections, including one headline that says, “10 Million Mail Ballots Unaccounted for in Nov. Midterms.” It says the organization will rely on research from Seth Keshel, an activist who has repeatedly made unfounded claims that his analysis of election data proves fraud.

Asked what the organization’s mission is, Stevens said, “There are a couple visions,” including “potentially a nationwide voter registration-type repository.” He said he sees no conflict in serving on the board and in a consulting role.

Leo Biasiucci

The website asks for donations to be sent to a post office box in Phoenix “to execute on our mission of examining ‘vote-by-mail’ affidavit envelope signatures for validity and professional signature match, to fund our daily operations including a limited staff and qualified professional subcontractors.”

The most secure election, Stevens says, would not involve any mail-in or early voting and would tally results by hand. He worries that he has no control over the ballots when they are out of the county’s custody, and he said he has found a few instances where the U.S. Postal Service has failed to properly track and deliver all ballots.

If people criticize him for not standing up for the security of elections, he said, they haven’t been listening to him. “I tell people that I don’t believe we had any issues in Cochise County whatsoever,” he said. “And I am more than willing to try to prove that. I have said that multiple times. I guess they want to ignore that comment.”

Asked if he was willing to say that Trump lost in 2020, he acknowledged Trump lost. But he quickly added that he can only be sure about Cochise County.

“I saw the videos of what they did in Pennsylvania and in Georgia, I wasn’t there, I wasn’t in charge of it,” he said. “I was in charge of it here.”

Experimenting with ballot security

Stevens is also pursuing an idea he and Finchem have been talking about since late 2020, he said, which is adding security features to ballot paper, such as watermarks or unique ballot identifiers.

Stevens gave Finchem a county ballot, to which a company added security features, for Finchem to use in a demonstration of the technology to state lawmakers. In October 2021, Stevens and Finchem went to Dallas for an event Finchem hosted called the Ballot Integrity Summit.

The state legislature last year approved $1 million in this year’s budget for a trial, specifically allowing county recorders to apply, even though elections directors, not county recorders, oversee the design of ballots or ordering ballot paper in Arizona.

The only recorder to apply: Stevens. He was awarded the grant and is starting to make a plan, he said.

Stevens said he also would be OK with hand-counting the county’s ballots in the future. Asked if he supports getting rid of the county’s tabulation machines, he said, “I’m willing to have that debate.” He and Finchem both believe that companies that manufacture such machines should make their source code public, something experts say would create new security vulnerabilities.

“They have been accurate to this point,” he said. “I have no problem testing them. I prefer to view the software.”

Protect Democracy’s Davidson said the type of experiments Stevens supports could have real consequences, such as the threat that a full hand count of ballots would make it impossible to meet statutory deadlines for certifying elections.

‘I can fill the role’

As Marra exits, Stevens may take control over parts of the system he wants to examine, such as the type of ballot paper the county uses and how ballots are counted.

The county has until Wednesday to respond to Marra’s resignation letter. After that, Marra can leave, and could potentially sue. The longtime deputy elections director retired in January. There’s only one other employee in the elections department, and that person has been there less than a year.

Before Marra’s resignation, Judd had proposed a Feb. 7 meeting to discuss hand-counting ballots, along with “better practices involving possible re-organization of responsible parties.” Her request appears to have been postponed or canceled, though.

Marra interpreted that request as the supervisors’ attempt to give Stevens control over much of her work. The discussion during that work session, her lawyer wrote, would continue to give the false impression the county’s elections had problems under her watch.

“The working conditions at Cochise County have become so intolerable and deteriorated to the point that Ms. Marra is compelled to resign to protect her health and safety,” Marra’s lawyer wrote in the resignation letter.

Stevens said he isn’t so concerned about the future of the department without Marra. He has six years’ experience in elections. He can handle whatever comes up, he said.

“I’m confident I can fill the role and get the job done.”

Votebeat is a nonprofit news organization covering local election integrity and voting access. Sign up for their newsletters here.


Lawmakers to look at shifting Santa Cruz, Cochise county lines


Despite being rebuffed by her colleagues, a Southern Arizona lawmaker has found a new way to pursue her plans to see if parts of Santa Cruz County should be merged with Cochise County.

Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, has convinced legislative leaders to form a special committee to study what would happen if the line between the two counties was moved. Griffin has specifically been interested in moving the Sonoita and Elgin areas of Santa Cruz County into Cochise.

The goal of that committee is exactly what was behind Griffin’s HB 2486 which she shepherded through the House earlier this year on a 31-29 party-line vote.

But the measure died when Sen. Andrea Dalessandro, D-Green Valley, convinced several Republicans to join with Democrats and oppose it on financial grounds, citing what could happen to what would remain of Santa Cruz County if part of its tax base was stripped away.

Gail Griffin
Gail Griffin

“The remaining ranchers in the rest of the county, who are mostly Republicans, will be paying more property tax,” she told colleagues.”Ditto, she said, of the produce industry that is centered in Nogales and Rio Rico.”

But Griffin told Capitol Media Services on Tuesday she still believes the study is necessary “to surface the issues the local community has so they can be addressed.”

“Lots of discussion will take place to help provide solutions for the citizens in the area,” she said.

Dalessandro, for her part, said she was “disappointed” in the decision of the Republican legislative leadership to form the study committee, particularly in the wake of the defeat of legislation that would have done the same thing.

In proposing the original legislation, Griffin said that residents of the eastern portion of Santa Cruz County “feel that they’re not treated fairly and not getting the attention that they would like.”

“They seem to think that they have more in common with the adjoining county,” she said.

Many of the complaints, Griffin told colleagues, are coming from residents of the Sonoita area.

Among the issue is that the justice of the peace court, formerly located in the community, was moved to Nogales in what county officials said was a money-saving move. Griffin said roads also are an issue as are increasing taxes.

“And not being able to communicate,” she said.

Dalessandro, however, questioned whether there really are such widespread problems to pursue the unusual step of moving a county line.

“I suspect that it is just a small group of vocal people that want this annexation,” she said.

Dalessandro said she is looking to survey the resident of her district – both inside the area that might be split off and what would remain of the rest of the county – to gauge their feelings.

But Griffin said she thinks the idea is more popular than does Dalessandro.

“The meetings I attended were standing room only,” she said. And Griffin said that area residents “feel they have more in common with Cochise County.”

That, however, raises another question: Does Cochise County want to take in all of those people and be responsible for providing services to them.

Several of the non-legislative members of the committee appear to represent those who have been actively pushing for county boundary realignment. That includes both the chair and a member of the Sonoita-Elgin Community Group.

But the committee does include Dalessandro along with some what would generally be considered neutral participants. One of those is Jennifer Stielow, vice president of the Arizona Tax Research Association, which tends to lobby against any measure that will increase property taxes, particularly for businesses.

The committee is supposed to report its findings back to legislative leaders at the end of 2020.

Even if the majority supports changing the county boundaries, that, by itself, is legally meaningless. Only the Legislature can authorize such a change.

And even if there is a sentiment for such a move, there are a host of other issues that need to be resolved.

The most significant of these would be financial, ranging from who gets possession of what pieces of Santa Cruz County equipment and property to how to divide up any debt.

Griffin said there are other issues to be considered, including whether a change in county lines will lead to increased economic opportunities and improved marketing of agricultural products.

In a statement released Tuesday, Santa Cruz County Supervisor Bruce Bracker, whose district includes the affected area, said he doesn’t believe that realigning the county boundaries is the answer.

“A tremendous amount of effort and resources are being spent by those that would have us be divided,” he said. “I would prefer to see that attention and resources focused on addressing the issues of our community to find solutions that are a benefit to all and unite us, not divide us.”

Bracker said that “constructive criticism is always welcome” with a promise to address the concerns of all parts of the county.

“We have so much going for us at this time and we could use the help in leveraging our economic development to attract new and diverse investment, create permanent jobs and help our local businesses grow,” he said.

The decision to form the legislative committee actually was made last week without publicity. But Matt Specht, press aide to Bowers, said there was no attempt to hide it from the public.

“We typically don’t put out press releases on ad hoc committees until the details of the first meeting have been set,” he said. And Specht said that it appears that the committee won’t convene until sometime in late October.

Private landowners can build unregulated border wall under proposed legislation

In this March 30, 2017 file photo, Workers use a crane to lift a segment of a new fence into place on the U.S. side of the border with Mexico, where Sunland Park, New Mexico, meets the Anapra neighborhood of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, As President Donald Trump's administration fights to fund a new, multibillion-dollar border wall, government lawyers are still settling claims with Texas landowners over the fence Congress approved more than a decade ago. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
(AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

A top Republican lawmaker wants to allow people who own property along the border to build a wall without first getting any building permits.

House Majority Leader Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, said he fears that overzealous local officials will block construction by erecting procedural barriers.

The exemption in HB 2084 would mean that walls could go up without any requirement to comply with local building codes or safety inspection. But Petersen said it’s a question of balance.

“On the other side of the risk is dangerous drug cartels,” he told Capitol Media Services.

Warren Petersen
Warren Petersen

“We have every crime that you could imagine coming across these borders,” Petersen continued. “And people that live along these properties that don’t feel safe should have every right to protect themselves, including erecting a wall if they need to.”

The legislation has caught the attention of some county supervisors who question the need − or the advisability −to exempt private wall construction from local regulation.

Bruce Bracker of Santa Cruz County said there are processes in place for situations where the federal government desires to build a wall along the international border. He questioned why there needs to be any sort of additional exemption from local ordinances for individuals who want to erect their own barriers.

Yuma County Supervisor Tony Reyes called the proposal “pretty dumb.” He said he was concerned about “that liability issue about building something without a permit without anybody checking, making sure that the public is protected.”

The question, Reyes said, is what happens if the structure falls.

“This is not a property rights issue,” he said. “It’s a health and safety issue.”

And Cochise County Supervisor Tom Borer said he sees no reason to grant a blanket exemption from existing regulations governing construction of barriers and fences just because it would be erected on private land near the border. More to the point, he questioned why the Legislature would intercede.

“As far as I’m concerned, I would not support anything that took the county’s rights away to govern their own county,” he said.

Petersen, however, said any concerns about safety are addressed by his belief that those who do the actual construction will recognize that they remain financially liable if someone is injured due to improper construction or installation.

The Gilbert lawmaker acknowledged that, to date, no Arizona county or city actually has sought to block a landowner from building a wall along the border.

But he cited an incident last year in Sunland Park, N.M., near El Paso, Texas., where a privately funded group erected 1,500 feet of bollard-style fencing over the Memorial Day weekend along a tract of private property without first going through that city’s review process.

City officials issued a cease-and-desist order against We Build the Wall Inc. halting further construction.

The Texas Tribune reports the city ultimately issued permits for lighting and construction, along with a warning to have the company come into compliance with all city ordinances.

Petersen said his measure would protect Arizona landowners from similar delays.

“It’s a great property rights bill,” he said of the legislation.

“It’s something we want to prevent from happening,” Petersen continued. “Sometimes you don’t think cities will do something like this.”

But he said there is evidence of hostility to border security issues in Arizona, specifically citing the efforts by some to have Tucson declared a “sanctuary city.”

That proposal was rejected at the ballot. And Petersen acknowledged that, even if it had succeeded, no part of Tucson is adjacent to the border.

Bracker sniffed at the idea of enacting a new state law here based on what has happened elsewhere.

“That’s New Mexico, that’s not Arizona,” he said.

“So we haven’t had any issue in Arizona yet, we’re trying to put legislation into place,” Bracker continued. “That just doesn’t make any sense.”

Anyway, Bracker said, the federal government is busy building walls on its own property along the border. Petersen, however, said that privately constructed segments will help fill the gaps where there is no federal funding.

But Bracker, beyond the issues raised about Petersen’s bill, questions the whole premise for more border barriers built by anyone, including the federal government.

“The focus should really be on trade and commerce and tourism,” he said. “They should be putting the billions of dollars into ports of entry.”

Tom Belshe, executive director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns said his legal staff is still reviewing the proposal. But he said that, in general, cities oppose any efforts by lawmakers to preempt local control.

Clarification: The 13th paragraph of this story has been rewritten to eliminate an erroneous statement attributed to Rep. Warren Petersen that he was unconcerned about safety. 

Q&A with David Morgan

The Capitol Times has had its fair share of dustups with government officials — lest anyone forget the State House’s attempt to effectively kick out a reporter with this paper in 2016. But at the least, those elected or appointed at the state level know to expect a fight from the media. This isn’t the case down in Cochise County, where Dave Morgan, the editor and publisher of the Cochise County Record, is crusading against an opaque and ineffective government that has run largely without accountability in a true news desert. For our newest entry in the Capitol Times‘ series of digital Q-and-As, Morgan took the time to discuss this effort, the nature of government corruption and the decimation of local news.

Q&A with Lisa Graham Keegan

Education is the hottest topic in the state right now as Gov. Doug Ducey, Superintendent Kathy Hoffman and the state health department come up with the fully fleshed out plan to get kids back in school for in-person instruction. Capitol Times virtually sat down with former Superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan, who served in that job from 1995 to 2001, to discuss the pandemic, the latest metric-based approach for in-person instruction, micro schools being an option for parents and where she stands on the current Republican Party. Graham Keegan also made sure to rub in the fact she was in Minnesota enjoying nicer weather than Arizona has to offer this time of year.

Republicans settle lawsuit over vote counting

A worker prepares volunteers to verify ballots at the Maricopa County Recorder's Office Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018, in Phoenix. There are several races too close to call in Arizona, especially the Senate race between Democratic candidate Kyrsten Sinema and Republican candidate Martha McSally. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
A worker prepares volunteers to verify ballots at the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018, in Phoenix. There are several races too close to call in Arizona, especially the Senate race between Democratic candidate Kyrsten Sinema and Republican candidate Martha McSally. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Residents in all of the state’s 15 counties are going to get another few days to fix problems with their early ballots to ensure their votes are counted.

A deal reached Friday in a lawsuit brought by the Republican parties of four counties directs officials in all counties to follow the same procedures through 5 p.m. Wednesday that they had used to verify questioned ballots before last Tuesday’s election.

Until now, only election officials in Maricopa, Pima, Coconino and Apache counties had allowed voters to “cure” defects with early ballots after the polls closed at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Creating that opportunity in the other 11 counties means that even more votes are likely to be tallied.

How many are out there is unclear.

State Elections Director Eric Spencer said he believes there may be up to 10,000 early ballots statewide where there now is a chance they will be counted.

Less clear is whether the additional votes will affect several close races yet to be decided. But Brett Johnson, who represents the Republicans who filed suit, said it creates a “level playing field,” where voters in all counties — including most of the 11 which have GOP majorities — have the same rights.

At the heart of the legal fight is what happens with early ballots.

Voters are required to sign the outside of the envelope before mailing or dropping it off at a polling place. When county officials get each envelope the first thing they do is check to ensure that the signatures match what they have on file.

If they do not, the practice of all 15 counties has been to allow voters to come in to provide , an explanation, such as whether there is an ailment that affects the person’s ability to hold a pen.

But only in Maricopa, Pima, Cochise and Apache counties have officials continued the verification practice beyond the 7 p.m. Tuesday deadline when the polls close; the other counties stopped those checks at that time, meaning any unverified early ballots still outstanding at that time are not counted.

What caused consternation of Republicans and resulted in the lawsuit is that the early ballots being tallied from those four counties have overall been running in favor of Democrats — a lot.

In fact, while Republican Martha McSally was leading in the race for the U.S. Senate after the votes cast at the polls were counted, updated figures with early ballot returns have put Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in the lead.

And in the race for state schools chief, the lead that Republican Frank Riggs enjoyed on election night has evaporated, with Democrat Kathy Hoffman now outpolling him.

The lawsuit filed by Johnson argued that the disparate procedures were an unconstitutional violation of the equal protection provision of the U.S. Constitution. In essence, he said, Arizona cannot allow one early ballot to be counted in one county when an early ballot mailed at the same time in another county is not.

Johnson’s efforts to halt the post-Election Day ballot “curing” in the four counties drew complaints that the Republicans were trying to suppress votes. And Colleen Connor, an assistant Maricopa County attorney, said what Johnson was seeking was impossible: County election officials, after verifying the signatures, had removed the ballots from their envelopes and mixed them in with others to be counted.

That left Republicans with the alternative of requiring the other 11 counties to also give their voters more opportunity to explain signature disparities.

Nothing in the deal, however, requires recorders throughout the state to follow the procedures used in Pima and Maricopa counties where election officials actually try to reach out to voters with questioned ballots.

More to the point, the agreement does not require county recorders to do more now than they were doing with the early ballots before Election Day. So if prior to Tuesday a county never tried to contact a voter but simply allowed them to come in if they heard there was a problem, that will suffice for the early ballots still left after the election.

“We believe that each county, for process purposes, have the ability to cure in their own manner, including the outreach to the residents,”  Johnson told Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Margaret Mahoney.

But Johnson made it clear that he believes all those voters whose early ballots were set aside due to signature mismatches will be contacted, one way or another.

“The (political) parties are able to contact their members through the lists that are provided by the counties so that we can affirmatively get voters in to making that cure,” he told the judge.

That provides some opportunities for Republicans to salvage the races they thought they won on election night: The majority of those 11 counties that now will revisit those early ballots were producing more GOP votes.

Not everyone was pleased by the outcome.

Spencer Scharff who represents the League of Women Voters and the Arizona Advocacy Network, pointed out the deal covers only what happens right now. He said nothing addresses what will happen if there are similar problems in the 2020 election.

But Kory Langhofer, attorney for the Arizona Republican Party, told Mahoney there is no legal authority for her to tell counties what they should be doing two years from now. Anyway, Langhofer said, it’s unlikely the problem of different procedures in different counties will repeat itself.

“There will most certainly be a legislative solution,” he said, with lawmakers likely to alter the statute to ensure there are clear — and consistent — provisions for what happens in these situations in the future.

The deal, however, does have the blessing of the recorders in all the counties as well as the Arizona Democratic Party which intervened in the lawsuit filed by Republicans and also will get a chance to find party adherents in all the counties whose early ballots need verification.

The partisan nature of the dispute spilled over onto the national stage, even drawing the attention of President Trump.

Speaking to reporters early Friday, the president questioned how Republicans who were leading on election night in Arizona and Florida now seem to be losing ground.

“It always seems to go the way of the Democrats,” Trump said. “Now in Arizona, all of a sudden, out of the wilderness, they find a lot of votes, and she — the other candidate — is just winning by a hair,” referring to Sinema.

But the president, perhaps indicating he did not understand the legal issue of mismatched signatures between early ballot envelopes and county records, later sent out a tweet reading, “Just out — in Arizona, SIGNATURES DON’T MATCH. Electoral corruption,” along with a question of whether there should be a call for a new election.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders on Friday claimed in his own tweet that Republicans are trying to “suppress the vote.” And he urged election officials here and in Florida and Georgia to “do their jobs and count every vote.”

“They must not allow the president, a bully & a pathological liar, or anyone else to intimidate them,” Sanders wrote.

State Supreme Court rules search in Cochise County without warrant legal

Gavel and scales

Waiting until you’re on your own property before pulling over for police won’t save you from having you or your vehicle legally searched.

In a unanimous ruling Friday, the Arizona Supreme Court rejected arguments that Cochise County deputies acted illegally when they searched a vehicle that had gone into the driveway of someone’s girlfriend. The justices said even if Anthony L. Hernandez had been invited onto the Willcox property — giving him the same right of privacy had it been his own yard — his failure to stop when the deputies first asked him to pull over meant he effectively invited them onto the property.

“No citizens has a legal right to ignore or defy an officer’s attempt to conduct a lawful traffic stop on a public road,” Justice John Lopez wrote for the court.

Lopez acknowledged that the deputies were initially trying to pull Hernandez over after running a check of his license plate and finding out that his legally mandated liability insurance had expired a month earlier. And that is only a civil violation.

But the justice also said that knowingly failing to comply with a traffic stop is a crime.

In this case, Lopez said, Hernandez did not immediately pull over. Instead, he went up over a curb and ended up in the driveway of his girlfriend’s house.

The deputies said they smelled marijuana. After taking Hernandez into custody they discovered marijuana, methamphetamines and drug paraphernalia.

He eventually was convicted after Cochise County Superior Court Judge James Conologue rejected his bid to have the search declared illegal.

Lopez said where the vehicle came to a stop was adjacent to the back of the house, an area at least partially obstructed from public view. And under normal circumstances, the judge said, someone there would have a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” meaning officers normally would need a warrant.

But Lopez said that it’s not that simple.

“When the officers attempted to stop Hernandez, he had two lawful options: stop on the public road or lead officers onto private property to complete the stop,” the judge explained.

“Contrary to his argument, the Constitution does not provide a third option positing that a driver may decline to stop on a public road and retreat onto private property, which provides a Fourth Amendment sanctuary from the law,” Lopez continued. “The third option is untenable, as it would endanger police officers and the public by incentivizing flight from law enforcement.”

In effect, the judge said, Hernandez effectively consented to the location of the stop by leading the deputies there in his vehicle. And that, Lopez said, meant the decision by the officers to search him and the vehicle were constitutional.


Surrogate parents for students with special needs lacking statewide

More volunteers are being sought to advocate for students with special education needs who have no one in their lives to see that those needs are being met.

Surrogate parents appointed by the Arizona Department of Education are given educational rights over children in need of special education services when their parents’ rights have been severed or are no longer in their lives.

The surrogates typically have some background in working with special education students. They are responsible for signing off on testing to determine if services are necessary, reviewing required individualized education programs for students already receiving services and ensuring that those services are in fact being provided.

Stefanie Sharkey, the department’s surrogate parent program coordinator, said many of the students with surrogate parents come from group homes, and they need someone to represent them through the process as mandated by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

She said the state has only 86 surrogate parents available to serve 468 children currently using the program. But the number of students is growing.

Sharkey said there has been a rise in students who need a surrogate parent, and she anticipates that trend will continue. While the department strives to limit each surrogate’s caseload to six students, she said some have had to take on more.

Meanwhile, the department has struggled to find adequate volunteers in some regions of the state, especially in rural communities.

Cochise County has only one education surrogate. Yavapai County, the fourth largest in the state, has just six.

They’re better off than others, though. Apache, Gila, Graham, Greenlee, La Paz, Mohave, Navajo, Santa Cruz and Yuma counties don’t have any surrogates living within their boundaries.

Sharkey said she has turned to other districts and charter schools to find new recruits, but “no bites yet.” In the meantime, a surrogate in another county would be asked to advocate for a student in an underserved area telephonically or via Skype.

She noted rural communities haven’t produced a significant need for surrogates, but that may not be the case as more children become wards of the state.

In those cases, surrogate parents do not meet face-to-face with the children they are advocating for, and that can be problematic.

On top of the stresses of no longer having a parental figure in their lives and having disabilities that require special services, these children are being assigned surrogates who they’ve never met. Sharkey said in-person interactions at least allow them the opportunity to get to know their advocates. But over the phone or even via video chat, Sharkey said they likely lose that connection.

“It’s just another adult making decisions for them and about them,” she said via email.

Susan Barenholtz stands beside Ory, one of the first young men she advocated for as a surrogate parent. (Photo courtesy of Susan Barenholtz)
Susan Barenholtz stands beside Ory, one of the first young men she advocated for as a surrogate parent. (Photo courtesy of Susan Barenholtz)

Surrogate parent Susan Barenholtz said in-person interactions are “critical” with these children.

By the time they get to group homes, she said, they often don’t have any family left in their life. Barenholtz meets with her students as often as she can to prove she won’t just be another disappointment.

Even then, the road to their trust can be long.

“These kids will not warm up to you for a long, long time because they’ve been hurt so much and they don’t trust anybody,” she said. “They have dozens and dozens of adults revolving around their lives. Every day, it’s a new thing. Another adult comes in, and they don’t trust anything.”

Barenholtz has been a surrogate parent on and off since 2000, and she currently advocates for three young boys.

She sees one student monthly, and her time with him has demonstrated the importance of making that personal connection.

She said he has made significant progress at school, having transferred for a time to a campus tailored to his emotional disability. Now, he’s back at his “home school” where he’s excited to attend homecoming and getting more involved with extracurricular activities.

On Christmas, Barenholtz took him to dinner and a movie. He hugged her goodbye later – it was a big deal.

Barenholtz is one of 50 surrogates in Maricopa County, where many of the program’s student reside.

Derald Cox serves children in Coconino County, which has far fewer surrogates available. He’s one of four, and he was specifically asked to volunteer after another surrogate left the program.

Cox said he is not currently advocating for any students, but he has had eight cases in the past four years.

He said the kids sometimes think he’s there to do little more than sign off on paperwork. And they’re not always wrong.

But after 20 years of public education experience, including 10 years teaching special education students, Cox said he often knows better than others what questions need to be asked.

Sharkey said the legal responsibility to appoint education surrogates falls to schools.

But it takes knowledgeable surrogates like Cox to then follow through and be the “responsible, concerned” parent that is otherwise not in the kid’s life.

You can get more information about the surrogate parent program and apply to be a volunteer here

The time to secure Arizona’s water future is now


I am so grateful to the people of Arizona for allowing me the opportunity to continue serving as governor of our great state. I am humbled by your confidence and ready to continue working for you. And there’s a lot of important work to do.

As I traveled the state during this campaign – from Mohave County to Cochise County, and everywhere in between – one of the most frequent topics of discussion mentioned by constituents was the important issue of securing our state’s water future.  It is clear that Arizonans understand we must make important decisions regarding the management of our scarce water resources. In the face of ongoing drought on the Colorado River, the time to reach responsible and nonpartisan solutions is now.

The solution proposed by Arizona, California, Nevada and the federal government is the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP). This plan will help protect Lake Mead from declining to critically low levels that would cause potentially catastrophic reductions to Arizona’s Colorado River water supplies.

DCP lessens the likelihood of such reductions by imposing prudent reductions earlier and incentivizing water users to leave water in Lake Mead. Mexico is also stepping up with a parallel plan.

Implementing DCP in Arizona will require compromise from every stakeholder. This means setting aside narrow special interests and working for the good of the entire state.

My administration, the Legislature, and stakeholders have been working hard to reach an agreement on how to respond to the impacts of those reductions.

Although those efforts have been productive, some recent proposals are so short-sighted and unsustainable that it requires me to remind all participants why we began this process in the first place.

The foundational purpose of a multi-state drought contingency plan is to transition to a drier future. That transition may warrant a modest amount of mitigation for the increased reductions that would be imposed under DCP. However, in recent stakeholder meetings, demands for water and money to mitigate reductions are growing to insurmountable proportions – more than 1 million acre-feet of water and over $200 million through 2026 – creating an unsustainable precedent for mitigating water reductions in the future.

That is not sound long-term planning, and the people of Arizona expect more from us.

To secure Arizona’s water future, we must prioritize conservation, augmentation and innovation. The plan to implement DCP must adhere to some key principles.

First, we need to reaffirm Arizona’s goal of conserving water to raise and protect Lake Mead elevations. Arizona water users have invested considerable resources in conserving more than 350 trillion gallons of Colorado River water since 2014, raising Lake Mead elevations over 13 feet. Any plan to implement DCP in Arizona must build on those efforts.

Second, we must recognize that drought may be the new normal and that DCP is only an interim measure; our State must preserve long-term resources to address anticipated water supply challenges well into the future.

Third, our actions now should not establish expectations that reductions in Colorado River supply will be mitigated forever.

Finally, we take the broad view. We recognize the need to address impacts on certain water use sectors, but individual interests must be appropriately balanced against the interests of the State as a whole.

It’s time to get to this done and make DCP a priority by working together to find sustainable, long-term solutions to address the challenges we face on the Colorado River. And Arizonans should rest assured — DCP will need to be part of a traditional legislative process, and I will not sign a bill that does not adhere to these important principles, or any bill that does not adequately help to secure our state’s water future.

Arizona has a long history of arriving at such solutions with future generations in mind. We have a rich, legacy of coming together where our water resources are concerned. Arizonans expect us to follow in this tradition — and they expect us to act now.

Gov. Doug Ducey was re-elected to his second term in office on Nov. 6, 2018.

Vetting panel chooses 5 finalists for IRC chair

redistricting map arizona620

The most powerful, unpaid political figure in Arizona for the next decade will either be a teacher, a businessman, an attorney for a public utility, a gun store owner or a psychologist-turned-life coach. 

After the first of two days of interviews for the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments narrowed its list of 11 semi-finalists for the IRC chair down to the final five: Nicole Cullen, a Gilbert teacher; Thomas Loquvam, an EPCOR attorney who used to work for Pinnacle West; Erika Neuberg, a former psychologist who has contributed to several campaigns of both Republicans and Democrats; Gregory Teesdale, a businessman in the tech industry; and Robert Wilson, a gun store owner who held a rally for President Donald Trump in his parking lot in August. 

After a thorough discussion about the independent candidates, the Commission immediately approved Cullen, Loquvam, Neuberg and Teesdale, but had to hold a runoff vote to break a tie for the fifth slot. That was between Wilson and Megan Carollo, a small business owner with an economics background in Scottsdale. Wilson won the run-off with nine votes to Carollo’s four. Neuberg received the most votes overall with 14. 

Wilson seemingly received the advantage since he brought geographic diversity due to living in Coconino County. He and Teesdale, Pima County, are the only finalists outside of Maricopa County. 

Wilson also received the most letters in opposition, something he appeared to take pride in during his roughly 10-minute interview via Zoom.

 “I take a little pride in the fact that I set myself apart from my peers already by being the number one negative letter getter,” Wilson said about the 149 letters the Commission received. 

He was the last candidate to move into the interview round when the commission met in September and was considered a “backup” of sorts due to one independent candidate, Mignonne Hollis, potentially being considered a paid lobbyist, which would be grounds for disqualification under the rules of the IRC. 

Hollis was viewed by several members of the commission to be a top candidate given how much overwhelming support she received from letters and calls –– and has ties to both Republicans and Democrats, is a Black woman and lives in Cochise County. She claimed to not be a lobbyist, but had to register as one as part of her job. 

Ultimately, the Attorney General’s Office determined her job to qualify as a paid lobbyist and she was disqualified from consideration before her allotted interview. Ken Strobeck, the Republican former executive director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, was also disqualified for the same reason.

One Democrat, Mumtaza Rahi-Loo, later got the axe for serving as a pro tem justice of the peace, which qualifies as a public office – also not allowed on the IRC. But today’s interviews were only for the independents. The 40 partisan candidates will interview on October 9.

Commissioners asked all candidates how they would deal with hostility or disagreement within the commission, what competitive districts and communities of interest meant for the IRC and how they would handle public scrutiny. Some candidates received a fourth question –– either something tailored to what the commissioners found in their due diligence report (a thorough vetting of each candidate) or why they felt they were qualified for the position. 

Christopher Bavasi, an independent former mayor of Flagstaff, likely removed himself from consideration due to his answer to that fourth question. 

“I’m not sure I’m any more qualified than any of your other candidates,” he said. Bavasi was one of the top vote getters moving him into the interview round last month with 12 votes out of 14, but after his interview only received two.

And Nick Dranias, a former Goldwater Institute lawyer, who received a lot of negative comments for a variety of reasons days leading up to the interviews and from Democratic lawmakers this morning also did not make the cut.

On Oct. 9, 19 Republicans and 19 Democrats will interview with the Commission, which will winnow both down to 10 a piece. Eventually each legislative leader will name a partisan pick to serve for the next decade, and those people will then choose from the group of five independents.