While her predecessor used a dedicated election crimes division to investigate hundreds of bogus election fraud claims, Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes says she will redirect the unit’s focus to prosecute election-related threats and protect voting rights.
“We are almost at a crisis situation in our state, in the sense that we now have a third of our counties experiencing the loss, or should I say the resignation, of a high-level election official due to death threats and harassment. That is unacceptable,” Mayes said in an interview with the Arizona Mirror.
Former AG Mark Brnovich, the Republican who Mayes replaced this year, persuaded the state legislature to create the Election Integrity Unit so his office could have a dedicated team to investigate election fraud claims. But Brnovich buried what was arguably its most important work, a 10,000-hour investigation debunking hundreds of fraud claims related to the 2020 election. Mayes released the results of that investigation earlier this month.
And the Election Integrity Unit is also investigating a much larger effort to undermine the will of the voters — one that is also under a federal investigation and has been in the spotlight of investigators in Washington, D.C.
“I’m not certain that my predecessor did an investigation into the fake electors,” Mayes said when asked about investigating schemes by Republicans to send fraudulent slates of electors for former President Donald Trump to Congress on Jan. 6 using the state’s seal. While she was secretary of state, Gov. Katie Hobbs requested Brnovich investigate the use of the state seal on non-official documents, but Brnovich largely remained silent on the issue.
There were multiple “fake elector” schemes in Arizona. One was tied to the Arizona Republican Party and was allegedly done at the request of the Trump campaign, and it involved officials including former AZGOP chairwoman Kelli Ward, state Sen. Jake Hoffman, state Sen. Anthony Kern and Turning Points USA CEO Tyler Bowyer. That fake electors scheme is also the subject of a federal investigation.
Another group, the Sovereign Citizens of the Great State of Arizona, also created an alternate slate of electors for Trump independent of the campaign’s effort to overturn the election results.
“I will investigate the fake electors’ situation, and I will take very seriously any effort to undermine our democracy,” Mayes said. “Those are the cases that I will take most seriously.”
Mayes would not elaborate on the status of the investigation or comment further.
But Mayes did speak about her plans to use her office as a “deterrent” to behavior that has created an environment where Arizona election officials have begun to leave their jobs at a rapid pace.
“We need to make sure that our election officials feel supported and safe,” Mayes said. “The fact that we have a third of our counties experiencing a resignation of an election official, it should be an alarm bell for the entire state.”
Since the 2020 election, threats to election officials nationwide have been increasing. Arizona has been at the forefront of those threats, with the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice having to get involved in multiple cases.
Most recently, veteran Cochise County Election Director Lisa Marra resigned. In her departure letter, she described a workplace that was hostile due to a monthslong saga in which Marra stood up to election conspiracists within the county’s government who sought a full hand recount that was illegal and, according to experts, would cause “ downright chaos.”
Last year, the director of elections in Yavapai County resigned prior to the midterm elections due to more than 18 months of threats she received. GOP-dominated Yavapai County has been a hotbed of hostile activity, with the anti government militia group, the Oath Keepers, originally planning to have armed ballot drop box watchers before the federal courts kept the group from getting involved.
Mayes said the images of armed men watching drop boxes “disturbed” her and set her on a path to begin speaking to law enforcement across the state. So far, Mayes said she has spoken to Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone and Yavapai County Sheriff David Rhodes and is planning over the next year and a half to speak with all 15 county sheriffs, as well as law enforcement across the state.
A spokesperson for the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office said that Mayes spoke with Rhodes and discussed a number of law enforcement issues but the “election discussion was very minimal with no specifics discussed.”
Making sure voters feel safe and secure when using a drop box will be a major priority, Mayes said, and that if that means making sure that agents with the Attorney General’s Office are present alongside law enforcement, then that might be the case. Currently, Mayes has 60 agents working directly with her in the office.
“I’m zero tolerance when it comes to people violating the law and when it comes to people intimidating voters and those trying to count the vote,” Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone told the Mirror.
MCSO deputies had to be dispatched in riot gear to deal with angry and armed crowds of election denialists during the 2020 election, when they descended upon the Maricopa County tabulation center. His deputies also have had to dedicate security to election officials who faced threats for their work, Penzone said.
During the midterms, MCSO spent approximately $675,000 on security for the elections, a number Penzone is expecting to be “substantially” higher for the next election as he and his deputies are already preparing for the next wave of threats to election officials, as well as “operations” against drop boxes.
“It has changed it to the point now that my planning for the upcoming election starts when the last election ended,” Penzone said. “We are seeing a surge and a heightened call to action where there are more actors out there looking to undermine the process.”
Penzone said that most of the threats are not ones the office has been able to act on, but there has been a lot of activity. From threats coming in through the physical mail, phone lines and social media, there is a lot to go through.
“There is a lot of chatter that has not exceeded the threshold of being a crime but it is concerning in nature,” Penzone said. “But their intentions make you concerned for the people in the community who handle elections.”
Penzone added that it is the person they are unaware of that concerns him the most — the person who will act on the violent rhetoric who may fly under the radar of law enforcement. Penzone has publicly stated in the past that he would include inflammatory comments made by public officials in charging documents by anyone charged with a crime, a statement he doubled down on in his interview with the Mirror.
The threats against drop boxes have already had impacts on voting rights groups, who saw a shift in tactics in how they communicated with voters during the midterm election. It also saw observers from the Department of Justice descend upon the state in numbers the state had not seen in years.
But for Mayes, the Election Integrity Unit can change those issues and bolster voting rights issues in the state.
“We really want to repurpose the Election Integrity Unit to be an arm of the Attorney General’s Office that is focused on protecting democracy in Arizona and, in particular, is aimed at protecting election officials against the rise of death threats and intimidation against them,” she said, adding that “we also want this unit to be thinking about how we can bolster voting rights in Arizona.”
Mayes said that the office is also still looking at what changes, if any, may need to be made to existing law to help further those goals.
“What we’re going to be doing in the next six months is taking a look at all the applicable laws in this area to see if we need any language changes or updates,” Mayes said, adding that they haven’t yet seen any need to that it will need to be done hand-in-hand with the governor, secretary of state and the legislature.
That unanimity could be difficult, given that Democrats hold the executive offices and Republicans control the legislature. And that GOP majority this year has continued its focus on unfounded conspiracy theories around the 2020 and 2022 elections, the same kind that have led to the type of threats that have led to election officials resigning from their positions.
Still, Mayes believes it is a bipartisan issue, reiterating that the threats to both volunteer workers, hired and elected officials has occurred in “red and blue counties.”
“For me, it is the top priority,” she said.
Penzone said that his office remains focused on protecting the community while also making sure that they also don’t inadvertently intimidate voters themselves by making polling sites and drop boxes appear as a “police state.” However, like Mayes, Penzone reiterated that Arizonans need to re-evaluate how they look at one another.
“Right now, I just think that we look across the aisle and judge people predicated on a single letter that they use to vote with, and I think that is a shortsighted way to judge each other,” Penzone said.
Arizona Mirror is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arizona Mirror maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jim Small for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Arizona Mirror on Facebook and Twitter.