While Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes was in D.C. this week smearing election integrity advocates as election “deniers,” a lawsuit was filed against Maricopa County election officials by the local nonprofit civic group Strong Communities Foundation of Arizona and Eric Lovelis, a Maricopa County resident and member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.
County officials “are fully aware of the myriad deficiencies in how they administer elections, yet they have consistently failed to take effective action to rectify them,” the lawsuit claims. “The Defendants’ administration of elections in Maricopa County has been sloppy, shoddy, and rife with mistakes.
Filed by America First Legal, a law firm founded by former Trump administration officials, the suit names all of Maricopa County’s Board of Supervisors, including its chairman, Bill Gates, and Stephen Richer, the county recorder.
It lays out a litany of alleged election law violations from recent major election cycles. The complaint seeks injunctions and writs of mandamus ordering the county to observe election statutes properly to prevent the 2024 election from being “marred by the same mistakes and maladministration as the 2020 and 2022 elections.”
At a panel discussion put on by the Election Center on Tuesday, Fontes downplayed election integrity concerns to the audience of election officials and media: “Some of what’s going to happen there [in the 2024 election] is what we see every single cycle, the occasional human error. Unfortunately now, bad actors with bad intent are going to blow these things out of proportion and pretend like the sky is falling; just because somebody moved a box from point A to point B.”
The beef is more than mere shuffling of boxes, according to the lawsuit. The complaint is asking a judge to instruct Maricopa County to “document chain of custody” for ballots that were being “stored or transported,” which is a common statutory requirement when ballots are moved outside of the public’s view.
An election worker in Maricopa County admitted in court testimony last May that ballots were delivered to private third-party providers to process the ballots with no chain of custody forms. This was a key point of contention in the 2022 gubernatorial contest between Republican Kari Lake and Democrat Katie Hobbs, who won by about 17,000 votes.
The lawsuit asserts that Maricopa County election officials “unlawfully failed to maintain proper chain of custody” for ballots, which “resulted in a discrepancy of over 25,000 votes, which was larger than the margin of victory in many 2022 statewide races, including the governor’s race.”
During his remarks at the Election Center event on Tuesday, Fontes dismissed election integrity activists’ pleas to fix issues in Arizona’s election administration. He told the audience the focus in 2024 will be on “the real work that gets done” by “the folks who are actually driving the trucks [with voters’ ballots], moving stuff around in the warehouses, and assisting voters. To me that’s where 2024 is going to be focused.”
But according to the lawsuit, much work needs doing. In 2022, the lawsuit contends, ballots were not properly reviewed for signature verification, and the vote centers were plagued by problems with ballot-on-demand printers. “These printer malfunctions included printing 19-inch ballot images on 20-inch paper, making them unreadable to tabulator machines,” the lawsuit claims. “Additionally, printers were incorrectly set to print ballots using an ink-saving ‘eco’ function that led to speckled or faded printing that also made ballots unreadable by tabulator machines.”
On Tuesday, I asked Fontes about why some machines reportedly malfunctioned on Election Day 2022, among other apparent failures. According to a lawsuit brought by 2022 gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, tabulators at roughly 60 percent of voting centers in Maricopa rejected ballots on Election Day. Fontes responded by telling me “the root of your question comes from election denialism” and insisting the “tabulators were so sensitive and so secure that an undetectable printing error [would be] so tiny you couldn’t see it with a human eye.”
“We had a very secure system,” he added, claiming “it is a standard procedure that if the tabulators in a polling place don’t count, that there is an alternative place to put those.”
The plaintiffs also take issue with Maricopa County’s massive voting centers, which America First Legal says are not only “poorly run,” but are an “irrational substitute for election day precinct voting,” and are “situated in a racially discriminatory way, having a disparate impact on the County’s White and Native American citizens who are more likely to vote in person.”
In addition to maintaining chain of custody documentation when ballots are transferred, the filing asks the Maricopa County Superior Court to order election officials to use “demographic data from the 2020 and 2022 general elections to racially balance the number of election-day Long Distance Voters,” since the “vast majority” of these “election-day voters whose residence was located more than two miles from a voting center” were “in census blocks that were majority White or Native American.”
The lawsuit contends that:
…during the 2022 election, hundreds, and possibly thousands, of voters appeared at voting centers and were told that they were no longer registered to vote in Maricopa County, even though they had not moved away, had not knowingly requested that their registration be canceled or transferred, had not consented to the cancellation of their registration, and had never been informed of the cancellation of their registration.
As a result, the plaintiffs continue, they had to cast provisional ballots, which they claim Maricopa County election officials “never counted.” The “number of voters disenfranchised during the 2022 general election by the Defendants’ unlawful cancellations was larger than the margin of victory in some races,” the filing says.
When I asked him Tuesday about the problems in the 2022 election, Fontes responded that he would act “when I see evidence of misdeeds, when I see evidence of problems,” but insisted “there hasn’t been any evidence.”
But Fontes has certainly seen a lengthy list of complaints, such as another lawsuit filed days ago against him by Arizona Senate President Warren Petersen and state House Speaker Ben Toma. They allege the state’s Election Procedures Manual is in “conflict with election laws.” The Republican National Committee likewise filed a lawsuit over the manual on Friday.
The lawsuit by America First Legal contends that, instead of addressing well-documented failures to follow statutes on chain of custody and proper verification of absentee-ballot signatures, Maricopa County election officials have instead “stubbornly dug their heels in. Rather than fix their past mistakes, they try to fight, silence, or shame anyone questioning their maladministration.”