Arizona Sues After County Puts an Election Skeptic in Charge of Voting

An Arizona county is being sued by the state’s Democratic attorney general after it transferred voting oversight to the county’s Republican recorder, who has cast doubts about past election results in a place where former President Donald J. Trump won nearly 60 percent of the vote in 2020.

It is the latest clash between Democrats in statewide office and Cochise County, a deeply Republican area in southeastern Arizona, where conspiracy theories about voter fraud and irregularities still swirl.

The county’s nonpartisan elections director, Lisa Marra, announced in January that she would resign, citing threats against her after she refused to comply with rogue election directives from the Republicans who control county government, including plans to count ballots by hand after last year’s midterm elections. She recently accepted a position with the secretary of state’s office.

The county’s board of supervisors then made David W. Stevens, the Republican recorder, the interim elections director, with the board’s two G.O.P. members supporting the new power structure in a Feb. 28 vote, and its lone Democrat opposing it.

On Tuesday, Kris Mayes, who was narrowly elected as Arizona’s attorney general in November and took office in January, filed a lawsuit against the county and called the power shift an “unqualified handover.”

Mr. Stevens, a defendant in the lawsuit, has close ties to Mark Finchem, a former state representative and vocal election denier who was recently punished by a judge for a frivolous lawsuit that had challenged his loss in the 2022 secretary of state’s race.

At an emergency meeting on Wednesday, the supervisors voted 2-to-1 to hire outside counsel in the case, retaining Timothy La Sota, a prominent Arizona lawyer who has represented major election deniers in recent lawsuits. His clients have included Kari Lake, who lost last year’s governor’s race, and Abraham Hamadeh, an unsuccessful G.O.P. candidate for attorney general.

Mr. La Sota declined to comment on Wednesday. Cochise County’s two Republican supervisors did not immediately respond to messages. Ann English, the board’s chairwoman and only Democrat, who voted against hiring Mr. La Sota, declined to comment in an email.

Mr. Stevens said in a phone interview on Wednesday that it was not unusual for county recorders in Arizona to assume expanded oversight of elections.

Arizona law narrowly defines the authority of county recorders, who are responsible for voter registration, early voting and verifying voter signatures on early ballot affidavits and petitions. County election departments, which are separate offices and report to the board of supervisors, oversee Election Day voting and tabulating results.

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In the 19-page lawsuit, Ms. Mayes highlighted Cochise County’s past run-ins with state officials over election administration.

“This is not the first time that defendants have disregarded the law governing elections,” the lawsuit said. “The board and recorder repeatedly flouted the law with respect to the November 2022 general election, first by attempting to engage in an illegal hand count of ballots and then by the board violating its duty to canvass the election within the statutory time frame.”

Ms. Mayes pointed out that the courts ordered the county to stand down on both occasions, with officials eventually complying.

Before the supervisors delegated full authority over elections to Mr. Stevens, the attorney general’s office told the county in a letter that the changes violated state law. But Republicans on the board said they saw no issues with the arrangement.

Mr. Stevens is a board member of the Election Fairness Institute, a nonprofit group run by Mr. Finchem, with whom he served in the State Legislature.

“Mark is a good friend of mine,” said Mr. Stevens, who played down their alliance, later adding: “I don’t foresee it as a problem.”

Still, Ms. English, the Democratic supervisor, was a cautionary voice of dissent. “I hope that we don’t regret it,” she said of the arrangement.

Charles Homans contributed reporting.


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