Voter fraud unit in Arizona will shift focus to voter rights
Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes takes her oath of office during the 2023 Inauguration Ceremony at the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix, on Jan. 5, 2023.
By NEIL VIGDOR
Arizona’s new Democratic attorney general, Kris Mayes, is redirecting an election integrity unit her Republican predecessor created, focusing its work instead on addressing voter suppression. The shift by Mayes is one of her first acts since she took office this month.
The unit’s former leader, Jennifer Wright, meanwhile, has joined a legal effort to invalidate Mayes’ narrow victory in the November election.
“Under my predecessor’s administration, the election integrity unit searched widely for voter fraud and found scant evidence of it occurring in Arizona,” Mayes said in a statement provided by her office on Monday. “That’s because instances of voter fraud are exceedingly rare.”
The former attorney general, Mark Brnovich, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate last year, created the office to investigate voter fraud complaints in Arizona, a battleground state.
Mayes said in the statement that she did not share the priorities of Brnovich, whom she described as being preoccupied with voter fraud despite isolated cases. The office has five pending voter fraud investigations, as of late October, and a spokesperson for Mayes said Monday that there was no plan yet for how to proceed with them.
Brnovich did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Republicans in Arizona have amplified conspiracy theories and fraud claims since the 2020 election and the midterms last year, when the attorney general’s race ended with a recount that was decided by 280 votes.
Mayes said that protecting voting access and limiting voter suppression would be at the forefront of her administration.
“I will also use this unit to protect elections officials, election volunteers and poll workers against threats of violence and against interference in our elections,” she said. In addition, the unit will seek to defend vote-by-mail rules, which she said “90% of Arizonans enjoy and in many cases depend on.”
Wright, a former assistant attorney general who had led the election integrity unit for Brnovich, announced last week that she had begun a new role as a lawyer for Abraham Hamadeh, the Republican who lost to Mayes and is planning to continue his legal efforts to try to overturn the election.
Wright referred questions Monday about her new role to the campaign of Hamadeh, who was part of a group of prominent election deniers seeking statewide office in Arizona during the midterms.
In December, his legal efforts to overturn his election loss were dismissed in court and a recount confirmed his defeat. The outcome dealt another blow to Arizona Republicans who entered the midterms with heightened expectations for victory, seizing on high inflation and President Joe Biden’s flagging job approval numbers. Instead, Democrats won most of the marquee statewide offices.
Election deniers pointed to technical glitches on Election Day, which disrupted some ballot counting in Arizona’s most populous county, Maricopa, to fuel conspiracy theories and baseless claims. They also tried to seize on the undercounting of 500 ballots in Pinal County, outside Phoenix, which officials attributed to human error and which has been the basis of Hamadeh’s latest efforts to overturn the election.
“Not only do I believe Abe is right, but I also believe that he will be successful in his election contest, and that is why I have joined this fight,” Wright said in a statement provided by Hamadeh’s campaign. “I look forward to getting Kris Mayes out of the office she should have never occupied in the first place.”
In Arizona, a cauldron of election denialism, Brnovich represented somewhat of an enigma, defending the state’s vote count after the 2020 presidential election. His stance drew the ire of former President Donald Trump, who sharply criticized Brnovich last June and endorsed Brnovich’s Republican opponent, Blake Masters, who won the Senate primary but lost in the general election.
But Brnovich has also suggested that the 2020 election revealed “serious vulnerabilities” in the electoral system and said cryptically on the former Trump aide Steve Bannon’s podcast last spring, “I think we all know what happened in 2020.”