Republicans spread baseless fraud claims, declare victory after switching positions on early ballots

By: - November 11, 2018 3:02 pm
jonathan lines

Arizona Republican Party Chairman Jonathan Lines speaks at an election-eve rally in Prescott on Nov. 5, 2018. Photo courtesy Doug Ducey for Governor

Republicans declared victory on Friday over a settlement requiring all early ballots dropped off at polling places on Election Day to be “cured” if they have signature problems, just days after Arizona’s GOP chairman threatened to sue counties to stop those exact same votes from being tabulated.

The settlement came amid a wave of baseless election fraud allegations from the GOP. Some Republicans, both inside and outside Arizona, led by President Donald Trump, cast aspersions on the results of the election, in some cases alleging outright fraud as GOP Senate hopeful Martha McSally fell behind Democratic opponent Kyrsten Sinema.

No one provided any evidence of fraud or malfeasance.

Some pointed to the lengthy time needed to count Maricopa County’s ballots, though it took just as long to tally early ballots delivered on or right before Election Day two years ago under a Republican county recorder.

The Arizona Republican Party, several county parties and all 15 county recorders agreed to a settlement under which county election officials will contact voters who are deemed to have mismatched signatures on their early ballot envelopes through Nov. 14, in order to give them an opportunity to confirm their signatures before the ballots are rejected.

Election officials follow that practice for early ballots that arrive before Election Day, but prior to the settlement, most counties didn’t extend that policy to early ballots that are dropped off at polling places on Election Day.

Eric Spencer, the state election director at the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office, estimated that there were 5,000-10,000 ballots as of Friday afternoon that could be “cured” under the settlement. The majority were in Maricopa County, which had already decided before the Nov. 6 election that it would allow voters to confirm their signatures on their early ballots after the polls closed on Election Day. Pima and Coconino counties had already implemented such policies as well.

Just five days before the settlement, Arizona Republican Party Chairman Jonathan Lines sent a letter to all 15 county recorders stating that allowing voters to rehabilitate those ballots would violate state law. He threatened to take legal action to stop those ballots from being counted.

The threat came after Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes, a Democrat, decided that the would allow voters to rehabilitate those ballots. Fontes adopted the policy after a coalition of civil rights groups threatened legal action if such as a policy wasn’t adopted.

Additionally, a federal court in Georgia blocked that state from rejecting early ballots with mismatched signatures without giving voters the opportunity to prove they voted the ballot.

Several days after Lines’ letter, four county GOP groups sued the counties over the lack of uniformity in how they deal with early ballots with signature issues that arrive on Election Day. The parties said the disparate policies violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Though they still alleged that state law prohibited counties from rehabilitating the ballots in question, the parties said they simply wanted all 15 counties to follow the same policy, whatever it was. Attorney Brett Johnson, who represented the county parties, told the Arizona Republic that they weren’t trying to block the ballots from being counted, and just wanted all ballots to be treated equally, though the GOP faced allegations from Democrats that it was trying to invalidate votes.

By Friday, the Arizona Republican Party’s message on the issue had changed dramatically.

Lines press conf
Arizona Republican Party Chairman Jonathan Lines addresses the media Friday afternoon at a press conference outside Maricopa County Superior Court. Photo by Jeremy Duda | Arizona Mirror

Lines and the party’s  attorney, Kory Langhofer, stood in front of Maricopa County Superior Court in downtown Phoenix with a group of people waving signs that read, “Count every vote” and “Rural votes matter.” Langhofer declared, “Democrats are stealing this election.”

But about half of the rural county recorders who weren’t allowing voters to cure their early ballots with signature issues are Republicans. At least 10 rural counties still hadn’t moved to cure any of the disputed ballots before the settlement was reached, and more than half of those counties have Republican recorders.

Lines and Langhofer repeatedly refused to answer questions about why they were blaming Democrats for the policy, which they themselves had opposed just days earlier.

At least one other prominent Republican, U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, echoed that message earlier in the day. Kyl released a statement saying all votes should be counted, and said the “Democrats legal strategy” seemed aimed at disenfranchising voters from 11 rural counties, though no such strategy appeared to exist.

The Arizona Democratic Party was among the numerous parties that agreed to Friday’s settlement. A Kyl spokeswoman did not respond to an email from the Arizona Mirror asking what legal strategy he was referring to.

In its court filings, the Arizona Democratic Party took no position on whether county recorders should be forced to adopt a policy of curing early ballots with signature problems. Attorney Bo Dul, who represented the party, wrote that it would be unfair to ask counties to adopt new election policies after the polls had already closed, but only in the context of barring Maricopa and Pima counties from curing all early ballots.

Dul wrote that the GOP’s request for a “uniform policy” would “presumably prevent Maricopa and Pima Counties from continuing to allow voters up to five days after Election Day to cure signature mismatch problems on timely-received early ballots,” which she said would unfairly disenfranchise those voters. She disputed that curing those ballots would violate state law, and said the Republican groups waited too long to file their lawsuit.

In one filing, Dul actually suggested that the court could extend the post-election curing period to all counties.

“Even if the Court concluded that the varying signature cure deadlines across the counties implicates the Equal Protection Clause, the appropriate remedy would be to extend the five-day post-election cure period statewide, not to contract it,” Dul wrote.

After the settlement, several prominent Republicans touted the settlement as a win for rural voters. McSally, whose 17,000-vote lead over Sinema on Wednesday had turned into a 30,000-vote deficit by Saturday, issued a statement praising the settlement.

“Equal protection under the law is a fundamental constitutional right for American voters. As a combat veteran, I fought to protect it. And today, we won an important battle to preserve that right for rural voters in Arizona. I will continue fighting until every ballot is counted,” said McSally.

Like McSally, Gov. Doug Ducey also praised the settlement, and suggested that there could be cheating in the vote counting.

“We often hear the phrase: Every vote matters. And the #AZSen race is proof. So let’s get this right. All legally cast votes MUST be counted. Lawful votes in EVERY county in the state MUST be counted,” Ducey wrote on Twitter. “Let’s follow the law, count the votes, prevent any cheating, and heed the will of the voters.”

Neither Ducey nor McSally publicly expressed any interest in the early ballots at the time Lines was threatening to sue to stop them from being counted. A Ducey spokesman did not respond to a question about why the governor suggested there may be cheating in the vote-counting.

Trump took a far more accusatory stance on Friday, tweeting, “Just out — in Arizona, SIGNATURES DON’T MATCH. Electoral corruption – Call for a new Election? We must protect our Democracy!”

The claim that Democrats were trying to stop rural votes from being counted wasn’t the only spurious allegation Lines made on Friday. In a press release earlier in the day, he accused Fontes of destroying evidence. Lines had requested in his Nov. 4 letter than counties segregate all ballots cured by allowing voters to rehabilitate their disputed signatures, as well as all ballots cast at “emergency voting centers” on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday before the election.

Lines alleged that both practices were against the law, though no one sued over the emergency voting centers. Langhofer argued that emergency voting was being used to illegally extend the in-person early voting period, which ended at 5 p.m. on the Friday before the election.

Maricopa and Pima counties both opened five emergency voting centers in the days before the election, and both counties’ recorders insisted that it wasn’t their job to question voters on whether they had bona fide emergencies that would prevent them from voting on Election Day.

Amanda Steele, a spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, which represents Fontes’s office, said there was no legal obligation for the recorder’s office to segregate ballots, as Lines had requested. Some Republican county recorders whose offices allowed emergency voting before the election ignored that request, as well.

Cochise County Recorder David Stevens, a former Republican lawmaker, said 48 votes were cast during emergency voting on Monday. He did not segregate those ballots, and said he was unaware of Lines’ letter at the time. Pinal County Recorder Virginia Ross also did not segregate the 40-plus ballots cast during emergency voting on the Monday during the election. The two recorders, both Republicans, said their offices didn’t questions voters on why they were using emergency voting.

“The letter was not a court order,” Ross said of Lines’ request.

Judge Margaret Mahoney, who heard the county parties’ case, rejected a request from Johnson during a telephonic hearing on Thursday to require counties to segregate early ballots that needed to be cured as a result of signature issues. Once the early ballots are separated from their envelopes, it’s impossible to tell which had signature issues and which didn’t.

Mahoney also denied Johnson’s request for counties to track phone calls from voters who wanted to cure their ballots.

Fontes rebutted Lines’ allegation, saying it would be illegal to keep the disputed ballots separate and uncounted, and that he refuses to disenfranchise voters.

Lines and Langhofer declined to answer questions about the claim that Fontes destroyed evidence.

The fraud accusations and suggestions of impropriety over vote counting in Maricopa County appear to be part of a unified strategy among Republicans to cast doubt on the election after McSally lost her lead. Politico reported Friday that officials at the Republican National Committee and the White House had been pushing McSally to call the election results into question, and were frustrated that she hadn’t been more aggressive in pushing that narrative.

RNC Chairmwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel also urged Lines to be more aggressive on the matter, Politico reported.

While some Republicans cast the settlement as a victory over Democrats, at least one took the opposite approach. Spencer described it as a rare moment of unity among several groups that are rarely in agreement.

“I haven’t seen this, in my experience, where civil rights groups, Democrats and Republicans and the counties are on the same page on the same policy. This is a moment in history we should cherish,” Spencer said after Friday’s hearing.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”