BISBEE, Ariz. — James Knox was glad to get out of the big city.
Part of a network of activists who believe U.S. elections are unreliable, Knox has unsuccessfully tried to convince supervisors in Maricopa County, Arizona’s most populous county and home to Phoenix, that they should throw out elections that Republicans lost and get rid of voting machines.
So earlier this past week, Knox went somewhere more hospitable to his project - nearly 200 miles south of his home in the Phoenix exurb of Queen Creek to Cochise County. During last year’s elections, the county’s conservative-majority Board of Supervisors tried to count all ballots by hand - until a judge blocked that - and then refused to certify the results until a judge ordered them to do so.
“Here, it’s a little bit easier to be heard by the board,” Knox said before the latest supervisors’ meeting, where members discussed replacing the respected elections director, who resigned after objecting to the board’s decisions.
Last year was a tough one for the election denial movement in Arizona. Its candidates for U.S. Senate, governor, secretary of state and attorney general all lost. But it’s still thriving in rural Cochise County, a vivid example of how paranoia about elections fanned by former President Donald Trump maintains a stubborn grip in rural parts of the country.
Trump last year backed a slate of candidates for top state election positions in Arizona and elsewhere who parroted his lie about losing the 2020 presidential election due to voter fraud. Every one of those candidates lost in the battleground states that typically decide the presidency. But the election conspiracy movement maintains a firm hold in beet-red rural spots such as Cochise County, a swath of the Sonoran Desert dotted with ranches, small towns and U.S.-Mexico border communities that encompasses an area larger than Rhode Island and Connecticut combined.
PHOTOS: Republican losses fan election conspiracies in rural Arizona
The county’s respected, nonpartisan elections director, Lisa Marra, who had opposed the board’s voting moves, recently resigned after five years in the job. The two Republicans on the three-member board are seeking to replace her with the elected county recorder, David Stevens, another Republican.
Stevens is a friend of former GOP state Rep. Mark Finchem, who attended Trump’s rally in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, that preceded the Capitol riot and who ran unsuccessfully last year for secretary of state, Arizona’s top election post. Finchem had said he would not have certified President Joe Biden’s 2020 win in Arizona.
Stevens was prepared to oversee Cochise County’s hand count when Marra objected last year, and only stopped once a judge ruled that it violated state law. Stevens has appealed that ruling and recently joined a nonprofit founded by Finchem to focus on election “integrity.”
In Arizona, elected recorders such as Stevens already play a part in elections. They register voters, distribute mail ballots and verify signatures on the ones sent back, while the nonpartisan election director handles the counting. Stevens said he has always been a fair broker in elections and that in 2020, he spoke more to Democratic groups about voting than Republican ones.
Still, many residents are furious at Stevens‘ new role.
“Recorder Stevens has proven he’s part of the crazy conspiracy crowd,” said Jennifer Druckman, a retiree who was one of dozens who spoke out against Stevens getting expanded responsibilities to oversee elections in the county.
Cochise is staunchly conservative - Trump won the county by 20 percentage points in 2020 even as Biden took the state. But the backlash to the election chaos has been palpable.
Activists are circulating petitions to recall Supervisor Tom Crosby, one of the two Republicans who voted for the hand count in October. Crosby also refused to certify the county’s vote tallies as a way to stop the state from finalizing election results in December after Democrat Katie Hobbs defeated Republican Kari Lake for governor.
After a judge ordered the Cochise County board to certify the election, Crosby skipped the next meeting, leaving fellow Republican Peggy Judd and Democrat Ann English to take the vote. It was a dramatic example of how the once-routine task of formalizing election results became charged with politics as Trump allies in scattered rural counties in the West targeted certification as a way to disrupt elections.
In an interview after this past week’s meeting, Crosby scoffed at speakers’ claims that he represents a threat to democracy.
“The ‘Big Lie’ is that checking voting machines is subverting democracy,” Crosby said. “My constituents feel like, if we can’t check ‘em, we don’t want ‘em.”
Election officials, including in Cochise County, check the accuracy of their machines by comparing their tabulations with paper ballot receipts, but Crosby said he still had broader suspicions. Crosby also dismissed the recall effort.
“If it’s leftists bashing me or patriots saying I’m wonderful, the message is the same,” he said.
But not everyone upset at Crosby is a leftist. Greg Lamberth, a retired engineer and lifelong Republican, is one of the people circulating petitions to recall the supervisor.
“I don’t see Mr. Crosby as acting in a way that gives us a functional government in Cochise County,” Lamberth said in an interview, noting the county has already spent more than $100,000 in legal fees related to its election adventures.
A former Marine, Lamberth is also disappointed in Stevens, a onetime military information technology specialist.
“He knows damn well that a hand count is less accurate than a machine count,” Lamberth said.
That’s why election officials decades ago largely turned away from hand counts and used tabulators to tally up ballots. Trump and his allies have attacked those devices, making unsupported allegations they were rigged against him in 2020, sometimes insinuating that foreign powers such as Venezuela were behind it. Those allegations triggered pushes for hand counts in a few rural counties in Nevada and New Mexico.
Stevens said in an interview that last October, a small group of conservative citizens approached him and asked whether the county could tally all ballots by hand rather than rely on machines. Stevens said he told them no - it was too close to the election to change procedure.
But Stevens suggested the county conduct a parallel hand count to check the machines’ accuracy. Other election officials were alarmed, warning it could fan misinformation about the true tally in statewide races. A judge ruled the county didn’t have discretion to pursue a full hand count; the county is appealing.
Stevens stressed that none of this was his idea or that of the supervisors.
“All this comes from the grassroots,” he said in an interview in his office in the county building, where a pockmarked target from a shooting range hung from the wall and assembled Lego Star Wars sets sat on his coffee table.
While Stevens knocked down some prominent Arizona election conspiracy theories, saying most were a product of people not understanding the complexity of the elections process, he said he didn’t want to dismiss the value of a hand count.
“I try not to have preconceived notions - let’s find out,” Stevens said.
Elisabeth Tyndall, the chairwoman of the county’s Democratic Party, said the problem is that Cochise’s Republican power structure simply cannot say “no” to its base.
“We have had Republican leadership pretty much forever,” Tyndall said. “They haven’t held their fellow Republicans accountable for nonsense.”
Despite their overwhelming numerical advantages at the ballot box, many Cochise Republicans still see themselves as an aggrieved minority that needs to get more aggressive.
Bob McCormick, 82, a retired real estate agent, was a member of the small group that initially met with Stevens. He said their numbers are now more than 100.
Still, McCormick knew as he waited to enter the supervisors meeting that he was outnumbered by angry Democrats wanting to vent at the Republican supervisors and Stevens.
“For every 10 of them, one of us shows up,” McCormick said of Democrats. “We really don’t fight. Until we change the whole system, we’re going to be in trouble.”
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