WASHINGTON — The Republican-controlled state Legislature in Arizona voted Thursday to revoke the Democratic secretary of state’s legal authority in election-related lawsuits, handing that power instead to the Republican attorney general.
The move added more discord to the politics of a state already roiled by the widely derided move by Senate Republicans to commission a private firm to recount the vote six months after the November election. And it was the latest in a long series of moves in recent years by Republicans to strip elected Democrats of money and power in states under GOP control.
The measure was part of a grab bag of proposals inserted into major budget legislation, including several actions that appeared to address conspiracy theories alleging manipulated elections that some Republicans lawmakers have promoted. One of the items allotted $500,000 for a study of whether social media sites tried to interfere in state elections by promoting Democrats or censoring Republicans.
The state House approved the legislation late Thursday. It now goes to Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, who has the power to accept or reject individual parts of the measure.
Secretary of State Katie Hobbs and Attorney General Mark Brnovich have sparred before over election lawsuits, with Brnovich arguing that Hobbs would not adequately defend the state against suits, some of them filed by Democrats, that seek to broaden access to the ballot. Hobbs has denied the charge.
The bill approved Thursday gives Brnovich’s office exclusive control of such lawsuits, but only through Jan. 2, 2023 — when the winners of the next elections for both offices would be about to take power. The aim is to ensure that the authority given to Brnovich would not transfer to any Democrat who won the next race for attorney general.
On Friday, Hobbs called the move “egregious,” saying Republicans were “weaponizing the process to take retribution against my office.”
The move against Hobbs continues a Republican strategy of weakening elected Democrats’ authority that dates at least to 2016, when the GOP-controlled Legislature in North Carolina stripped the state’s executive branch of political appointments and control of state and county election boards just before Roy Cooper, a Democrat, took over as governor.
Lawmakers said then that Democrats had behaved similarly in the past, citing a Democratic governor’s decision in 1976 to oust 169 policymakers hired by Republicans. But similar tactics have since been employed to weaken new Democratic governors in Kansas, Wisconsin and Michigan. Democrats in many states with Republican-controlled legislatures have fought efforts to curb their governors’ emergency powers to deal with the pandemic.
Most recently, Georgia Republicans have been in the forefront of GOP attempts nationwide to exert more control over local election officials. In both Georgia and Kansas, legislators even voted to defang the offices of Republican secretaries of state who had defended the security and fairness of elections.
Most other election provisions in the Arizona budget legislation are billed as safeguards against fraud, almost none of which has been found in the past election. One orders a review of voter registration databases in counties with more than 1 million residents — that is, the counties that are home to the Democrat-leaning cities of Phoenix and Tucson.
A new Election Integrity Fund would dole money to county election officials to toughen security and to finance hand counts of ballots after elections. That would appear to open the door to more fraud investigations like the Republican-ordered review of November election ballots in Maricopa County, which was carried by President Joe Biden and Arizona’s two Democratic senators.
That effort has been mocked by experts for its high-resolution examination of ballots for evidence of fakery, including bamboo fibers and watermarks that, according to a QAnon conspiracy theory, are visible only under ultraviolet light.
But the legislation requires all future ballots to contain at least three anti-fraud countermeasures like holograms, watermarks, ultraviolet-visible numbers or intricate engravings and special inks.
It also appropriates $500,000 to determine whether social media and search engine algorithms are biased for or against “one or more candidates of a political party” and whether candidates’ access to them has been restricted. The legislation suggests that such actions could amount to in-kind contributions to candidates or parties that were not reported under Arizona law.
Republican legislators cast the anti-fraud clauses as common-sense steps to make elections safer. State Sen. Sonny Borrelli, who proposed the changes to ballots, said many of the countermeasures were already used to make it hard to produce counterfeit currency.
“Shouldn’t your ballot have the same protections?” he said.
The bill drew immediate criticism from voting-rights advocates, who called its provisions the stuff of conspiracy theories. “This is legislating based on the big lie,” said Emily Kirkland, the executive director of one group, Progress Arizona. “And it’s a really dangerous way to approach making law.”
County election officials said they were skeptical about whether the ballot countermeasures were either needed or practical. Aside from the cost, it is unclear whether there are enough printing companies that are able to produce such ballots to allow for competitive bidding on printing contracts, said Leslie Hoffman, the recorder in Yavapai County, whose main city is Prescott.
The ballots also would require new equipment to verify their authenticity before being tabulated, and it is unclear whether existing tabulators would even accept them, said Jennifer Marson, the executive director of the Arizona Association of Counties.
“This gives the impression that everyone’s ready to go and all we have to do is opt in” to the new countermeasures, she said. “And everything is not ready to go.”