SOS for Democracy

Arizona primary: An election denier wants to run Arizona’s elections as secretary of state

The state's Aug. 2 primary includes four GOP candidates, two of whom are 2020 election deniers, and two Democratic candidates. The winner of the November general election will play a key role in determining voting procedures in the state for years to come.

PHOENIX – State Rep. Mark Finchem, the leading GOP candidate to be Arizona’s next secretary of state, wants to ban electronic voting machines and force the state to use only paper ballots and count them by hand, according to a lawsuit filed earlier this year.

He’s been linked to QAnon conspiracy theorists, is backed by former President Donald Trump and tried to get state lawmakers to throw out the state’s electoral votes for President Joe Biden in 2020, the first Democrat to win the state in 24 years. 

Echoing Donald Trump’s false claims about a stolen election in 2020, Finchem is among a number of swing state candidates nationwide for the office of secretary of state — a usually obscure role that has gained new importance in Arizona and beyond this year.

Often thought of as nonpartisan roles responsible for the smooth running of elections, those secretary of state offices now could become something very different, and much more partisan, under the new crop of candidates.

Current Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat now running for governor, is among those deeply concerned about election deniers seeking to control elections in the state.

“People who are actively seeking to undermine our democratic institutions are now running to oversee them,” she said. “I am really scared for the future of our democracy.”

Finchem and company

Arizona’s secretary of state serves as the state’s de facto lieutenant governor and chief election officer. 

Finchem is running against another election denier, fellow State Rep. Shawnna Bolick, and two other Republicans in the Aug. 2 primary. Finchem and Bolick joined 28 other Arizona lawmakers in signing a resolution to Congress requesting the state’s “alternate” electoral votes count for Trump in the 2020 election. 

Hobbs and other Democrats say Arizona is part of a larger attempt by Trump and his supporters to place political allies in top election roles around the country to ensure his victory in 2024.

“If you look at the presidential election as a chessboard, they’re setting it up to where it doesn’t matter if Trump wins a state,” said Democratic State Rep. Lorenzo Sierra. “As long as he’s got the secretary of state, and as long as he’s got the legislature that is willing to overturn fair and free elections, we are dangerously on the edge of becoming an authoritarian state.”

Finchem and Bolick declined requests for comment.

‘A coordinated effort’

Finchem led in fundraising among secretary of state candidates from both parties as of second quarter 2022 campaign finance filings, the most recent available, with advertising executive and fellow GOP candidate Beau Lane close behind.

Lane offers voters a more moderate approach with his support for mail-in voting, a long-standing practice the Republican party recently rejected nationwide. Each candidate has raised over $1.1 million so far, which is more than the 2018 Republican candidate, Steve Gaynor, had raised at this point.

Lane, who has no prior political experience, says that the office should become a “customer-service oriented operation” and touts his business leadership as the right fit.

Conversely, State Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, the fourth GOP candidate, points to her 11 years in the state legislature in claiming leadership on election integrity, a GOP slogan to promote strict voting ID laws.

Among Democratic candidates for secretary of state, Adrian Fontes, former Maricopa County recorder, is running against House Minority Whip Rep. Reginald Bolding. 

“There’s a coordinated effort across this country to put anti-democracy candidates in election offices, and we can’t allow that to happen,” said Bolding, who supports a new ballot initiative to restore voting access.

Arizonans for Fair Elections, a coalition of state and local community groups, is leading the ballot initiative to make the vote-by-mail list permanent again in Arizona, extend early voting hours and allow same-day registration, among other provisions. Signatures in favor of the ballot measure are currently under review by the state. 

Ugenti-Rita said the ballot initiative unfairly sidesteps the state legislature, which is narrowly controlled by Republicans in both the House and the Senate.

“In Arizona, we have spoke[n] through our legislature, and we have said how we want our elections to run,” Ugenti-Rita said. “And now they’re overturning the will of the people with the initiative.”

Shaping future laws

Arizona’s next secretary of state could be the one to enforce a new citizenship requirement for the state’s voters. The law requires Arizona voters to show proof of citizenship when registering to vote in federal elections for president and members of Congress.

The law will not take effect until 2023, which means the winner of this year’s election will shape its implementation — including its influence on the 2024 presidential race. 

The Supreme Court decided in 2013 that a citizenship requirement goes against federal law. The ruling allowed the state to continue requiring proof of citizenship to vote in state elections but not federal elections. Although all states require U.S. citizenship to vote, Arizona is the only state that requires documentary proof.

The law “requires election officials to go back through their voter registration rolls and remove voters from the rolls who have not previously provided [proof of citizenship],” which would most affect older voters, said Will Wilder, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program.

Older voters tend to skew Republican, so it is unclear how the law would affect the state’s GOP electorate. However, some voting rights experts see ambiguity in how the law will come into play.

“I am hopeful that this is a set of procedures that is largely going to be about voter registration going forward rather than removal,” said Danielle Lang, senior director of voting rights for the Campaign Legal Center. 

Lang and her organization have filed a lawsuit against the legislation. Another part of the law — which requires voters to list their place of birth — could target citizens born outside of the United States, she said. According to the Migration Policy Institute, over 400,000 Arizonans are naturalized citizens.

Another voting rights organization, Mi Familia Vota, which aims to increase voting among Latinos and Latinas, has also filed a lawsuit.

“In Arizona, when we make it harder for people to vote, we’re sending a strong message… to the community that their involvement is not welcomed,” said Carolina Rodriguez-Greer, the Arizona state director for Mi Familia Vota.

Lane is opposed to purging voters who have not shown proof of citizenship in the past, suggesting that voters be “grandfathered” in.

Both Democratic candidates oppose the law altogether, although Fontes said he expects it will be struck down based on the 2013 Supreme Court ruling.

Voting rights experts point to another provision of the law that they find equally concerning: its requirement for proof of residency, which not everyone has or can get easily. 

“[This has] created a full, new, huge barrier for that subset of people that use alternative IDs … that’s snowbirds, that’s students, that’s people who live in tribal and rural lands,” said Alex Gulotta, Arizona state director for All Voting is Local, a national voting rights advocacy group.

This would also make it difficult for organizations to register voters while out in their communities, because many people don’t carry the documents needed for proof of residency with them, said Darrell Hill, Arizona American Civil Liberties Union policy director.

“We’re at a bit of a crisis in our country, because the bedrock of how we elect our leaders is under attack,” Gulotta said.

Contributing: Jeannie Michele Kopstein, Medill News Service