In Arizona, losing candidate points to perceived conflict

In this combination of photos Arizona gubernatorial candidates, Republican Kari Lake, left, appears before a PBS televised debate on June 29, 2022, in Phoenix and Democrat Katie Hobbs smiles prior to a televised interview in Phoenix, Oct. 18, 2022. Lake and supporters of her failed campaign for Arizona governor are attacking Hobbs as having a conflict of interest for overseeing the election she won. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

PHOENIX (AP) — Republican Kari Lake and supporters of her failed campaign for Arizona governor are attacking Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs as having a conflict of interest for overseeing the election she won.

Secretaries of state across the country routinely oversee their own races, and Republicans had no such criticism when one of their own was secretary of state in Georgia and oversaw his own election for governor four years ago. The criticism on Hobbs has persisted after one heavily Republican rural county declined to certify its own election results, forcing Hobbs to sue.

Lake said in a video posted to social media this week that Hobbs “is now threatening counties with legal action if they do not crown her governor by certifying the election that she botched. You simply can’t make this stuff up.”

Hobbs defeated Lake by a little more than 17,000 votes, and there has been no evidence that voters were disenfranchised, or that the result was in any way inaccurate. Every county in the state except one — Cochise County, in the state's southeast corner — has certified its results. Hobbs' lawsuit against the county has its first hearing on Thursday.

While most Republicans around the country who lost after spreading baseless claims about the 2020 presidential election conceded, Lake has not. She has embarked on a campaign on social media and conservative outlets to claim the election was tainted by problems in Maricopa County, which includes the Phoenix area and accounts for more than 60% of the state's registered voters. County officials say everyone was able to cast a ballot and that all legal votes were counted.

Trey Grayson, a Republican who served two terms as Kentucky’s secretary of state, noted that he oversaw two of his elections — his re-election as secretary of state and then a bid for U.S. Senate.

“The system is designed so that there aren’t conflicts of interest,” Grayson said. “I can understand why Kari Lake might ask the question. But if you look at the actual division of labor, there is not a conflict.”

Grayson said he did not think an appearance of a conflict justified elected official recusing themselves from the process, pointing to various safeguards built into the system. The secretary of state merely administers laws passed by the legislature, he said, and courts can step in if someone tries to influence an election.

“If everyone has to recuse on the mere perception of a conflict, our system would fail," he said. "There is no evidence that is necessary.”

Similar claims surfaced in 2018 when then-Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp and then-Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, both Republicans, were both running for governor in their respective states. While Kobach lost his bid, Kemp won amid criticism from his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams, for refusing to step down from his position before the election.

“Brian Kemp oversaw for eight years the systematic and systemic dismantling of our democracy and that means there could not be free and fair elections in Georgia this year,” Abrams told MSNBC in an interview shortly after the 2018 election.

Earlier this year, a federal judge ruled against a group associated with Abrams in a four-year-old lawsuit that had challenged various aspects of the state's voting practices.

Kemp resigned soon after Election Day in 2018, and an interim secretary of state later certified the results.

Across the country this year, 15 secretaries of state were on the ballot — running for re-election or another office. Just before the Nov. 8 election, a nonpartisan group that advocates for election reforms called on the officials to recuse themselves from certifying themselves as the winner in a close election. The Election Reformers Network had previously drafted proposed legislation that would, among other steps, prohibit a state election official from overseeing elections in which they are on the ballot.

“Although many secretaries of state manage such situations of potential conflict of interest with integrity, the current environment of partisan animosity and voter distrust calls for proactive efforts to ensure voter confidence in results,” Kevin Johnson, the group’s executive director, said in a statement at the time.

This year, most of those contests were not close, but Hobbs won by less than 1 percentage point in the Arizona governor’s race. The secretary of state there certifies election results in the presence of the governor, the state attorney general and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

This week, Johnson said Hobbs should explore whether state law allows her to recuse herself from certifying her own race.

Hobbs' spokeswoman, Sophia Solis, emphasized that the secretary of state does not handle ballots or play a direct role in vote tabulation, and said that neither the courts nor precedent in the state require Hobbs to recuse herself “based on purely speculative claims.”

“In fact, Arizona has a history of state officials who have been tasked with overseeing election administration or certifying election results who have continued to ethically perform their duties while on the ballot,” Solis said.

While Hobbs plays an important role in certifying an election, the procedure is routine and ministerial, meaning she is compelled to sign off on the results unless a judge has intervened in the process.

Nevertheless, the issue was raised by many of the dozens of speakers who urged supervisors in counties across the state not to certify the vote tallies in their jurisdictions.

“In my opinion, that opens the door to fraud because she’s in charge of an election in which she is a candidate,” Lawrence Neigel of Prescott told Yavapai County supervisors, saying Hobbs should have recused herself. “I mean, that’s crazy.”

In Cochise County, two Republican supervisors on the three-member board voted not to accept the election results on Monday, the deadline under state law, prompting Hobbs' lawsuit and another representing voters in the county. On Wednesday, a Tucson civil rights lawyer filed a notice of claim with Cochise County, saying it was the first step toward a class action lawsuit on behalf of all 47,000 voters who are at risk of not having their votes counted.

The supervisors did not cite any concerns with the vote count but said they want to hear more during a Friday meeting about debunked concerns that ballot counting machines were not properly certified for use in an election.

The county attorney has refused to defend the supervisors, saying their refusal to certify is illegal. The supervisors voted Tuesday to instead hire a Phoenix lawyer who represented the firm Cyber Ninjas, which led a widely mocked partisan review of the 2020 election in Maricopa County.

It's not clear whether the lawyer, Bryan Blehm, is willing to take the case. The supervisors were unable to reach him before voting to hire him.

Blehm and Cochise County Administrator Richard Karwaczka did not respond to emails Wednesday asking whether Blehm had agreed to represent the supervisors.

Two prominent former prosecutors asked the attorney general and county attorney to investigate whether the two Republican supervisors, Tom Crosby and Peggy Judd, should be criminally charged for failing to carry out their election obligations.

“We take no pleasure in making this prosecution recommendation, but we believe deeply that the rule of law dictates that public officials be held accountable when they refuse to comply with their legal obligations,” former state Attorney General Terry Goddard, a Democrat, and former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, a Republican, wrote in their letter.

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Cassidy reported from Atlanta.