This group aims to protect Arizona elections by fighting falsehoods and encouraging common values

·5 min read
Brittany Dover leaves the Burton Barr Library and voting center after casting her vote on Aug. 2, 2022, in Phoenix.
Brittany Dover leaves the Burton Barr Library and voting center after casting her vote on Aug. 2, 2022, in Phoenix.

Nearly 100 civic, business and religious leaders in Arizona have joined together in an effort to protect democracy and stave off political violence.

The Arizona Democracy Resilience Network — a cross-partisan effort — is asking political candidates to:

  • Cooperate with elections officials.

  • Avoid spreading falsehoods.

  • Acknowledge the legitimacy of election outcomes after results have been certified.

"When you have candidates talking about fraud when there's really been no evidence of fraud and fraud before an election is even held, it presents the kind of atmosphere out there that can lead to things down the road that you just don't want to see happen," said co-director Don Henninger of Scottsdale.

Henninger, a former media executive who runs the Scottsdale Coalition of Today and Tomorrow, said the network will promote principles of democratic elections and keep ears to the ground for potential threats through the 2022 and 2024 election cycles.

The network was initiated by the Carter Center, a nonprofit founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and devoted to resolving conflict and advancing democracy. The center's efforts to bolster democracy have historically been focused outside of the United States, but it announced in 2020 that it would begin to look inward.

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"We do see a threat to democracy here, and we should never take it for granted," Henninger said. "The values that we hold near and dear that have driven democracy for all of our lives are now being questioned and challenged, and it's a little disconcerting to think about what could happen next if we don't have enough people paying attention."

The new group comes after elections staff across the nation received threats following the 2020 election. In Arizona, those threats drove some away from their jobs. Five of the state's 15 counties have new elections directors this cycle.

During the Aug. 2 primary election, Maricopa County officials planned a "more robust" law enforcement presence at the polls to ward against any violence, and Sheriff Paul Penzone said last week in an interview with KTAR News that he will kick security measures "up a notch" ahead of the November election.

Ahead of the primary, he had reminded candidates that words matter.  "When you say things that cause people to believe that they can't trust in a system that is trustworthy, then people act emotionally and emotions lead to bad judgement, bad behavior."

Voters arrive and leave Dream City Church Scottsdale Campus on election day, Aug. 2, 2022.
Voters arrive and leave Dream City Church Scottsdale Campus on election day, Aug. 2, 2022.

The primary went relatively smoothly in Maricopa County, but there were still a few hiccups. One candidate for Maricopa County supervisor got slapped with a cease-and-desist order halfway through election day after encouraging people to replace government-issued pens from polling places.

Henninger's group would take a new approach to safeguarding upcoming elections, leveraging the network of people involved to fight misinformation and inform constructive engagement with the political process.

"What we hope will happen is that they'll all have their own spheres of influence where they are messaging to people who understand and respect what they say, and it will be an important vehicle for how to get the truth out with what is happening with elections," he said.

Group plans to encourage common principles, deter violence

The new initiative isn't just about Arizona. Three other battleground states — North Carolina, Georgia and Florida — will see similar groups from The Carter Center.

Within their respective states, Henninger said the organizations will aim to provide examples of positive political engagement and show "that there is far more about which we agree than about which we disagree, including the importance of engaging with civility around elections."

By partnering with other organizations and a broad swath of community leaders from across the political spectrum, Henninger said his group wants to prevent violence by being "in tune with what's happening."

"If we pick up on things we're hearing, we can alert folks, whether that be security people or just people in the public who need to know that the potential for violence may or may not be out there," he said. "We're in an age now where you never know what's going to happen. ... There's a lot of stuff that's below the surface across the country that people are now worried about."

Henninger hopes political candidates will sign onto the principles for creating trusted elections such as not spreading falsehoods and supporting election officials.

"When you look at the principles, it's basically about getting back core democratic values that have been a part of our fabric of life forever," Henninger said. "Really what we're doing is we're turning and reminding people of what those principles and values are, and in this day and age, that's something that we need to be reminded of."

The Carter Center also is interested in promoting nonpartisan election observation in Arizona — something it has done for 113 elections in 39 countries since its founding. Henninger said those efforts will be separate from the network, but will serve an important role in boosting electoral confidence.

Reaching rural Arizona communities

Currently, Henninger said the group is focused on growing in Maricopa and Pima counties, where the bulk of Arizona residents live.

Going beyond that is the "next step" for the new initiative.

"We'll rely on the recorders in all of the counties to help get us connected to people of influence there," Henninger said. "And, we'll rely on people in our network who have got connections in rural counties as well, so we have a lot more work to do to reach out into rural Arizona."

He predicts that the next stage of the group's expansion will focus on finding partners in Yuma, Flagstaff, Prescott and other smaller population centers, as well as continuing to build the network in tribal and religious communities.

"We're going to try to get out and meet with as many groups as will have us to talk about this ... whether it's a church or a civic group or a rotary club or whatever it might be," Henninger said. "We want to spend the next few months leading up to the general election getting and meeting with as many people as we possibly can."

Reach reporter Sasha Hupka at sasha.hupka@arizonarepublic.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SashaHupka.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: How new Carter Center group aims to protect Arizona elections