Arizona’s new attorney general to use election fraud unit to boost voting rights

A unit created under the former Republican attorney general of Arizona to investigate claims of election fraud will now focus on voting rights and ballot access under the newly elected Democratic attorney general.

The Democratic attorney general, Kris Mayes, told the Guardian that instead of prosecuting claims of voter fraud, she will “reprioritize the mission and resources” of the unit to focus on “protecting voting access and combating voter suppression”. Mayes won the attorney general’s race in November against election denier Abe Hamadah by just 280 votes, a race that went to a state-mandated recount.

“Under my predecessor’s administration, the election integrity unit searched widely for voter fraud and found scant evidence of it occurring in Arizona,” Mayes said in a statement. “That’s because instances of voter fraud are exceedingly rare.”

Mayes also plans for the unit to work on protecting election workers, who have faced threats of violence and intimidation. And she intends for the unit to defend Arizonans’ right to vote by mail, which has been attacked by Republican lawmakers and the state GOP in recent years despite being the most common way Arizonans of all political parties cast their ballots.

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In 2019, the Republican-controlled Arizona legislature and then governor, Republican Doug Ducey, added about a half-million dollars in funding for an “election integrity unit” in the attorney general’s office. Since then, the unit has brought a number of legal cases, including charges against four Latina women in a rural part of the state for collecting other people’s ballots, which is illegal in Arizona.

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It is not yet clear what will happen to cases currently under way, including the ballot collection charges in Yuma county, Mayes’s office said. A webpage on the attorney general’s website created to allow people to file election complaints for potential investigation is still live.

Until recently, the head of the unit under the previous Republican attorney general, Mark Brnovich, was Jennifer Wright, an attorney who had criticized Maricopa county elections and sent a letter to the county trying to investigate its elections. Wright left the office shortly before Mayes took control.

Since its inception, the unit has come under fire from Democrats who found its very existence unnecessary, called its attorneys into question, and said it played into false claims about elections. Republicans, too, criticized the unit for not going far enough on election fraud. In one notable instance, the unit investigated claims of hundreds of votes cast by people who were dead, finding just one voter among those claimed dead in whose name a ballot was actually cast.

When Brnovich sought funding for the unit, his office defended the move as a way to protect elections and debunk bogus claims of fraud.

Despite several full-time staff employees and hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding annually, the unit has not uncovered any widespread or coordinated voter fraud. Most of the 20 cases it brought over three years target individual, isolated election law violations, like people using a dead relative’s ballot or casting a ballot despite not being eligible to vote.

In an investigation published last year, the Washington Post found that the unit’s work did not strengthen people’s trust in the voting system but instead “deepened suspicions among many of those who deny President Biden won and sapped government resources”.

Brnovich could not be reached for comment on the unit and its fate under Mayes.

Other states led by Republicans have created similar voter fraud units, some with much larger staffs than Arizona’s. A Virginia unit includes more than 20 staff who were shifted from other parts of the attorney general’s office to focus on election issues, and organizations such as the NAACP have struggled to get information on what that unit is doing. In Florida, a new office tasked with election crimes launched by Governor Ron DeSantis has led to the arrest of 20 people who had felony records who erroneously cast ballots while believing they were legally able to vote.

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