The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As more states create election integrity units, Arizona is a cautionary tale

Over three years, a high-profile investigation team found little fraud, sapped government resources and deepened suspicions

Contractors working for Cyber Ninjas, a firm hired by Arizona Republican lawmakers to review the 2020 vote in Maricopa County, examine and recount ballots on May 3, 2021, in Phoenix. Although that review confirmed Biden's win, Attorney General Mark Brnovich (R) launched his own probe. (Courtney Pedroza for The Washington Post)

PHOENIX — Republicans across the country have embraced an aggressive tactic this year as they seek to tout baseless claims that voter fraud is a serious threat: arming state agencies with more power and resources to investigate election crimes.

Virginia’s Republican attorney general earlier this month announced a new election integrity unit staffed with more than 20 attorneys and investigators “to increase transparency and strengthen confidence in our state elections.” Georgia legislators recently empowered the statewide police agency to launch election probes. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) last month described the arrests of 20 people for alleged illegal voting as the “opening salvo” of a new elections police force.

But a Washington Post examination of an earlier endeavor in Arizona to systematically ferret out voter fraud found it has turned up few cases — and that rather than bolster confidence in elections, the absence of massive fraud has just fueled more bogus theories and distrust.

After investigating thousands of complaints in the past three years, a special unit in the Arizona attorney general’s office created to crack down on illegal voting and other election-related crimes has prosecuted just 20 cases in a state of more than 4 million voters. The total represents a slight increase from the 16 cases brought by the office in a previous six-year period, according to court filings and hundreds of pages of public records.

Most prosecutions are small-bore, isolated cases of illegal voting, such as six felons who cast ballots though their voting rights were not restored, and three women who turned in ballots for their mothers, who had recently died.

Some Republicans who have falsely claimed voter fraud is rampant now say the limited number of prosecutions shows that the unit is not doing its job. Leading supporters of former president Donald Trump in Arizona, including the Republican nominees for governor, attorney general and secretary of state, are pushing to allocate even more resources to rooting out election crimes.

Arizona’s experience shows the damaging consequences that can result when public officials use their power to reinforce false claims that voter fraud is a significant issue in American elections. Rather than reassure citizens about the strength of the Arizona voting systems, the state’s election crimes unit deepened suspicions among many of those who deny President Biden won and sapped government resources, The Post’s review found.

“We’ve invented the smoke in order to say there’s a fire,” said Rusty Bowers, the Republican leader of the Arizona House, who fought attempts to overturn the 2020 election.

Katie Conner, a spokesperson for Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich (R), said the election integrity unit has “a number of ongoing criminal cases” and is fulfilling its mission by closing out thousands of election-related complaints.

“As a prosecutorial agency,” Conner said, “we deal in facts and evidence.”

But Republicans who have questioned the outcome of the 2020 elections say they expected more from the unit.

“It does make you wonder why aren’t they doing anything,” said state Sen. Kelly Townsend (R), who helped create the unit but is now skeptical of it. “Except for a handful of individuals, but that’s nothing new.”

Unit’s creation followed Democratic wins

Arizona launched its election integrity unit several months after the 2018 midterm election brought top-to-bottom wins for Democrats. In the marquee U.S. Senate race, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema beat Trump-endorsed Republican Martha McSally after a protracted vote count. Trump declared ballots had appeared “out of the wilderness” for Sinema, an unsubstantiated claim that took hold among his supporters.

The next year, Republicans created an election integrity team in the attorney general’s office, similar to a program run by the Texas attorney general. The unit was allocated $530,000 for a full-time criminal prosecutor, civil attorney, special agent and administration assistant, though public records show other employees in the attorney general’s office are pulled in to investigate election complaints at times.

Elections officials argued that Arizona’s voting systems were secure. Democrats cast the unit as a response to their electoral success.

The unit also helps uphold Arizona election laws that critics say limit voter participation. In what Brnovich hailed as “the most important election integrity case decided by the Supreme Court in years,” the office defended state laws allowing counties to require voters to cast ballots in their assigned precincts and banning most people from gathering and submitting the ballots of non-relatives.

To lead the unit, Brnovich chose Jennifer Wright, a lawyer whose 2011 bid for Phoenix mayor was backed by tea party activists. From 2010 to 2014, Wright co-chaired Verify the Vote Arizona and worked closely with True the Vote, a Texas-based organization that has made uncorroborated claims of rampant election fraud around the country.

“We’ve all been made aware that there are forces at work to steal power from the people by manipulating the vote,” Wright said in a 2012 video to help True the Vote recruit volunteers to monitor polls on Election Day. “Remember upwards to 20 percent [of poll watchers] are going to find issues that, absent their presence, could have resulted in a fraudulent vote being cast.”

Wright is in charge of reviewing complaints referred to the election integrity unit and deciding which ones to forward to the criminal division, records show.

Wright frequently reposts Twitter comments by far-right voices and tweets attacks on coronavirus vaccines, abortion and various Democrats, including Sinema and Biden. Her account is labeled “personal account” but includes public announcements about the election integrity unit.

Wright did not respond to requests for an interview with The Post. Conner, the office spokesperson, said all attorneys in the election integrity unit enforce the law “regardless of their personal beliefs.”

“Their First Amendment rights do not end when they work for a government agency,” she said.

After the 2020 election, allegations of fraud again churned through Arizona. Biden’s win in sprawling Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, helped him become the first Democratic presidential nominee to win the state since 1996.

In an interview days after the election, Brnovich rejected the idea that fraud had marred the results. “If indeed there was some great conspiracy, it apparently didn’t work,” he said, noting down-ballot victories by some Republicans.

But within several weeks, the unit was swamped with more than 2,000 complaints, Wright said at a legislative hearing. “The unit is fully investigating these allegations, and intends to prosecute every substantiated allegation, but criminal investigations take time,” she told lawmakers.

Many of those complaints were unsubstantiated. For example, the unit examined a flood of reports that ballots marked with Sharpie markers were miscounted or disregarded. Brnovich’s office quickly determined that didn’t happen, and those voters were not disenfranchised.

Of the 20 cases the unit has prosecuted, none changed the outcome of an election. Some had no bearing on vote counts at all, involving crimes like videotaping inside a polling place, making illegal campaign donations and forging signatures to qualify as a candidate. One case was thrown out by a judge. One defendant was ruled mentally incompetent.

The cases also illustrate how fraud is often rooted in mistakes or confusion, not secret plots.

Melinda Sue Baird, 57, who lives in the Phoenix area, was one of those who got caught in the unit’s net. Baird said that in the weeks before her mother’s death in October 2020, the 87-year-old woman, a C-SPAN enthusiast, told everyone from family members to hospice workers that voting was her final wish.

Baird took her mother’s ballot home. “I wept over it and cried over it,” she said. Baird had helped fill out the ballot, which is legal, but instead of indicating that she assisted her mother and signing her own name, she forged her mother’s signature. Last year, Baird plead guilty to “presenting a false instrument” and was sentenced to 100 hours of community service and a $1,000 fine.

“I didn’t even hire an attorney because I was so ashamed and wanted to accept responsibility for the mistake I made,” she said.

Baird’s husband, Mark Baird, is as angry as she is contrite. He argued that Brnovich should be arresting the 11 Trump supporters who falsely signed electoral college certificates in December 2020 even though Biden won the state. “If you’re going to go after her, then he should be going after a slate of people that knowingly tried to subvert a free and fair election and signed their name to it,” he said.

In an interview with an Arizona radio station in January, Brnovich referred questions about the fake Trump electors to the Department of Justice.

Trump campaign documents show advisers knew fake-elector plan was baseless

In one of the six cases involving felons, Victor Manuel Aguirre, 47, said he registered during a voting rights drive at the Pima County Jail, where he was being held, according to a transcript of his sentencing last month. Aguirre was told that if he wasn’t eligible because of his felony record, his registration would be discarded, according to his lawyer, Anne Elsberry. Under Arizona law, a person convicted of two or more felonies must petition the court for restoration of their civil rights.

At the hearing, the unit’s lead criminal prosecutor, Todd Lawson, acknowledged problems with the state’s “gatekeeper functions” to keep felons off the voting rolls. Pima County Superior Court Judge Javier Chon-Lopez sentenced Aguirre to the minimum term of six months.

“It appears that he was doing a lot better in his life,” the judge said. “He appears to be genuine in his belief that if he wasn’t qualified to vote that somebody would cancel his application.”

Like the people with felony convictions recently arrested again on illegal voting charges in Florida, Aguirre received a voting card in the mail and figured he was eligible, Elsberry said in an interview.

“This was the first time he ever voted in his life,” Elsberry said. “He’s very confused about why he got into trouble.”

Florida let them vote. Then DeSantis’s election police arrested them.

Though the number of election fraud cases is small, some Republicans say the unit fulfills an important public service. State Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R) said the prosecutions “show the public that any instance of fraud is wrong.” Leslie Hoffman, a Republican who until recently helped oversee Yavapai County elections, said the unit is worthwhile because those with complaints “felt like they had a place to go.”

A hyper-focus on the state’s most populous county

As the unit investigated individual cases, Brnovich also directed it to scrutinize claims that voting irregularities tainted Biden’s close margin of victory in Maricopa County.

Republican lawmakers had commissioned a review of Maricopa County by Cyber Ninjas, a Florida-based firm that had never audited an election before and was led by a “stop the steal” proponent. In September 2021, that review confirmed Biden’s win, but days later, the attorney general launched his own probe.

By then, Brnovich was running in a Republican U.S. Senate primary in which Trump’s support was viewed as pivotal. “Hopefully he’s going to do what everybody knows has to be done,” Trump had warned at a Phoenix rally.

A top GOP prosecutor said Trump lost. Running for Senate, he has a new message.

Investigators interviewed current and former elections officials and blitzed Maricopa County with requests for information. In a sign the former president’s allies were paying attention, one of Wright’s letters to Maricopa, which asked for an extensive list of documents, was highlighted by Trump’s Save America political committee.

Maricopa officials grew frustrated. “My team has, in less than two weeks, gone through every claim made,” wrote Stephen Richer, the Republican county recorder, in October. “They are all meritless.”

Investigators with the unit also interacted with people promoting false and disputed claims of election fraud. For example, records show Wright requested voting data from Maricopa in March based on “pilot studies” on suspicious ballot signatures done by V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai, an engineer hired by Cyber Ninjas and the Senate for a ballot analysis. Ayyadurai has made a series of discredited claims, including that Michigan voting machines switched votes from Trump to Biden. Ayyadurai did not respond to request for comment.

That request won praise from Patrick Byrne, the former CEO of Overstock and an election denier, who wrote on Telegram, “Assistant attorney general Jennifer Wright gets muscular.” Maricopa officials said trained county employees had verified the signatures on all mail ballots.

Amid mounting pressure from Trump and his supporters, Brnovich released an April “interim report,” an unusual step in law enforcement that exacerbated concerns about Maricopa’s voting systems. The report said there were “questions” about the 2020 vote and that the system had “serious vulnerabilities” that demanded lawmakers’ attention. “Our office has left no stone unturned in the aftermath of the 2020 election,” Brnovich wrote, adding that he was limited in what he could reveal about “specific criminal and civil investigations.”

The next day, four months before the Republican primary, Brnovich went on Stephen K. Bannon’s “War Room” podcast, which is popular among right-wing election deniers. He implied that the investigation would turn up much more.

“This is the proverbial kind of shot across the bow,” Brnovich told the former Trump adviser. “And I hope people understand that I know how important this is. And maybe it’s not as fast sometimes as people like. But it’s more important to get it right than fast.''

Maricopa officials blasted the interim report. In an interview, Bill Gates, Republican chairman of the Maricopa Board of Supervisors, accused the unit of operating in bad faith.

“The attorney general used a thoroughly discredited report as a basis to subject the county to months of harassment, and people living in fear of being indicted,” he said. “It’s been an abuse of public resources.”

The county estimates that its employees have spent about 3,000 hours responding to the attorney general’s inquiry and that it has paid about $420,000 in legal fees. Despite that intense scrutiny, only two Maricopa County residents have been charged by the attorney general’s office with illegally voting in the 2020 election.

“They have not prosecuted any more cases than the office would have done without it,” said Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D), a gubernatorial candidate who has been at odds with Brnovich over election procedures, “and instead have wasted countless taxpayer dollars, time, and desperately needed resources that could have gone towards elections administration instead of chasing down conspiracy theories that had already been debunked.”

Conner, the spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, said the report was intended to flag areas for improvement. “If people don’t like what [the election integrity unit] is doing, they need to reach out to lawmakers.”

But by assigning investigators to dig into even the most far-fetched complaints, the attorney general’s office seems to have emboldened some election deniers — and legitimized claims strongly disputed by county officials.

Heather Honey of Verity Vote, a citizens watchdog group that scrutinizes elections for irregularities, boasted that its complaint about Maricopa’s handling of early ballots in 2020 was echoed in the attorney general’s report.

“We actually met with the attorney general’s investigators,” Honey said in a May interview with Cleta Mitchell, one of the key lawyers involved with Trump’s efforts to overturn the election. “And we said, ‘Hey, you know, this is what we found.’”

The election integrity unit has also met “several times” with representatives of the leading election conspiracy group, True the Vote, records show.

The attorney general’s office has told the group it is interested in its findings related to the “2000 Mules” film, which purports to use cellphone geolocation data to prove “mules” illegally gathered ballots in Arizona and other states. The movie has been widely discredited, in part because the data is imprecise.

Yet the attorney general’s office told True the Vote leaders twice in June that it was “willing to provide for your flights and hotel accommodations.”

Neither the attorney general’s office or True the Vote responded to questions about the proposed meeting. A True the Vote spokesman said it achieved its goal “to support fair election processes.”

The efforts by the attorney general’s office did not satisfy Trump, who endorsed Brnovich’s rival, venture capitalist Blake Masters. Masters “knows that the ‘Crime of the Century’ took place, he will expose it,” Trump said in June.

One day before the primary election, Brnovich said his office had spent “hundreds of hours” reviewing allegations that 282 dead people voted and confirmed only one. “Our agents investigated all individuals that Cyber Ninjas reported as dead, and many were very surprised to learn they were allegedly deceased,” he wrote. It was a long-awaited debunking by the state’s top prosecutor of one baseless but persistent claim about the 2020 election.

The next day, Brnovich lost the primary to Masters.

“It would have been much easier for General Brnovich to say there was widespread fraud or that the election was stolen,” Conner said. “He has integrity, and that’s why he didn’t make claims he didn’t believe in even though it may have cost him the Senate race.”

The attorney general has about four months left in office, but it is unclear where the investigation goes from here. Conner declined to answer when a final report would be issued.

Reinhard reported from Washington. Andrew Ba Tran and Alice Crites contributed to this report.

correction

An earlier version of this article identified Patrick Byrne as the CEO of Overstock. He is the former CEO. The article has been corrected.

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