The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Arizona Republicans are pushing to divide Maricopa County. Critics say it’s about revenge for 2020 — and planning for 2024.

Opponents say the bill could make it easier to infuse doubt in the results of future votes or even overturn them

Processed ballots sit in front of a county map at the Maricopa County Elections Department in Phoenix on Nov. 5, 2020. (Caitlin O’Hara for The Washington Post)
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PHOENIX — In a state increasingly dominated by a single county, the first-term Arizona lawmaker offered a simple yet audacious solution: break Maricopa County into four.

By redrawing the state’s maps to create three new counties where only one mega-county now exists, state Rep. Jake Hoffman argued, Arizona could ensure local government “remains representative and accountable to the people it is designed to serve.”

“At its core, it is a Jeffersonian idea,” the Republican told colleagues last month before a House committee advanced his bill on a party-line vote.

But behind the high-minded rhetoric, the bill’s critics see ulterior motives that they say could add to the already considerable pressure on Arizona elections — and on democracy itself.

With some Republican lawmakers continuing to push to have Donald Trump’s 2020 defeat overturned, the legislation is viewed by the former president’s opponents as a thinly veiled attempt to punish GOP supervisors in Maricopa who defied efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the vote.

Election experts say the proposal by Hoffman — who was among the so-called “fake electors” who falsely certified Trump had won Arizona — could also be an attempt to lay the groundwork for challenges to vote tabulation and certification in 2024.

“The current Maricopa supervisors have taken their responsibility very, very seriously. They’ve stood firm in the face of death threats,” said Tammy Patrick, a former top Maricopa elections official who is now a senior adviser at the nonpartisan Democracy Fund.

But with the creation of three new counties — all of which would be solidly Republican after the reddest parts of Maricopa are cut away — Patrick said the supervisors elected there might be willing to “go along with extralegal reviews and do things for partisan reasons, rather than follow the law.”

The fight over Maricopa’s future — and the fact that the outcome could have any bearing on a presidential vote — reflects just how critical local officials are to the functioning of American elections.

In swing states that Trump lost, once obscure officeholders, such as county clerks and canvassing board members, were subject to threats and abuse as the former president and his backers demanded they reverse a result he has repeatedly and inaccurately dismissed as fraudulent.

The pressure has not let up in the 16 months since the vote. Nationwide, there has been an exodus of officials with responsibility for overseeing elections. Trump and his supporters have also waged a concerted effort to put loyalists who deny the legitimacy of the 2020 outcome into key election-related jobs.

Creating entirely new counties in Arizona would be a novel way to gain leverage over election administration. But Democrats insist it’s all part of the strategy to inject doubt about the outcome of the next election — or even to overturn it. County officials in Arizona have critical roles in the counting and reporting of results.

“This is about putting more chips on the roulette table so you can win your bet,” state Rep. Lorenzo Sierra, a Democrat, argued in vain before Hoffman’s bill passed in committee following just over an hour of debate. “One of these three counties, I’m sure, would decertify this election in a heartbeat.”

Hoffman is among the 11 Arizonans who signed a document falsely declaring they were empowered to cast the state’s electoral votes for Trump. Before becoming a legislator, he was suspended from Twitter after his digital marketing company, working on behalf of a pro-Trump youth group, hired teens to flood the Internet with Trump talking points — including falsehoods about the election.

Hoffman, who declined an interview request, has repeatedly denied his bill has anything to do with elections — either past or future. He argues it is, instead, all about bringing power closer to the people in a county that has grown too unwieldy as the population has surged.

By any measure, Maricopa is a colossus. The P-shaped county — stretching from craggy peaks in the northeast to vast deserts in the southwest, with the sprawling Phoenix metro area in between — covers more than 9,000 square miles, making it geographically larger than four U.S. states. At 4.4 million people, its population is greater than that of about half of all states and every other county in the nation, save three: Los Angeles County in California, Cook County, Ill., and Harris County, Tex.

About two-thirds of Arizona’s population lives in Maricopa — a concentration that is only expected to grow in the coming decades and, according to Hoffman, only further amplifies the need for a breakup.

If lawmakers don’t act soon, “we will be kicking ourselves in 30, 40, 50 years that we never did this,” Hoffman said at the February committee meeting. “And it is much easier to do it now than it will be then.”

But Hoffman acknowledged that doing it now will be by no means easy.

Splitting Maricopa means four times the number of elected officials, a lineup that includes not only supervisors, but also assessors, school superintendents, treasurers and sheriffs. It would also mean new facilities, such as county office buildings, courthouses and jails. And it would mean a potentially fractious divorce as assets are divvied up and precious revenue sources are fought over.

“It’s a lot more government. So for a limited-government guy, it doesn’t make any sense,” Republican state Sen. Paul Boyer said. “Maricopa County is big, I get it. But I believe they run it efficiently.”

Boyer said he did not want to speculate as to why his colleagues — who identify as conservatives — would back a bill that would grow the size of government, cost untold millions of dollars and may ultimately force local officials to raise taxes. But he said it was hard to ignore the broader political atmosphere in some quarters of his caucus.

“There’s residual anger at the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors for not playing ball, for not buying into the lie that the election was stolen,” he said.

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The county board is dominated by Republicans, who hold a 4-to-1 advantage in a county that had long swung right but has lately become a bellwether as the demographics have diversified. Joe Biden was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Maricopa since 1948, carrying the county by about 45,000 votes, more than enough to account for his 10,457-vote margin statewide.

The county board — including Bill Gates, the current chair — triggered the ire of Trump by certifying the outcome, in line with the law. Board members then resisted cooperation with the Republican-led state Senate after it hired the cybersecurity firm Cyber Ninjas to audit the results in Maricopa. The audit — conducted by a firm with no experience in election recounts — was riddled with procedural flaws and ultimately confirmed Biden’s victory.

In a statement on the breakup bill, Gates did not address the possible implications for elections. But he made his opposition clear to a proposal that he said would probably lead to higher taxes, at least in some of the new counties. The bill, he said, “appears to be an attempt to grow government, and as a Republican, I can’t support that.”

County Assessor Eddie Cook — another Republican — has been outspoken in opposition, saying the bill is a solution in search of a problem. County leaders, he told lawmakers, are “able to manage the activities in the county today, tomorrow and into the future. They’re able to scale.”

Key city leaders in Maricopa’s municipalities have also voiced opposition. Peoria Mayor Cathy Carlat — who leads the League of Arizona Cities and Towns’ executive committee — said the proposal “would significantly expand the size and cost of government, with no evidence to indicate that this is in the best interests of our citizens.”

The idea of splitting Maricopa is not entirely new. Previous proposals to divide the county’s east and west valleys — which are distinct both culturally and politically — were floated decades ago, before being abandoned because of their difficulty and cost.

Hoffman has argued that water is at the heart of the new proposal. The state faces dwindling supplies as its population surges, and by creating three new counties — which he has proposed should be called Hohokam, Mogollon and O’odham — citizens in different parts of present-day Maricopa would have their interests better represented, he has said.

But Craig Sullivan, who leads the County Supervisors Association of Arizona, said setting water policy is not a county role.

“There are many stakeholders that are involved in water,” including the state and its municipalities, he said. “But the county does not have statutory authority.”

Democrats at the hearing pressed Hoffman on whom he had consulted in drafting his proposal; the lawmaker did not give names but acknowledged he had not spoken with leaders in Phoenix — Maricopa’s largest city, which would be divided between counties under the plan — or with the Indigenous communities in Maricopa, of which there are several.

One person who said he had been consulted was Austin Smith, who directs Turning Point Action, an affiliate of the pro-Trump youth organization Turning Point USA. Smith’s organization contracted Hoffman’s marketing firm to pay young people to pump out pro-Trump messaging online in the lead-up to the 2020 vote.

Smith described the effort as “sincere political activism,” but Twitter dubbed it “political manipulation,” and Hoffman’s firm was banned by Facebook after The Washington Post revealed the workings of what critics called a “troll farm” in October 2020.

Smith, who is now campaigning to join Hoffman in the state legislature, told lawmakers at the February hearing that Maricopa needed to be broken up so the new counties could better represent the political interests of their citizens.

Currently, he said, Maricopa “may have Republican representation. That doesn’t mean they’re doing the right representation.”

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That answer, said Sierra, the Democratic lawmaker, gets at the heart of what he believes to be the proposal’s true aims: to replace a politically up-for-grabs county where leaders have to fight for their seats in the general election to ones where officials have safe seats and can play to their bases. For a growing number of Republicans, he said, that means going along with Trump’s fraud claims — and possibly using their positions to influence the outcome of elections.

“It’s going to be a fight for it not to happen,” he said. “Now that it’s in the bloodstream, who knows if it can be stopped?”

Despite passing at the committee level last month, the bill to divide Maricopa appears to have stalled. Opposition from Boyer, the Republican state senator, is one reason it is considered almost certain not to pass this year. With Republicans holding razor-thin majorities in the House and the Senate, any break in their ranks can doom a bill.

But Boyer is leaving the legislature after this term. Another lawmaker who has been critical of the bill — Speaker Rusty Bowers (R) — will not be in charge of the House next year, having decided to seek a state Senate seat instead. Meanwhile, unabashedly pro-Trump candidates — such as Smith — are seeking office up and down the ballot, with many campaigning on debunked claims that Trump won two years ago.

If they triumph in the governor’s race, and if Republicans can expand their majorities in the legislature, Boyer said next year may turn out very differently. Not only could the Maricopa bill succeed, he said, but so could any number of proposals that he says take direct aim at voting rights — all in time for the 2024 election.

“You’re going to see all of these bills pass,” he predicted. “100 percent.”