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As next Arizona governor, Katie Hobbs vows to defend election rules

The election system doesn’t need to be overhauled, she said, but it could be improved to speed the counting of votes

Katie Hobbs, Arizona's next governor, in Phoenix on Nov. 4. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

PHOENIX — Arizona’s incoming governor, Katie Hobbs, said Wednesday that she will not seek to overhaul voting systems in this crucial battleground state ahead of the 2024 presidential cycle, vowing instead to defend election rules that have come under criticism from an emboldened right flank of the Republican Party.

But she does think the system could improve so that votes in tight contests like hers are more quickly counted.

Hobbs, a Democrat who currently oversees Arizona elections as secretary of state, suggested revising time-consuming signature verification requirements for early ballots dropped off on Election Day. While some Republican lawmakers have called for eliminating or scaling back early voting, Hobbs envisions expanding it — perhaps even mailing ballots to all registered voters, as now happens in a growing number of states.

Such changes would probably face stiff opposition in a state that became ground zero for attempts by former president Donald Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 election and where there is continued deep skepticism of the electoral process.

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Hobbs, 52, said in an interview Wednesday that she would aim to work with Republican lawmakers — who maintained narrow control of the state legislature — including on election-related issues. At the same time, she warned, she would not legitimize false statements about the 2020 election, which Trump lost, or about the 2022 election, which put Democrats in the governor’s office and the state’s two U.S. Senate seats for the first time since 1950.

“It takes leadership and someone who’s willing to call out the bad behavior when it needs to be called out in a way that recognizes that you’re not calling out that bad behavior to alienate a whole segment of people,” Hobbs said, sipping a flat white espresso inside a historic downtown building where plans for her transition are underway. “I’m going to be the governor of everyone … that will be my focus.”

A decisive vote for democracy in Arizona

Hobbs is projected to beat Kari Lake, a former television news anchor who centered her campaign on Trump’s false claims of election fraud. Hobbs’s win proved the most forceful rebuke nationwide of a brand of politics, introduced by Trump and incubated over the last two years, that asks voters to doubt the democratic process when it disfavors their candidates.

In a victory speech on Tuesday, Hobbs declared: “Arizonans chose solving our problems over conspiracy theories.”

Lake has yet to concede. Her campaign is weighing its legal options in coordination with Abe Hamadeh, the Republican candidate for attorney general who is lagging behind his Democratic opponent but whose race has not been called, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Hobbs, meanwhile, is headed to Charleston, S.C., for an orientation hosted by the National Governors Association. She has sought advice from two others who know the experience of transitioning into power in Arizona: former governors Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, and Jan Brewer, a Republican.

Distrust in the election process remains pronounced, especially after problems with printers on Election Day required some voters to wait in long lines in parts of Maricopa County, home to Phoenix and more than half the state’s voters. The county, an epicenter of pro-Trump efforts to reverse the outcome of the 2020 election, is again a site of furor for people who say Republican power is slipping away in Arizona, once a bright-red state that’s now purple terrain.

How a pro-Trump youth group remade the Arizona GOP, testing democracy

Just two miles from the downtown office building where Hobbs sized up her responsibilities as governor, anger boiled over Wednesday at a meeting of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, the Republican-dominated body responsible for overseeing elections in the county.

Criticism from members of the public, including numerous people who say they worked as poll workers last Tuesday, focused on problems with printers that affected 30 percent of polling sites on Election Day. A judge denied a request from Republicans to extend voting hours in light of the problems, which county leaders said did not prevent voters from casting their ballots or cause any ballots to be misread. Voters were instructed to wait until problems were fixed, travel to different voting centers or place their ballots in secure boxes that were transferred downtown and counted there.

But the county’s explanation did not satisfy those who testified. Several people who identified themselves as poll workers said they observed troubling anomalies but did not offer evidence for their claims. One said she was dismissed on Election Day for raising questions. County leaders pledged to examine their claims, while stressing there are systems in place to prevent any errors.

Some speakers pleaded with the county not to certify the election results, while others called on the board of supervisors to redo the election. Robert Canterbury, a Phoenix resident who said he formerly managed security for Trump’s campaign headquarters in Virginia, warned that people “won’t vote in the 2024 election because they know the same people in charge of the last two elections will be in charge of that election.”

Others simply expressed disbelief that the political identity of their state had changed. Kathleen Falcon exclaimed: “I’ve lived in Arizona since 1984, and from that date, Arizona has always been red. And I know it’s still red. The 2020 election was red, but something happened, something unethical, and it seems to be recurring again.”

Hobbs is taking the reins of a state undergoing a rapid transformation in its political identity — defined increasingly by independence from the two main political parties.

A decade ago, Hobbs entered politics in an effort to draw attention to the issues confronting people she served as a social worker. She rose to leadership positions within her party, working at times with Kyrsten Sinema, now the state’s senior senator.

In 2018, the same cycle that Sinema flipped a U.S. Senate seat blue, Hobbs won her own statewide race for secretary of state. In that role, she has overseen the state’s elections and worked with elections officials throughout 15 counties who are responsible for counting ballots.

She is also tasked with certifying elections, a ministerial role she intends to fulfill in the face of demands from Lake and her allies that she recuse herself.

“My office doesn’t count any ballots,” she said. Certification, she added, is “part of the job that voters elected me to do.”

On Monday night, after nearly a week of counting votes and more than a year of campaigning, Hobbs gathered with friends and family at her senior adviser’s house to watch another large drop of results.

Her hands clasped to her face, she stood in the middle of a shrieking crowd as CNN announced her win.

Soon she received a call from an unknown number labeled as “potential spam.” It was President Biden. He was “very, very congratulatory,” Hobbs recalled in the interview, her first with a newspaper since that night. “He asked how I was doing. I said, ‘Fantastic.’ And he said, ‘You are fantastic.’ ”

Things on the campaign trail didn’t always look fantastic from the outside.

Hobbs said she was fairly certain she would win, based on her campaign’s internal polling data and the voters she spoke to along the way. Sometimes doubt crept in — like when donors complained that she wasn’t talking enough about democracy issues, or moaned that she didn’t put up campaign signs on street corners.

During one stretch, coinciding with intense criticism surrounding her refusal to meet Lake on a debate stage, she took a break: “I had time to just hang out with my family,” she said.

Though her decision to not debate may have made political sense, critics say it denied voters the chance to size up the candidates in a split-screen way. Even her own supporters questioned how she would stand up to anti-democracy forces as governor if she wouldn’t confront Lake onstage.

Hobbs stands by her decision, saying there were plenty of opportunities for voters to see what each of the candidates stood for.

“I finally got comfortable just pushing back,” she said. “This is a distraction. And if everyone’s talking about this, they’re not talking about the other things that, you know, might be harmful.”

At the end of the day, she said, “I don’t think it mattered.”

Stanley-Becker reported from Washington.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.