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Arizona’s Maricopa County prepares for an election spotlight : NPR

Maricopa County Recorder Steven Richer demonstrates early ballot signature verification for a Republican Women's Tour Group in Phoenix on June 3. Richer himself is facing a primary challenger this month.

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

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PHOENIX — Maricopa County, Arizona, home to about 60 percent of the battleground state's voters, will be in the spotlight again this fall in the general election.

That attention has fueled a proliferation of conspiracy theories about the election since 2020, including one from the state's leading Republican Senate candidate this year.

And for the past four years, Maricopa County election officials have been at the forefront of efforts to counter baseless claims by providing accurate information about the voting experience, how votes are counted and when results are released.

While state law doesn't make any major changes to how elections are conducted, county officials are planning some changes this year to improve election administration and prevent new conspiracy theories from emerging.

For example, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors has budgeted $9 million to replace older models of printers with newer ones. It had trouble properly printing about 17,000 ballots for Election Day 2022. — and led to unfounded allegations of fraud.

Maricopa County Recorder Steven Richer's office, which is in charge of early voting by mail, also added more steps and audit trails as part of a signature verification process to ensure mail-in ballots were submitted by voters who received their ballots.

“Part of it is not targeted at speed,” Richer said, “part of it is targeted at greater integrity, greater oversight, greater scrutiny, greater documentation.”

But this year, he's adding staff to verify signatures, which he hopes will allow the county to report more votes sooner — something that required building a modular facility at the county elections headquarters over the past two years.

“The limitation before was space limitations. There just wasn't enough space to add more people working on signature verification,” Richer said.

Training materials for election workers to verify signatures were on display at the Maricopa County Counting and Election Center in Phoenix on June 3.

Training materials for election workers to verify signatures were on display at the Maricopa County Counting and Election Center in Phoenix on June 3.

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

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Having extra staff checking signatures will be crucial immediately after Election Day, as the registrar's office will be tasked with processing what are likely hundreds of thousands of “late early” ballots — mail-in ballots that voters don't return until the weekend before or on Election Day.

“Simply having more people working on it will increase the speed at which counties can release election results and ultimately increase the speed at which news organizations can report on close election results,” Richer said.

But there's one thing Richer and other election officials can't control: how closely Arizona voters are split between Republican and Democratic candidates.

Joe Biden won Arizona by about 10,000 votes in 2020. In 2022, the state's attorney general election was decided by just 280 votes after a recount.

That's why Richer is also in the business of managing expectations.

This year's mail-in ballots will include instructions, developed jointly by Richer and the county commission, on how votes will be counted and The role of the media in predicting winners In some elections, this happens before all votes are counted.

That information helps voters understand why election results can be close.

Maricopa County has become a hotspot for false claims and threats


The rolls of “I Voted” stickers are kept at the Maricopa County Counting and Election Center.

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

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While Richer and other officials have been tweaking protocols and procedures, nothing fundamental has changed for voters.

“Election law is dictated by state law, and state law has not been substantially changed,” Richer said, “so the voter experience is going to be very similar.”

Early ballots for the state's primary election were mailed last week to voters who signed up for them.

Voters have until the end of this month to complete and return their early ballot, either by mail or at polling places and drop boxes located throughout Maricopa County.

Those who want to vote in person can vote early at polling places opened in Maricopa County.

Or you can wait and vote on Election Day, July 30th.

“Voters have had many choices in Arizona and Maricopa County for literally decades,” said Tammy Patrick, program chief executive officer for the National Association of Election Officials and a former Maricopa County official.

“Not much was changing for 2024, as known best practices were already in place to ensure our electoral system was safe, secure and accessible,” she added.

Perhaps the biggest difference is in life for election officials like Richter, who for the past four years have been running the nation's third-largest district (behind Los Angeles County and Harris County, Texas) under intense scrutiny.

“What has been said or done is what has been done in Maricopa County,” Richer said, “and we seem to be at the center of a lot of these conversations, so I don't think it's unusual for the team.”

Richer himself is well aware of the worst examples of such conversations.

He is a Republican seeking reelection and will face a challenger in the Republican primary on July 30. Faced calls for lynching in newly discovered video.

This isn't the first time he's been threatened. In 2022, federal prosecutors Missouri man charged with threatening to kill Richer “There was a lot more to it than that,” Richer said at the time after criticizing Republican lawmakers for conducting a deeply flawed investigation into Maricopa County's 2020 presidential election.

“You have to be very determined to work in this field,” Richer recently told NPR.

Then last month, a temporary election worker was arrested for stealing election equipment, sparking new intrigue. The lost security key was quickly identified and recovered.

“I really hope that this doesn't spark new conspiracy theories,” Maricopa County Supervisor Bill Gates, a Republican, told reporters at a news conference in June, “but that's why myself and the sheriff are here today, answering these questions, to address this issue and to make sure people know, frankly, that our procedures worked.”

Arizona is expected to have another close election this fall.

“The closer we get to the election, the more scrutiny there will be, the more attention there will be, the more pressure there will be,” Patrick told NPR.

It's a burden Maricopa County has carried in each of the past two elections and one it must be prepared to continue carrying for the foreseeable future, she said.

It's the same as sports, Patrick says: “If you're watching a game and they're winning by a large margin, you change the channel and watch something else.”

For the country, that channel is now Arizona.

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