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Maricopa County leaders keep pushing back against election denialism in Arizona

A Donald Trump supporter holds a "Trump Won" sign before a rally on Jan. 15 in Florence, Ariz. The former president, who lost the state and the presidential election in 2020, has endorsed a slew of election-denying candidates in Arizona this year.
Donald Trump supporter Jonathan Riches holds a "Trump Won" sign before the first rally of the year by former US President Donald Trump, January 15, 2022 at the Canyon Moon Ranch festival grounds in Florence, Arizona, southeast of Phoenix. - Riches, from Florida, is a "Front Row Joe," a group of supporters who travel to most or all Trump rallies. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

For the last two years, Arizona has been a hive of election denialism.

State Senate Republicans spearheaded a deeply flawed review of the 2020 vote in Arizona's largest county, keeping Maricopa County in the spotlight for months.

Former President Donald Trump was in the state just last week to stump for a slate of election-denying Republican candidates, including gubernatorial hopeful Kari Lake and state Rep. Mark Finchem, who's running for secretary of state.

Despite the discredited review and false claims about the 2020 election, this year's primary, coming up on Tuesday, isn't all that different in Maricopa County.

"For all the noise that has been made regarding election administration, from the user's perspective it's going to look very similar to the 2020 experience," said Stephen Richer, a Republican who is the Maricopa County recorder.

Richer is quick to point out that the election review, for all its flaws, found nothing off with Maricopa County elections, as the county thoroughly debunked claims of wrongdoing. The review also confirmed Trump lost the state in 2020.

"I think that we've had more scrutiny over the Maricopa County elections process than any jurisdiction in the United States," Richer said. "And, you know, that process has been found to not be fundamentally flawed."

There are a few new wrinkles to the 2022 primary in Maricopa County. For instance: Most ballot drop boxes are gone. Instead, the county expanded its number of voting centers, where all voters can drop off or cast an early ballot.

But that's discretionary — small changes counties can make at the local level. Most of the election is dictated by state law, like how early ballots were mailed to most Maricopa County voters at the beginning of July, same as always.

While there was legislation to get rid of the state's popular ballot-by-mail system, there were enough Republicans, like Richer and Maricopa County Supervisor Bill Gates, lobbying to stop them from becoming law. (One new law, that enacts sweeping changes to the state's early voting list, is not yet in effect.)

"We are up against so many forces, so many leaders within the Republican Party here in Arizona, and nationally, who continue to spread this misinformation," Gates said. "But again, fortunately, we also have people who have stood up and supported our elections workers."

Gates specifically credited GOP House Speaker Rusty Bowers, who drew Trump's ire by rebuffing attempts to overturn the 2020 election — and who gained national prominence for his testimony to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Bowers single-handedly torpedoed some far-reaching election bills.

"I think that that demonstrates a recognition that our system works, that all of this talk about problems in the system [was] political talk, but not reality," Gates said.

That reality is a testament to the work of officials like Rey Valenzuela and Scott Jarrett, the co-election directors in Maricopa County.

Jarrett, hired in 2019, described the last two years as a trial by fire. After all that, he said he is feeling "energized" by upcoming elections. "I am looking forward to getting back to the nuts and bolts of administering elections," he said.

Valenzuela says the duo now spends more time proactively spreading good information to fight back against the bad.

"On a personal level, it's difficult, because we want the voter to have accurate, the most, the best information possible to make their — not only their choice and participate in the process, but to know that, again, elections are safe, secure, and they have integrity," he said.

Both believe that — though lies about the 2020 vote still resonate with much of the state's Republican base — with a successful 2022 election in hand, the county may be able to turn a corner heading into 2024.

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