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Arizona county again rejects proposal to hand-count ballots in 2024

The all-Republican Mohave County Board of Supervisors voted against hand-counting ballots after receiving a letter from Attorney General Kris Mayes saying it would be illegal.

Mohave County Supervisor Travis Lingenfelter cast the deciding vote against hand-counting the county's 2024 ballots at a Nov. 20, 2023 supervisors meeting. (Courtesy of Mohave County government)

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Mohave County supervisors for a second time Monday rejected a proposal to hand-count ballots cast in 2024 elections instead of using machines.

After two hours of impassioned public comments and debate quoting everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Yogi Berra, the five supervisors again rejected the proposal in a 3-2 vote, with each supervisor sticking to the position they took in a previous vote in August.

The vote of Supervisors Chairman Travis Lingenfelter, who voted no earlier this year, had seemed in play after he put the item back on the meeting agenda. During the meeting, he said he had done so in order to fulfill a promise to state Sen. Sonny Borrelli, a Republican who has been touring the state trying to convince county supervisors to eliminate tabulation machines.

“I said to Sonny Borrelli, if he covers the legal cost and guarantees the level of volunteers, that I will put it back on the agenda,” Lingenfelter said, before addressing Borrelli directly and adding, “my commitment is fulfilled to you.”

Supervisors Ron Gould and Hildy Angius voted in favor of hand-counting, and Jean Bishop, Buster Johnson, and Lingenfelter voted no, with Lingenfelter casting the final, tie-breaking vote.

Public comments ranged widely. One Kingman resident teared up Monday as she pleaded with Mohave County supervisors to agree to the hand count, asking them to consider how much they valued their freedom.

But another Mohave County resident told supervisors that hand-counting ballots would be a silly and expensive act of “pandering to the misinformed conspiracy theorists in your constituency to get yourselves reelected.”

For his part, Gould told the crowd he would be willing to go to jail so the county could hand-count its ballots.

Voting rights groups traveled to Mohave County to emphasize that hand-counting ballots is less accurate and less efficient than using ballot scanners and tabulator machines — and that it is illegal. If hand-counting ballots stretched past the county’s deadline to certify its election, as the elections director has estimated it would, it could potentially lead to the county’s voters being disenfranchised, they warned.

The northern Arizona county expects about 100,000 voters in the 2024 general election. The elections director previously estimated it would take 657 days to complete a hand count for that election. Hand-counting all 2024 elections, he said, would cost an additional $1.1 million at a time when the county faces an $18 million deficit.

Deputy County Attorney Ryan Esplin told the supervisors Monday that they did not have the authority under state law to hand count all ballots. If they moved forward, he said he would recommend to the county attorney that the office not represent the supervisors in resulting legal matters.

That would expose supervisors to personal liability for breaking state law and require them to obtain private counsel. The supervisors had received a letter from lawyer Bryan Blehm last week telling them that hand-counting the ballots was legal and “well within Mohave County’s rights,” and promising he would represent them if they were sued for moving forward. The costs, he said, would be covered by private donors, though he didn’t disclose anything about them.

But Attorney General Kris Mayes sent a letter to the supervisors on Sunday telling them that she was concerned that they had received incorrect legal advice from bad-faith actors attempting to create distrust in elections. “A ‘yes’ vote,” she said, “would direct your Elections Department to violate the law.”

“The resulting delays, inaccurate results, and illegal procedures from hand counts will then be used to call into doubt valid election results,” Mayes wrote. “The Board should not endorse this attack on the democratic process.”

Angius asked during the meeting who would be paying Blehm. Borrelli declined to say, or to offer additional details, but promised that private individuals, not organizations, would cover the cost.

Supervisor Jean Bishop pressed him on whether the money had already been set aside, asking, “Is it in an account? Is it in somebody’s shoe?”

The chairwoman of the Mohave County Republican Central Committee had written a Nov. 15 letter to the supervisors saying the party could provide more than 300 volunteers for hand counting. That led to a few residents questioning on Monday if Democrats would also be involved in the counting so that the process would be fair.

The supervisors heard from many residents repeating a grab bag of debunked lies about election security, including ballot-harvesting claims from elections conspiracy film “2000 Mules.” Maggie Passaro, the Kingman resident who teared up when speaking, brought up a false claim that the state’s tabulation machines weren’t properly accredited and certified before the 2020 election.

Others, though, spoke to the security of the county’s elections, including Glenda Erwin, who told the supervisors that she had volunteered to observe the early-voting process. “I observed democracy at its best,” she said.

Johnson said he didn’t know what the supervisors were trying to prove by hand-counting ballots when they had all agreed before that the county’s elections didn’t have problems.

Before voting yes, Gould said it seemed Mayes was “afraid” of them moving forward, suggesting without evidence that she had something to hide about the security of the state’s elections. He maintained his main concern is that people are losing faith in elections.

“That’s why I’m willing to do this,” he said. “That’s why I’m willing to risk that I’m going to get thrown in jail.”

In a statement released after the vote, Mayes said she was “relieved” by the supervisors decision not to move to the hand count.

“The Board’s decision to adhere to state-mandated procedures for ballot counting avoids potential legal complications and reinforces public trust in the integrity of our elections,” she wrote.

Jen Fifield is a reporter for Votebeat based in Arizona. Contact Jen at jfifield@votebeat.org.

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