Pinal County’s elections director abruptly resigned this week after facing harsh criticism from the county GOP. Her scathing resignation letter led many to compare her departure to those of other elections directors across the country who are facing harassment and resigning in droves as GOP leaders and residents confront them with false accusations about elections. But the circumstances here are far different.
There have been real problems in Pinal County’s elections, and Geraldine Roll was under the microscope to fix them fast.
The scrutiny Roll faced from the supervisors and the public since she took the position in December – especially, of late, from Republicans in the county who say they are concerned about election integrity – put immense pressure on Roll as she tried to quickly fix problems, develop new procedures, and hire a new team. At the same time, there were signs of growing tension with county supervisors.
The letter that circulated online Tuesday, which Roll signed “really, not respectfully,” shows that her breaking point had to do with how county leadership responded to recent public criticism she faced.
“When you no longer respect those you work for,” she told Leo Lew, the county manager, “it is time to leave. I have watched as you idly stood by when I was attacked. I cannot work for an individual who does not support me. The environment fostered by your team and the Board of Supervisors is toxic.”
Roll told Lew she had “no regrets” about quitting even though county officials were counting on her to quickly revamp the elections department and prepare for the approaching presidential election.
Now, with a year to go before the presidential primary, the county is faced with having to recruit a skilled elections director that can lead an entirely new staff equipped only with half-finished procedures drafted by Roll, and at the same time withstand the pressure from supervisors and the public to get it right.
Pinal County Democratic Party Chair Lisa Sanor said in a statement Wednesday she was disheartened by Roll’s departure and “concerned about the possible ramifications this has for all voters in Pinal County.”
Longtime Apache Junction resident Kelley Kimble said she’s also concerned about the future of the county’s elections, because she wants them done right and wants people to trust them, but she’s worried about who the supervisors are listening to when they make decisions about how to move forward.
“I guess I’m cautiously optimistic the county will hire somebody who has the right background and the determination to fix the errors and do things right,” she said.
Roll was the fourth elections director in Pinal in less than four years. That high turnover, along with a failure to grow and bolster the elections department as the county has grown, caused some of the problems the county’s elections have seen — including ballot shortages and printing errors in the primary and ballot counting errors in the general election. The county, located just southeast of the Phoenix metro area, has doubled in size in the last 20 years to around half a million residents.
Last week, Pinal County Republican Committee leaders began calling for the supervisors to consider replacing Roll because they disagreed with a few of her recent decisions, according to emails obtained by Votebeat through a records request. That included a decision this month to send back GPS devices the county had leased to track election equipment in the general election, without a replacement plan. GOP leaders say they saw this as something that might put election security at risk, even though Roll later explained she planned to get new tracking devices by 2024.
After quitting, Roll told the local newspaper Pinal Central that she did nothing wrong. She told the paper that she was a longtime Republican who only recently switched parties because she “can’t be associated with these people. They’re nuts.”
Attempts to reach Roll were unsuccessful.
While Supervisors Chairman Jeff Serdy told Votebeat in an interview Tuesday afternoon that the supervisors did not ask Roll to resign, the supervisors publicly questioned Roll about the GPS decision at a meeting last Wednesday, silence filling the room after Roll told them she had already returned the devices without them knowing. Roll wrote in her resignation letter that she felt the supervisors were attempting to politicize elections.
“You relegate impartiality, common sense and dedicated work to irrational, extremist political party views and rhetoric,” she wrote. “It is a far reach to see how you will deliver clean elections when you bend to a faction of the Republican party.”
In response to Roll’s resignation, Lew thanked her for her service during challenging times as she tried to make improvements to the elections department. But he also said he “disagreed with her assessment” on how she was treated by him and others.
The county’s Republican-led Board of Supervisors currently splits election oversight with Republican County Recorder Dana Lewis, but have since March been talking about moving elections under the recorder, while maintaining some duties they are required to under state law. After the conflict began last week, that conversation was fast-tracked, and the supervisors may discuss the change at a meeting next Wednesday.
Lewis, then, would be the one tasked with hiring a new elections director, hiring for a long-vacant deputy elections director job, and ensuring that better written procedures exist before 2024.
Top county Republicans seem supportive of this idea. Belinda Rodriguez, chair of the Pinal County Republican Committee, appeared to be talking about Lewis last week when telling the supervisors in a June 21 email that they have someone with “years of experience, knowledge and the skills to lead us through a successful election.” Lewis had years of experience in both elections and recording before the supervisors appointed her as recorder last summer.
Rodriguez wrote in the letter to the supervisors that she was sure Roll, who was a county attorney prior to being chosen as elections director, was a great lawyer but she had “some reservations that her knowledge and skills can lead us to a successful election without its integrity being compromised or challenged.”
“I am concerned that we are heading towards another botched election,” she wrote.
While supervisors have previously said they were confident in Roll’s abilities, her choice to move forward without their opinion on certain matters recently appears to have ruffled some feathers.
Those issues include the GPS debacle, but also Roll’s decision at the end of May to conduct a trial hand count of ballots without public or GOP party participation.
A few supervisors, including Jeffrey McClure, had raised the idea of a trial hand count of ballots to show the public what it would take to count ballots by hand instead of machine, after continued calls for this from GOP residents. Roll then started the trial hand count using her staff, without inviting the public, which came as a surprise to McClure a few days later when he found out it was already happening. Rodriguez told supervisors in her letter that she was only asked to recruit volunteers for the trial on the morning it was starting.
The trial was then put on pause, with a county spokesperson saying that the county thought it would be best to work with other counties and the state to come up with the best method. It’s unclear what county officials have in mind and neither the supervisors nor the spokesperson would clarify further.
Rodriguez told supervisors last Wednesday she was then frustrated to hear, the day before, that Roll wanted to cancel the county’s contract for the GPS devices. Supervisors were discussing, at that meeting, an item to cancel the GPS devices. That’s when Roll told them she had already sent them back. Roll explained she was trying to clean up after former elections director Virginia Ross, who the county attorney’s office says entered into the contract in violation of the county’s procurement process and without having it approved by the county attorney’s office. The county attorney’s office was working with Roll on amending the contract before this decision was made, but it’s unclear if the county manager knew, and the supervisors were not kept in the loop.
The devices didn’t work well in November, Roll said, because there was no way to affix them to ballot boxes, and she needed to send the devices back by a deadline earlier this month in order to end the contract.
Despite Roll’s promise she was going to find a replacement, Rodriguez and other residents said her decision didn’t sit well with them.
“Why are we taking a step backwards at a time when the county should be providing processes and systems to give more reassurance to our voters that the integrity of our elections is not compromised?” Rodriguez told the board last Wednesday.
On Monday, supervisors Serdy and McClure met with Lewis, her deputy recorder, and representatives of both county parties to talk about how to move elections forward, and Roll was not present.
“It was suggested that (elections) be put under the Recorder’s Office to provide oversight by someone who has years of experience in elections processes and procedures. We cannot afford another mishap at election time,” according to a summary of the meeting a GOP party representative sent to a county supervisor.
Supervisor Kevin Cavanaugh wrote in an email sent to Votebeat Wednesday that he felt Roll was “unfairly vilified” when the county attorney’s office had been involved in the GPS contract discussions, “and nobody familiar with the agreement came to her defense.”
Roll wrote in her resignation letter that, over months, she had been subject to “ridicule, disrespect, intimidation and attacks on my reputation and ethics.”
Sanor, the Democratic Party Chair, wrote in her statement that Roll’s accusations of bullying and intimidation need to be investigated.
“Challenges can become opportunities, but it requires action, investigation and importantly decisions that are not driven by the hysteria of any political party,” Sanor wrote.
Serdy said in an interview that he was surprised by Roll’s message, because the board was supportive overall of the changes she was making to elections, and the board is just trying to provide more oversight and encourage changes to improve elections. He said that it’s understandable if Roll wasn’t used to public criticism and pressure, after working behind the scenes in the county attorney’s office prior to this.
“Lewis is used to fielding questions, and Roll, I don’t think was used to that,” he said.
Cavanaugh, though, wrote that Roll’s message “may be instructive for the board.”
“Clearly written in anger when hard truths are told, Roll ripped off the Band-Aid. We need to deal with what was underneath.”
Jen Fifield is a reporter for Votebeat based in Arizona. Contact Jen at firstname.lastname@example.org.