But a Washington Post examination of an earlier endeavor in Arizona to systematically ferret out voter fraud found it has turned up few cases — and that rather than bolster confidence in elections, the absence of massive fraud has just fueled more bogus theories and distrust.
After investigating thousands of complaints in the last three years, a special unit in the Arizona attorney general’s office created to crack down on illegal voting and other election-related crimes has prosecuted just 20 cases in a state of more than 4 million voters. The total represents a slight increase from the 16 cases brought by the office in a previous six-year period, according to court filings and hundreds of pages of public records.
Most prosecutions are small-bore, isolated cases of illegal voting, such as six felons who cast ballots though their voting rights were not restored, and three women who turned in ballots for their mothers, who had recently died.
Arizona’s experience shows the damaging consequences that can result when public officials use their power to reinforce false claims that voter fraud is a significant issue in American elections. Rather than reassure citizens about the strength of the Arizona voting systems, the state’s election crimes unit deepened suspicions among many of those who deny President Biden won and sapped government resources, The Post’s review found.
“It does make you wonder why aren’t they doing anything,” said State Sen. Kelly Townsend (R), who helped create the unit but is now skeptical of it. “Except for a handful of individuals, but that’s nothing new.”
The next year, Republicans created an election integrity team in the attorney general’s office, similar to a program run by the Texas attorney general. The unit was allocated $530,000 for a full-time criminal prosecutor, civil attorney, special agent and administration assistant, though public records show other employees in the attorney general’s office are pulled in to investigate election complaints at times.
The unit also helps uphold Arizona election laws that critics say limit voter participation. In what Brnovich hailed as “the most important election integrity case decided by the Supreme Court in years,” the office defended state laws allowing counties to require voters to cast ballots in their assigned precincts and banning most people from gathering and submitting the ballots of non-relatives.
To lead the unit, Brnovich chose Jennifer Wright, a lawyer whose 2011 bid for Phoenix mayor was backed by tea party activists. From 2010 to 2014, Wright co-chaired Verify the Vote Arizona and worked closely with True the Vote, a Texas-based organization that has made uncorroborated claims of rampant election fraud around the country.
“We’ve all been made aware that there are forces at work to steal power from the people by manipulating the vote,” Wright said in a 2012 video to help True the Vote recruit volunteers to monitor polls on Election Day. “Remember upwards to 20 percent [of poll watchers] are going to find issues that, absent their presence, could have resulted in a fraudulent vote being cast.”
After the 2020 election, allegations of fraud again churned through Arizona. Biden’s win in sprawling Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, helped him become the first Democratic presidential nominee to win the state since 1996.
But within several weeks, the unit was swamped with more than 2,000 complaints, Wright said at a legislative hearing. “The unit is fully investigating these allegations, and intends to prosecute every substantiated allegation, but criminal investigations take time,” she told lawmakers.
Of the 20 cases the unit has prosecuted, none changed the outcome of an election. Some had no bearing on vote counts at all, involving crimes like videotaping inside a polling place, making illegal campaign donations and forging signatures to qualify as a candidate. One case was thrown out by a judge. One defendant was ruled mentally incompetent.
Melinda Sue Baird, 57, who lives in the Phoenix area, was one of those who got caught in the unit’s net. Baird said that in the weeks before her mother’s death in October 2020, the 87-year-old woman, a C-SPAN enthusiast, told everyone from family members to hospice workers that voting was her final wish.
Baird took her mother’s ballot home. “I wept over it and cried over it,” she said. Baird had helped fill out the ballot, which is legal, but instead of indicating that she assisted her mother and signing her own name, she forged her mother’s signature. Last year, Baird plead guilty to “presenting a false instrument” and was sentenced to 100 hours of community service and a $1,000 fine.
In one of the six cases involving felons, Victor Manuel Aguirre, 47, said he registered during a voting rights drive at the Pima County Jail, where he was being held, according to a transcript of his sentencing last month. Aguirre was told that if he wasn’t eligible because of his felony record, his registration would be discarded, according to his lawyer, Anne Elsberry. Under Arizona law, a person convicted of two or more felonies must petition the court for restoration of their civil rights.
At the hearing, the unit’s lead criminal prosecutor, Todd Lawson, acknowledged problems with the state’s “gatekeeper functions” to keep felons off the voting rolls. Pima County Superior Court Judge Javier Chon-Lopez sentenced Aguirre to the minimum term of six months.
“It appears that he was doing a lot better in his life,” the judge said. “He appears to be genuine in his belief that if he wasn’t qualified to vote that somebody would cancel his application.”
Though the number of election fraud cases is small, some Republicans say the unit fulfills an important public service. State Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R) said the prosecutions “show the public that any instance of fraud is wrong.” Leslie Hoffman, a Republican who until recently helped oversee Yavapai County elections, said the unit is worthwhile because those with complaints “felt like they had a place to go.”
Republican lawmakers had commissioned a review of Maricopa County by Cyber Ninjas, a Florida-based firm that had never audited an election before and was led by a “stop the steal” proponent. In September 2021, that review confirmed Biden’s win, but days later, the attorney general launched his own probe.
Investigators interviewed current and former elections officials and blitzed Maricopa County with requests for information. In a sign the former president’s allies were paying attention, one of Wright’s letters to Maricopa, which asked for an extensive list of documents, was highlighted by Trump’s Save America political committee.
Maricopa officials grew frustrated. “My team has, in less than two weeks, gone through every claim made,” wrote Stephen Richer, the Republican county recorder, in October. “They are all meritless.”
Investigators with the unit also interacted with people promoting false and disputed claims of election fraud. For example, records show Wright requested voting data from Maricopa in March based on “pilot studies” on suspicious ballot signatures done by V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai, an engineer hired by Cyber Ninjas and the Senate for a ballot analysis. Ayyadurai has made a series of discredited claims, including that Michigan voting machines switched votes from Trump to Biden. Ayyadurai did not respond to request for comment.
Amid mounting pressure from Trump and his supporters, Brnovich released an April “interim report,” an unusual step in law enforcement that exacerbated concerns about Maricopa’s voting systems. The report said there were “questions” about the 2020 vote and that the system had “serious vulnerabilities” that demanded lawmakers’ attention. “Our office has left no stone unturned in the aftermath of the 2020 election,” Brnovich wrote, adding that he was limited in what he could reveal about “specific criminal and civil investigations.”
“This is the proverbial kind of shot across the bow,” Brnovich told the former Trump adviser. “And I hope people understand that I know how important this is. And maybe it’s not as fast sometimes as people like. But it’s more important to get it right than fast.”
The county estimates that its employees have spent about 3,000 hours responding to the attorney general’s inquiry and that it has paid about $420,000 in legal fees. Despite that intense scrutiny, only two Maricopa County residents have been charged by the attorney general’s office with illegally voting in the 2020 election.
Conner, the spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, said the report was intended to flag areas for improvement. “If people don’t like what [the election integrity unit] is doing, they need to reach out to lawmakers.”
“It would have been much easier for General Brnovich to say there was widespread fraud or that the election was stolen,” Conner said. “He has integrity, and that’s why he didn’t make claims he didn’t believe in even though it may have cost him the Senate race.”
This content was originally published here.