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Why You Should Pay Attention to This County Primary

The Maricopa County recorder’s office oversees voting in one of the biggest counties in America. The incumbent is one of the few elected Republicans in Arizona to refute false claims about the last two elections.

Election 2022 Arizona
Matt York/AP

A small race in Arizona could have giant implications for national politics.

Republican Stephen Richer has been Maricopa’s recorder since 2021, overseeing the county elections. He now faces multiple challengers in a primary on July 30, all of whom have embraced some form of election denialism. Since taking office, Richer has become one of the most high-profile Arizona Republicans challenging false claims that the 2020 and 2022 elections in the state were fraudulent. If he’s ousted, it could upend how the next election is run.

“I hope true Never Trumpers take note of how disastrous it could be if the wrong person wins this primary,” Adam Morgan, a Republican and former Arizona congressional candidate, told NOTUS.

In Arizona, elections are administered at the county level. Maricopa is the largest of 15 counties, comprising a little over 60% of the state’s population, and key for anyone hoping to win statewide.

Richer’s main opponent is state Rep. Justin Heap, who unsuccessfully challenged Richer for recorder in 2020. Heap was recruited by state Sen. Justin Hoffman, one of the fake electors who tried to overturn the 2020 election. If Heap were to beat Richer and go on to win the general, he would have election administration duties in the second largest voting jurisdiction in the U.S., behind Los Angeles.

Heap did not respond to a request for comment, but when he jumped into the race, he said that “Maricopa County now has a long track record of election-related issues” and the county was “the laughingstock of our nation and the world.”

The county recorder is responsible for voter registration and voter list maintenance and administers early voting, which is used by the vast majority of Arizona voters. Richer said that of the 2.1 million votes cast in Maricopa County in the 2020 election, about 1.9 million were early ballots.

The job may seem routine and bureaucratic: Richer described a daily drum of voter roll maintenance with frequent incoming requests to update addresses, parties or any other information related to voter registration.

However, according to data compiled by the recorder’s office, Maricopa had the lowest vote difference between Trump and Biden in 2020, among the 10 largest counties nationally. That year, only 45,000 votes separated the two presidential candidates. The small margin and tight competition give even more power to the recorder, especially one who publicly denies the validity of individual ballots.

A recorder could attempt to not certify the election results or refuse to send votes to be counted on the basis of fraud. Richer said that while this type of move would likely be challenged in court pending action from the attorney general, it would cause “more confusion and upset.”

Richer’s place as a Republican who does not deny the 2020 election result is precarious in Arizona. The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, which is responsible for in-person election day voting, comprised four Republicans and one Democrat in 2021. Of those GOP members, one has since resigned, and two are not seeking reelection.

“It takes a toll,” Richer said.

Richer said he’s known for years that he would face a primary challenger, going back to a Republican grassroots meeting in February 2021, a group he used to be connected to. The meeting came, Richer said, a week after the county had conducted two independent outside audits of the 2020 voting tabulation machines to ensure they had not been connected to the internet at any time. The audits both said that the machines had not been connected, a finding consistent with all the prior tests the county had conducted. The first question Richer was asked at the meeting was whether the machines had been connected to the internet.

“I looked out, and there were maybe 40 or 50 people, and I just knew that maybe to a person, my answer was going to be highly unpopular. But I knew it to be true, so I said, ‘No, it wasn’t,’” Richer said.

Still, Richer might be helped by a fractured vote if there are still multiple candidates in the primary. The deadline to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot is April 1.

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Campaign finance totals indicate that Richer had a little over $211,000 cash on hand at the end of the fourth quarter in 2023. The vast majority of his donors are in Arizona. He has received donations from what he calls “pro-democracy Republicans,” but he has not received any money from the national Republican PACs that support GOP candidates who reject the notion that the 2020 election was stolen.

Some of the national Republicans donating to Richer’s campaign include Sam Walton, whose family founded Walmart; former Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia; and Sarah Longwell, publisher of The Bulwark and founder of Republican Voters Against Trump.

Still, Richer says he has no regrets about how he’s done the job so far.

“I knew that even three years later, in 2024, that because I was going to take positions like that and say those hard truths, that I was going to face at least one, if not multiple, primary challengers, and that was going to make my political life a little bit harder. But I wouldn’t undo it.”

Tara Kavaler is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.