In Heated Arizona Governor’s Race, Calls Grow for Democrat to Recuse Herself as Elections Chief

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As election officials across the country brace for candidates to contest the election results in possibly unprecedented numbers, the most explosive challenge could unfold in Arizona, where Republican candidate for governor Kari Lake is preparing for a fight.

The former local news anchor—who’s cast doubt on President Joe Biden’s Arizona victory, even though multiple investigations have found no evidence of substantial fraud—has made election integrity a centerpiece of her campaign. On Tuesday, her campaign hired one of the lawyers who represented Donald Trump’s 2020 election lawsuits, the latest signal that she’s gearing up for legal battles with her Democratic opponent, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs. And members of both parties now say that Hobbs may be feeding the potential for conflict by planning to oversee an election in which she’s a candidate.

The scenario is leading to growing calls for Hobbs to recuse herself from her official election-related duties, including from two former Arizona secretaries of state, a Democrat and a Republican, who emphasize the need to avoid even the appearance of a conflict, especially in an election that could be a powder keg.

“I think it would be wise if the secretary of state seconded responsibility for ministerial oversight to either the attorney general or the Maricopa County recorder,” Richard Mahoney, the Democrat, tells TIME, referring to the elections administrator in Arizona’s largest county. “She should recuse herself from the official acts that she would normally perform as secretary and let a deputy secretary or somebody else take care of those,” adds Ken Bennett, the Republican.

The secretary of state’s office does not conduct elections. Each of Arizona’s 15 counties conduct their own elections and submit the results to the secretary of state. But Hobbs’ office is tasked with canvassing and certifying the results that each county submits. That role could become highly fraught if it’s a close election, particularly one in which a recount may be required. The latest polling from the Arizona-based firm OH Predictive Insights has Lake with a slim two-point lead over Hobbs.

The situation in Arizona bears some resemblance to Georgia’s gubernatorial election four years ago, when former President Jimmy Carter, candidate Stacey Abrams, and other prominent Democrats called on Republican Brian Kemp to step down as secretary of state while he was running for governor. Those protests came as Kemp was alleged of purging more than 100,000 voters from the rolls and suppressing the minority vote. No such allegations have been leveled against Hobbs.

The Lake campaign has called on Hobbs to step down from her role in the elections process since July 2021, before either candidate won their respective primaries.

A spokeswoman with the Arizona secretary of state’s office tells TIME that Hobbs has no plans to recuse herself from her election duties.

“As always, the secretary will execute her duties as Arizona’s chief election official faithfully, in accordance with the law, and guided by the highest ethical standards—just as the voters have trusted her to,” Murphy Hebert said in a statement. “This includes impartially administering this year’s election and certifying the results.”

Hobbs’ campaign separately argued that Hobbs was not the candidate voters should be concerned about when it comes to election integrity.

“There’s only one candidate in this race who has repeatedly undermined the Constitution and the democratic process in Arizona—Kari Lake,” says Sarah Robinson, a spokeswoman for the Hobbs campaign. “She has refused to accept the will of the voters in the 2020 election, and has repeatedly refused to accept the results of this election, and even the 2024 presidential election. She is too dangerous to be governor.”

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Lake, in an interview with TIME last month, dismissed charges that she might undermine the next presidential election as “total bull—t” and vowed to certify the 2024 election as governor after passing an elections overhaul through the state legislature. But in doing so, she further questioned the integrity of this year’s election. “By the 2024 election,” she said, “we’re going to have honest elections in Arizona, full stop.”

‘Faith in the System’

Hobbs is not directly administering the 2022 Arizona elections, according to multiple current and former Arizona election officials. “The secretary of state does not conduct the elections in Arizona,” Bennett stresses. “The individual 15 counties conduct the elections.” But Hobbs is still involved in the process before and after the votes are cast.

The secretary of state publishes an election manual in each cycle for counties to follow and certifies the election machines in all of Arizona’s counties ahead of the election, a process that entails overseeing what are called logic and accuracy tests to ensure the machines are processing and tabulating the votes accurately. It’s required by law to be done in the presence of two other election officials of different parties. (Hebert, with the secretary of state’s office, tells TIME that Hobbs did not personally participate in that process this year.)

After the election, counties submit their results to the secretary of state’s office, which tabulates and publishes all of the results. The secretary of state is then statutorily required to certify the election results along with the governor, the attorney general, and the chief justice of Arizona’s Supreme Court.

Lake’s team has already made clear that it won’t hesitate to challenge election results. The campaign announced on Tuesday that it has hired Harmeet Dhillon, one of Trump’s lead attorneys contesting the 2020 election, to represent Lake in the days and weeks ahead.

Read more: The Candidates Defending the Results of the Next Election

Longtime Arizona politicos say that Maricopa County, where more than 60% of the state’s voters live, would be ground zero for any election disputes that Lake may raise. “If she disagrees with the outcome, it’s going to be because she disagrees with the outcome of Maricopa County,” says Chuck Coughlin, a veteran Republican political operative in Arizona. “So that falls on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors because they actually run Election Day operations.”

Still, Mahoney and Bennett, the two former Arizona secretaries of state, encouraged Hobbs to step aside from official actions relating to the certification of the election.

“The secretary of state’s role is really ministerial. It is responsible for the canvass and the certification,” Mahoney says. “But if this is very close, it will be contested at some level. There’ll be activities in superior court by both sides. It would be better, as a matter of appearance, that the attorney general oversee it.”

The current attorney general, Mark Brnovich, resisted pressure from Trump and Rudy Giuliani to decertify Biden’s 2020 victory in the Grand Canyon State. In a recent interview with 60 Minutes, Brnovich called claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election “horsesh-t” and described Lake’s assertion that Biden didn’t really win as “a giant grift.”

Bennett agrees that Hobbs should recuse herself, but he says that a deputy secretary could also fill in for her, rather than Brnovich. Either way, he says, Hobbs “will never touch a ballot other than her own,” adding, “She won’t program any machines, she won’t do any of the things that really make up the election procedures.”

Bennett understands this issue better than most. He was secretary of state in 2013 when he lost a primary race for governor. While he delegated the certification of election machines ahead of Election Day to one of his deputies, he later accepted and certified his own loss. “I didn’t like losing in the election,” he says, “but certifying it didn’t stick the knife in any further.” Bennett says the political landscape today is far different than it was nine years ago, and that Hobbs’ recusal would help to maintain public confidence in the election.

Not everyone agrees. Helen Purcel, the former Maricopa County recorder, says she “sees no reason” for Hobbs to recuse herself, since Arizona’s elections are administered at the county level. “It’s not real that the secretary of state can determine the outcome of the election,” adds Steve May, a former Republican state legislator in Arizona. “Recusing herself only gives further support to the false beliefs of the people who seek to undermine faith in the system.”

Yet others who have held the same role as Hobbs insist that her recusal is important to remove the perception of a conflict, especially in such an inflammatory and divisive environment.

John Willis, a former Maryland secretary of state, pointed to the 2000 presidential election in Florida between Al Gore and George W. Bush, when Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris drew intense backlash for overseeing the state’s recount while she was co-chair of Bush’s Florida campaign. In contrast, Bush’s brother, Jeb Bush, who was Florida’s governor at the time, recused himself from the board responsible for certifying the vote. “I would say look at what Jeb Bush did in 2000,” Willis tells TIME. “He didn’t get the derision that Secretary Harris got. He stepped away from the certification process when his brother was running. Jeb’s a model for that.”

“The point is—recusal and putting in a different person is the right thing to do, if there’s any question,” adds Willis, who is now a University of Baltimore politics professor.

Brian Kemp and Georgia

If Hobbs’ role in overseeing her own election attracts more attention, it is likely to draw comparisons to Georgia in 2018, when Democrats were adamant that Kemp shouldn’t serve as secretary of state while he was running for governor against Abrams. Both Carter, who served as Georgia governor before he became president, and Abrams called on him to resign.

“In Georgia’s upcoming gubernatorial election, popular confidence is threatened not only by the undeniable racial discrimination of the past and the serious questions that the federal courts have raised about the security of Georgia’s voting machines,” Carter wrote to Kemp, “but also because you are now overseeing the election in which you are a candidate.”

Liberal advocacy organizations also urged Kemp to step down, and a group of five Georgia voters filed a lawsuit to prevent Kemp from having any role in counting votes, certifying results, or participating in any runoff or recount procedures.

Those objections weren’t merely because Kemp had an apparent conflict. Voting rights activists were concerned that actions he had taken in office were suppressing voter turnout, thereby giving him a competitive advantage, such as removing an estimated 107,000 voters from the rolls and closing hundreds of polling places, mostly in Black-majority neighborhoods.

Kemp didn’t acquiesce to their demands and squeaked out a narrow victory with less than two percentage points. It was the closest Georgia governor’s race since 1966.

In Georgia, two previous secretaries of state, Democrat Max Cleland and Republican Karen Handel, resigned when they ran for higher offices. But the record across the country is mixed. Secretaries of state in Rhode Island (Nellie Gorbea), Ohio (Jon Husted), and South Dakota (Shantel Krebs), have overseen elections in their states while running for higher office. Willis also notes that secretaries of state routinely oversee their own elections when they run for re-election.

The issue could be a potent one in Arizona, though, particularly if Hobbs were to eke out a narrow victory. Arizona is a battleground purple state with a unique partisan makeup: It’s 35% Republican, 31% Democrat, 34% independent, and 1% Libertarian.

Lake has been building momentum in recent weeks and months, making her the odds-on favorite to win. The magnetic former TV anchor has gained such an enthusiastic following that it is impacting campaign strategy in the state’s other high-profile statewide race. Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters is now working to appear alongside Lake at as many events as possible in a bid to boost his chances of unseating Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, according to Arizona GOP sources. That race has also tightened in recent weeks, with the two candidates running neck and neck.

Read more: How Kari Lake Went From Local Anchor to New Face of the MAGA Right

Moreover, two polls over the last week have shown Lake with an 11-point lead. While Hobbs has been widely seen as running a lackluster campaign—marked by her refusal to debate Lake, her absence on the campaign trail, and a lawsuit that a former employee filed against her for racial and sexual discrimination—some Arizona insiders are skeptical that Lake’s lead is that wide.

“I think it’s gonna be super close any which way,” says Coughlin. “It’s not going to be any double-digit bull—t. There’s no f—ng way.”

It would be jarring for Lake if she loses, however, especially given the trendlines and her leading in all of the polls a week out. If the returns show Hobbs as the victor, she would likely contest those results even more vociferously than she has Trump’s 2020 loss in the state.

“We need to have honest elections,” Lake says. “We have an absolute right to question our government. We have an absolute right to question the integrity of our elections.”

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