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Disturbing America: The Man Who Counts the Votes

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Stephen Richer seems very relaxed for the man running the polls in the hottest battleground county of the hottest battleground state in next week’s US midterm elections.

As Maricopa County’s elected recorder, Richer manages - predictably - the county’s records. Everything from land title deeds to the Public Record. Also, because of a historical wrinkle (the right to vote required proof of land ownership), his office maintains the county’s Voter Register. This is why on Tuesday, Richer will supervise voting and vote counting in the United States’ second-largest voting jurisdiction.

The task doesn’t seem to weigh on Richer, as he enthusiastically describes how he’ll do it. Or rather, how he’s already doing it. Election Day is Tuesday, but, as Richer points out, voting has already started. 79% of Arizonans are on the Active Early Voter List. These early voters receive their ballots by mail from their County Recorder and fill them, then either return them by mail again or vote at drop boxes placed all over the state. Richer is coordinating this operation, under rules set by the County Board of Supervisors and, ultimately, the Arizona State government.

“Elections are state creatures in the United States,” Richer says, beaming at the room. “We do not have a federalized election system.” While there _is_ a Federal Electoral Commission, it’s nowhere as large or powerful as Nigeria’s INEC, for example. Its handful of commissioners is there to make sure everyone follows campaign finance rules. They also set some very broad electoral guidelines. Within those lines, state governments are free to formulate any election rules they like. So, while Richer concedes that elections in the 50 states have “broad similarities”, he insists they’re different enough to make the system a “laboratory of democracy,” with 50 different experiments to figure out the best formula for capturing The Will of the People.

And the Arizona lab has been more experimental than most in some ways and more cautious in others.

For example, Arizona was a very early adopter of “No Excuse” Mail-In Voting, in 1992. Before that, only people with a very serious constraint (disability, unavoidable absence from the state, etc) could get a Mail-In ballot. Today, four in five Arizonan voters are on the list to get one if they want.

But unlike some other states, it still has a deadline date for voter registration. Only those on the rolls at least 27 days before the polls will vote. Some civic groups like Mi Familia Vota call this disenfranchisement and voter suppression. But Richer insists it’s just common sense, to make it harder for politicians in other states from stealing Arizona’s elections by busing “excess voters” into the state, _after_ making sure they’re winning theirs.

Arizona still uses paper ballots for every single vote cast in the state. Richer jokes that Arizona’s entire voting record would survive any electronic “apocalypse” that were to wipe out all the computers in the state. Maricopa County *does* use machines, but only to count, tally, and sort those paper ballots, at the end of a long journey, intricately mapped out and monitored by Richer’s office.

First, the Arizonan goes online or in person to register. The Recorder’s office confirms their citizenship, physical address, and residential status.

Months ahead of an election, the Recorder’s office creates a ballot for each voter on the Active Early Voter List. The ballot is customized to contain only the races the person can vote on. For example, not every Maricopan belongs in the same school district. The voter gets the ballot by mail to their confirmed address. After filling it, they seal it in a special envelope they also get by mail. The envelope has a barcode that’s unique to the voter. The voter signs the envelope, and either mails it in or deposits it in a physical drop box.

Richer says no ballot is accepted if it isn’t in an envelope with an active barcode, and once a ballot is accepted, the barcode is deactivated, so the same voter can’t vote twice.

Running this system efficiently for a couple million voters is a logistical feat that takes a small army. The Recorder’s office has 150 permanent staff but swells this number with up to 3000 ad-hoc staff during elections. Instead of trying to find elusive neutrals for the jobs, the Recorder’s Office hires equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats. The idea is that they will keep each other honest. It’s an interestingly American approach to refereeing elections: accepting that everyone is biased, and building checks for that bias by letting both sides be represented. At the federal level, both parties have an equal number of FEC commissioners, for example. Richer himself is a registered Republican but says he understands Maricopans elected him to protect their votes, not his party. “That's something that the board and I have said,” he says, referring to the four Republicans and one Democrat of the County Board of Supervisors, Maricopa’s highest governing body. “This isn't a matter of partisanship, this is a matter of fact versus fiction. And we have to be on the side effect because that's the responsible ethical thing to do.”

And maybe the fact that his own party is angry with the way he’s running the elections is a sign that he’s calling it down the middle. The Republican national leadership accused Richer of favoring Dems in hiring and accused his predecessor - also a Republican - of rigging for Biden two years ago. When I asked Richer about all this, he seemed resigned and even a bit philosophical.

“It goes against my moral code to lie about [the 2020 election]. If that means that I can't be in good standing in the Republican party, then that's, that's sad. Um, there are some days when some people suggest that, that you're not a good Republican if you don't believe the election was stolen from Trump. I don't think that a party can be built on any one thing, much less a falsehood.”

Which of course raises questions about whether America can get away with elected, partisan electoral officers for much longer. Then again, when you look at other countries with appointed, purportedly nonpartisan arbiters, the alternatives don’t seem better.


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