Too many Arizona voters think elections are unfair. Here's how we can change that

September 12, 2023
Heather Balas

This op-ed by ERN VP of Programs Heather Balas and The Carter Center's Barbara Smith originally appeared in The Arizona Republic.

The heat wave of political polarization has hit Arizona as hard as any state.

Controversies over election administration are red hot.  Multiple challenges to the 2022 election results are pending in court, turnover is high among election officials and extensive electoral reform legislation has been fiercely debated.

Remarkably, Arizona voters are not giving up on the system. Instead, they’re doubling down on commonsense ideas to increase trust. 

This is the story behind a new report by the Center for an Independent and Sustainable Democracy at Arizona State University.

Voters want nonpartisan election officials

Based on a representative survey of 1,063 registered Arizona voters, the report paints a picture of an electorate looking for fairness and impartiality in elections above all else. 

Most voters believe that political interference in elections has increased in recent years.

An overwhelming 92% support requiring state and local officials to take an oath to operate in a nonpartisan manner, and 75% want top positions in state election administration to be decided through nonpartisan elections.

Arizona has a wealth of public servants who are committed to delivering safe, secure, inclusive and credible elections.  

Yet, in 2024, many of Arizona’s personnel who run elections — the county recorders who manage voter registration and early voting, and county boards of supervisors that oversee election operations — will stand for reelection on partisan platforms.

The ASU survey serves as an important reminder to them to reassure voters that they can conduct elections impartially.

Legislation would help avoid conflicts

Comparing the ASU findings to a similar national survey commissioned by the Election Reformers Network (ERN) makes clear that Arizonans are keenly aware of the potential for conflicts of interest in election administration.  

Seventy-three percent of Arizonans oppose election officials’ raising money for candidates, compared to 57% of respondents nationally. 

Similarly, 78% of Arizonans oppose allowing top election officials to make decisions that could affect their own election, compared to 56% of respondents in the national survey.  

The most obvious controversial decisions by election officials include overseeing tabulations or recounts for their own races. However, more subtle decisions like moving or eliminating drop boxes could also undermine voter confidence in election officials’ impartiality.  

The Model Election Ethics bill designed by the Election Reformers Network creates guardrails that would help elected officials avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest.

The bill prohibits election officials from fundraising for or taking a public position on elections they oversee. It also provides protection for election officials and workers.

Elected leaders can do this in the interim

In the last legislative session, lawmakers attempted a step in this direction by introducing Senate Bill 1264, which would have barred election officials from being part of a political action committee.

The ERN model bill represents a broader, more bipartisan way to ensure fairness and impartiality, presenting Arizona with an opportunity to lead the nation in setting ethical standards for elections — just as it was the first state to establish independent redistricting.

Meanwhile, until Arizona achieves reform legislatively, immediate voluntary actions can bolster voter trust.

County recorders and boards of supervisors can pledge to adhere to the highest ethical standards for managing their own races. They can also continue to delegate authority for election-related decision-making in each county to the nonpartisan election director and their staff, letting them do the jobs they are trained for.

The 2023 Shared Services Agreement between the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and the county recorder provides a clear public delineation of roles and responsibilities that could serve as a helpful model for other counties.

Arizona has a chance to turn this around

Such agreements could go further. For example, explicitly delegating authority to county election directors to serve as a primary point of contact for voters, political parties and candidates.

And entrust election directors to conduct tabulation — including post-election hand counts in accordance with ARS 16-602 — determine voting locations, set physical and online security of elections infrastructure, and procure needed new elections equipment and material.

The world is watching Arizona elections.

The state is fortunate that most of its elected and unelected election officials do their work with the utmost integrity.

But even they know Arizonans are worried. Voters need to know that the system protects them from rogue behavior.

Modest changes in law and practices can go a long way toward providing that assurance.

Arizona has a powerful opportunity to model the way forward — for its own citizenry and the nation. 

Barbara Smith is vice president of Peace Programs at The Carter Center. Heather Balas is vice president of programs at Election Reformers Network.  The Carter Center and ERN are working in Arizona to monitor elections and support election policy development. On X, formerly Twitter: @bjmsmith and @HeatherBalas.