ARIZONA

As efforts to change voting stall at Legislature, election deniers file lawsuit to ban machines

State Rep. Mark Finchem, of Arizona, gestures as he speaks during an election rally in Richmond, Va., on Oct. 13, 2021. The House committee investigating the U.S. Capitol insurrection has subpoenaed six individuals over efforts to falsely declare Donald Trump the winner of the 2020 election in several swing states.

Election skeptics are turning to the courts to challenge the way Arizona votes, with the latest effort seeking to ban the use of any machines and instead require a hand count of ballots.

The challenge comes from Kari Lake and state Rep. Mark Finchem, Republicans who are seeking their party's nomination for governor and secretary of state, respectively.

They want a federal judge to issue a preliminary injunction to block Maricopa and Pima counties from using any electronic device to cast or tabulate votes, and to order the counties to follow a protocol that would require paper ballots — already the practice in Arizona for years —  as well as a hand count of all cast ballots.

The move comes as bills at the Republican-controlled Legislature attempting similar actions have failed, and after a review of the Maricopa County presidential election from Senate Republicans found no problems with vote counting equipment or the outcome that Joe Biden won the presidential vote.

Elections experts maintain hand counts are significantly more unreliable than machine counts, and tabulating winners could take much longer — as demonstrated by the Senate-ordered ballot review last year.

The lawsuit names the boards of supervisors in Arizona's two largest counties as well as Secretary of State Katie Hobbs. It is underwritten by Mike Lindell, an adherent of the false narrative that the 2020 election was stolen from President Donald Trump.

Trump hailed the complaint over the weekend at a rally in Ohio. He praised Lake and Finchem as "patriots" and said every state should follow their lead in trying to rewrite how elections in 2022 are conducted. 

Kari Lake delivers a speech before former President Donald Trump's speech in Florence on Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022.

The lawsuit plays to Lake and Finchem's base of supporters, as both wage Trump-backed campaigns for office based on false claims the election was insecure. Election deniers have made various unsubstantiated claims, from machines programmed to flip votes to interference by foreign actors.

The filing, in U.S. District Court, comes in the wake of the Arizona Republican Party's challenge to the constitutionality of Arizona's early-voting system, and as Attorney General Mark Brnovich is asking a Yavapai County court to order changes to 2022 elections procedures.

The state Supreme Court declined to hear the state GOP's case, saying it did not have jurisdiction in the matter. On Monday, Alexander Kolodin, attorney for the state party, said he could not comment on whether the party might file it in a lower court.

But he noted that two of the issues raised in the filing were picked up in a lawsuit Brnovich and the Yavapai County Republican Party filed against Hobbs last week in Yavapai County Superior Court. In that lawsuit, Brnovich asks the court to compel Hobbs to add signature verification guidelines to the state's Elections Procedures Manual, as well as procedures for protecting ballot drop boxes.

Arizona already follows procedures

The Lake-Finchem lawsuit argues that electronic machines can't be trusted, claiming the machines need to be "objectively validated" by outside experts, although it does not detail what that process would entail or who would qualify as an expert. Until that is done, the only way to run the 2022 election is to use "tried and true precepts" that include paper ballots that keep the voter's identity anonymous, a hand count of results and a transparent process that allows the public to observe, the complaint states.

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Many of those procedures already are followed: Arizonans vote on paper ballots except for visually impaired voters, who can use an electronic machine; ballots are anonymous; and vote tabulation is done in a manner that allows the public to observe, both in person and via a live feed on the internet.

None of the parties named in the complaint commented on the filing. Maricopa County officials declined to weigh in, citing pending litigation.

However, county and state elections officials have repeatedly pointed to the guardrails in election laws and protocols to ensure voters' ballots are properly counted.

The ballot review done last year by the Cyber Ninjas was a hand count that lasted months.

Senate President Karen Fann speaks during a breakout session focusing on Arizona elections during the second day of AmericaFest 2021 hosted by Turning Point USA on Sunday, Dec. 19, 2021, in Phoenix.

When the tally was finished, it was so far off from official results that Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, purchased paper-counting machines as a check on the hand count. The machine count matched the official results; the hand count done by the Cyber Ninjas actually gave more votes to Joe Biden than the official results.

Additionally, an independent review of the county's vote tabulation machines found no evidence they were connected to the internet, as critics theorized. That review was done by three technology experts who were approved by both Senate and county officials, and overseen by special master John Shadegg, a former Republican U.S. congressman from Arizona.

Even the sponsor of a controversial election bill that sought to return to return Arizona to "1950s-style voting" by eliminating early voting supported the use of machines to count ballots.

Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, said he would have considered an amendment to his legislation to allow machine counting to ensure results are tabulated in a timely manner. Plus, he noted, voting machines were in use since at least 1950. His legislation, however, never advanced.

The case was assigned to U.S. Magistrate Deborah Fine. Lake and Finchem are requesting a jury trial.

Reach the reporter at maryjo.pitzl@arizonarepublic.com and follow her on Twitter @maryjpitzl. Reporter Ray Stern contributed to this story.