PHOENIX — The Maricopa County Republican Committee wants the state GOP to cancel Arizona’s normal presidential preference election and instead hold its own vote — one that would not include any mail-in balloting and would require anyone who wants to vote to show up and vote in-person on Election Day.
If Arizona GOP Chairman director Jeff DeWit signs on and cancels the normal election, the party would run its own statewide vote next year — a tall task one former state party official said would create insurmountable problems.
The rules for that election would be chosen by the state party. But the county GOP resolution adopted by its leaders on Saturday seeks to have the Republican party’s nominee for president chosen “on paper ballots, in a one-day, one-vote election, hand-counted at the precinct level.’’
Elected Republican precinct committeemen would adopt the formal election rules at the state party’s January meeting, according to the resolution.
The county party’s two-page resolution contains a grab-bag of disproven allegations about election security issues with early voting and machine tallying and a host of others, all rejected repeatedly by courts in legal challenges by failed GOP governor’s candidate Kari Lake following the 2022 election.
But party activists who lead the GOP in the state’s most populous county are convinced they are true.
Time is running out for DeWit to act. State law gives him only until Friday to tell Secretary of State Adrian Fontes whether the party wants a state-run election.
DeWit told Capitol Media Services on Tuesday he will call an emergency meeting of the state party’s executive committee to hear a proposal from county Chairman Craig Berland and Vice-chair Shelby Busch as soon as possible. But DeWit also appeared not to be completely on board, especially about the cost of the effort.
“Many Republicans have questioned the MCRC’s rationale for wanting to allocate over $10 million to conduct the presidential primary independently, instead of investing that money in winning the general election,” DeWit said. “While the MCRC is demanding the AZGOP to spend this money, they’ve not committed to even a single dollar themselves, which leads people to believe this is a publicity stunt by the MCRC.”
Berland said in an interview that the costs were likely not as high as that, noting that eliminating early voting and mail-in ballots will sharply limit costs. And he alleged — without providing evidence — that up to 10% of early ballots are fraudulent and that eliminating them by moving to an all in-person election would ensure ballot security.
“Not only does it save you a significant amount of time and a significant amount of cost, you eliminate that potential for fraud,” Berland said. “So you got to decide: Is that worth it to you? And if the answer is no, then God help me.”
The Maricopa County GOP committee that passed the resolution doesn’t have the backing of all of the elected party insiders. Multiple legislative district committee chairs posted opposition, noting the committee that voted for the resolution didn’t clearly consider the ramifications or consult with DeWit.
It also caught Pima County GOP Chair Dave Smith by surprise. In a brief interview Tuesday morning, Smith said he had just learned of the move.
“I’m all for having a secure and competent voting system but I don’t know anything about this,” Smith said.
Former Arizona Republican Party Chairman Robert Graham scoffed at the proposal, saying there’s just no way for the state party to pull it off.
“It’s always possible if you have the money, resources, people and technology, which they don’t have any of, none, not one,” Graham said.
“It doesn’t exist for the (Arizona) Republican party today,” he continued. “They’re not equipped by any stretch of the imagination to do it.”
There’s nothing illegal about what is being proposed.
Political parties are allowed under state law to opt out of the state-run presidential primary election. They frequently do — but mainly because an incumbent president faces no serious challenge, as was the case for former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election. In that case, no election is held.
Similarly, the Democrats are expected to opt out of the 2024 primary and instead simply have the party throw all of its delegates to incumbent Joe Biden.
If an election is contested, as the GOP battle is this year, state law and the Election Procedures Manual says parties can choose to hold a caucus.
Caucuses are used only in a handful of states and U.S. territories, Iowa being the most well-known. In a caucus, political parties hold meetings across the state where registered party members gather and vote for a candidate.
The Maricopa County GOP committee, however, doesn’t want to go the caucus route. Instead, members want the state party to run the election itself — something also allowed under state law if they pay for it themselves — without having to follow normal election laws.
One thing they want includes banning mail-in voting, used by more than 90% of voters in the 2022 general election. There also would be no in-person early voting, just voting at assigned precincts on Election Day, in this case set for March 19, 2024.
Ballots would all be counted by hand, something that even some Republican-led Arizona counties have rejected because of the number of ballots, complexity and expense of the efforts.
Berland, in a video statement announcing the county party’s position, said all this is to “reclaim” the primary “from the government who has failed us over and over again.” And he called the move to eliminate early ballots and machine counting to be “in solidarity with President Donald J. Trump who has been persecuted, arrested and indicted for taking these very same positions.”
But having the party run its own election, something that hasn’t occurred in Arizona since 2000, opens up a slate of unanswered questions, the biggest being the cost, locations and staffing. Arizona’s normal presidential preference election is overseen by the secretary of state and counties choose voting locations and hire people to staff voting sites, count the ballots and certify the results.
Arizona currently has more than 1,700 precincts, and the state party would be on the hook for finding locations and staffing each and every one of them under the county proposal. That’s far more than Arizona’s 15 counties would use if they ran the election, since the majority use vote centers that combine multiple precincts.
The Legislature included $5.9 million to Secretary of State Adrian Fontes’ office this year to run the scheduled March 19, 2024, presidential preference election. By law, no other contests may be on the ballot that day, and unlike other Arizona primary elections, only registered party members can cast ballots.
Then there’s the $10 million cost estimate cited by DeWit.
The state Republican Party just doesn’t have that kind of cash. Far from it. Fundraising this year has been abysmal, and new chairman DeWit, who took over from Kelli Ward in January, has a tough hill to climb to boost the party’s finances before the 2024 election season kicks into high gear.
As of June 30, the Arizona Republican Party had less than $144,000 cash on hand, according to its state campaign finance report. Its federal report, which covers cash available to spend on federal campaigns and related expenses, showed just under $24,000 in the bank.
Berland brushed all those concerns aside.
“I don’t think those pesky details are insurmountable,” he said.
“There’s a lot of patriots that want to see this happen,” Berland said. “And I think a large portion of the people staffing the polls would be volunteers.”
Graham, who led the state party from 2013 to 2017, said DeWit will be wise to ignore the Maricopa County GOP resolution, even if other county parties join in the call for a party-run election.
“Do you want the dollars you raised to go toward electing and winning the election and the general or do you want it to go towards some bogus thing that’s not going to solve anything?” Graham said, noting that party members who believe there were massive problems in the 2022 election point to last November’s general election, not the primaries.
“The responsible thing is to let the state handle it, because they know what they’re doing,” he said.
The last time a state party ran its own presidential primary was in 2000, when Democrats used online voting in a test of technology that was mainly successful but ultimately was not used again.