Arizona Republican says false claims of voter fraud have led to violent threats and a ‘front row seat to many disturbing sides of humanity’

A supporter of former President Donald Trump holds up a painting of him outside of the Maricopa County Recorder's Office.
A supporter of former President Donald Trump holds up a painting of him outside of the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office on Nov. 6, 2020. AP Photo/Dario Lopez-MIlls
  • In 2020, Stephen Richer defeated incumbent Adrian Fontes by just over 4,000 votes.
  • He promised to make the office of Maricopa County Recorder “boring” again.
  • His office maintains the county’s list of 2.6 million registered voters.
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Stephen Richer ran on a pledge to make things boring again. And he thought he ran for the best position to do that: as head of the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office, best known for processing documents, like deeds to a property, in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area.

But the Arizona Republican – a 30-something attorney who worked at conservative and libertarian think tanks – inherited a responsibility that has made the position of Recorder far more interesting than he would have liked: maintaining the county’s list of registered voters. That has put him and his staff right at the center of allegations over the 2020 election.

“This position has given me a front-row seat to many disturbing sides of humanity, really disturbing sides,” Richer said on a press call Wednesday. “Our latent herd mentality; our willingness to lie for personal gain; our predilection for violent rhetoric or even physical violence; and our extreme aggression toward contradicting facts and people. It’s been eye-opening.”

Earlier this month, Richer and a fellow Republican with a normally boring job, Eddie Cook of the Maricopa County Assessor’s Office, issued a joint statement rebutting claims from a right-wing activist that “ghost votes” had been cast from vacant lots in the November 2020 election. Meanwhile, for the past several months Cyber Ninjas, a private firm with no experience auditing elections, has been purporting to do just that, searching Maricopa County’s 2.1 million ballots for evidence of massive fraud that would discredit President Joe Biden’s victory there.

Led by a conspiracy theorist who has made clear that they believe the election was stolen, Cyber Ninjas has accused Maricopa County Republicans of trying to cover up the alleged crime – saying, for example, that they had destroyed key election data, a claim amplified by former President Donald Trump that the company’s amateur sleuths later retracted, admitting the information in question had been found on one of their own hard drives.

The particulars aside, the broader, sprawling conspiracy makes no sense, Richer said. In Maricopa County itself, he noted, “Republicans won the majority of down-ticket races, including mine, in which I unseated the incumbent Democrat chief county elections official – yes, in a race that was supposedly rigged for Democrats.”

But we now live in an age of “declining respect for professionals in the public space,” Richer said. The knowledge that enables one to counter accusations of voter fraud is itself suspect. It’s not enough for local election officials to hand count some 47,000 votes and finding “zero variances,” as happened in Maricopa County last year – to be trusted, one has to have already concluded that fraud was there, as the founder of Cyber Ninjas did before being awarded a $US150,000 ($AU205,002) contract from Arizona’s Republican-led Senate, supplemented by another $US5.7 ($AU8) million in private donations.

We live in an age, Richer argued, where authority is based on the number of followers on Twitter and views on YouTube, at the cost of faith in institutions and the reliability of election results. It’s a lucrative hustle for a few, but “it also has a real human cost,” he said. “I can’t tell you the number of people on my staff who have been targeted, who have been denigrated, [and] who have been harassed.”

In the field of politics, and now with vaccines and COVID-19, too many trust the demagogue and grifter – the likes of Cyber Ninjas and their “horror show” of an audit, Richer said – over the boring and competent.

“Oddly, we still know the importance of professionals in our personal lives,” he said. “We still send our cars to the mechanic, our taxes to the accountant, and our teeth to the dentist … And yet, in the public arena, many now seem to favor the loudmouth astrologists over actual experts and professionals.”

After weeks of delay, Cyber Ninjas is believed to be on the verge of releasing a report on its findings. In the meantime, legislators from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania, inspired by the example and eager to please a base that still supports the losing candidate, are engaging in their own efforts to relitigate the results of 2020.

It’s a trend, Richer said, of undermining faith in elections and experts “will soon cause irrevocable damage – if it hasn’t already.”

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