‘Burning the candle at both ends’: Inside one of the nation’s busiest elections offices
Stephen Richer, Arizona’s Maricopa County recorder, on Oct. 24, 2022. (Kira Lerner/States Newsroom)
PHOENIX — During the first few days that Arizona’s Maricopa County began tabulating early votes, County Recorder Stephen Richer ran between interviews and meetings, responded on Twitter to dozens of voters with questions about the election and held a press conference for reporters.
He managed this all while overseeing a staff and volunteers who were verifying voters’ signatures and beginning to count the hundreds of thousands of ballots already received.
As the midterm election approaches, election officials across the country face an immense workload combined with changes in the nature of their jobs. They are fielding unprecedented threats stemming from conspiracy theories about voter fraud as well as massive numbers of public record requests, yet must conduct the fundamental part of their job: Administer the election.
“We feel stretched thin as an operation and I know there are people in the department who have been burning the candle at both ends,” Richer said.
Richer, a Republican and former lawyer and business person, assumed office in January 2021 as Maricopa County became the center of a national firestorm over alleged voter fraud. Richer said many of his job functions are not what he expected when he ran for the position.
Despite the audits and dozens of lawsuits that all proved that Maricopa County, one of the most populous in the nation, ran a smooth and accurate election in 2020, Republican candidates for the top three statewide offices in Arizona all still allege that the presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump.
But the prospect of these Republicans winning in November isn’t discouraging Richer, who said he maintains hope that they won’t enact the extreme voting policies that they have discussed while campaigning.
Richer sat down with States Newsroom to discuss the upcoming election and the political environment surrounding it. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity:
You took office after November 2020 so this is your first time administering a general election, but I’m sure you can tell that this election differs from past ones. For one, there’s a metal fence surrounding this building (the Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center) and visitors need to be buzzed in by security. What else feels different this year?
Everything is more. There’s more security, there’s more documentation, there’s more people. It’s just an enlarged operation that I think has become increasingly professional and, given the circumstances of the outside world, increasingly scrutinized. I think that’s helped us be very sharp, but it has also made new considerations and demands of our time, whether it’s having more media in here or having more observers.
We have observers on observers on observers now. And most of that’s wonderful.
Regarding the security, there’s a new fence out there and a temporary fence around that. A lot of new security cameras, a lot of new badge access restrictions, a lot of new documentation of who is in which room doing what. All of this is livestreamed on our website so you can watch.
It also sounds like there are new demands on your and your staff’s time?
I think that’s something that election officials across the country would bemoan. I think we’re better equipped to handle that, but certainly media teams, public relations teams, public records requests, we deal with more lawsuits now. Cybersecurity is more of an issue now than perhaps it was before 2016. I think if you asked many elections officials, they would say that they now have to wear many hats, election administration only being one of them.
Your office, like so many election offices across the country, has had an influx of public records requests as Trump supporters have been instructed to request documents that they think could show evidence of fraud in the 2020 election. Do these requests frustrate you and do they feel like an intentional effort to eat up your time and resources?
I don’t know if somebody who listens to Mike Lindell and gets it in his head that he needs to request the cast vote record is doing that out of an attempt to disrupt, but it’s not serving a legitimate purpose in that this person has no idea what to do with this data set and wouldn’t even know how to open the file. Whether intentional or not, it takes up time. And it’s not like we can have three people do public records and the rest of the staff doesn’t have to be interrupted. When you’re talking about describing processes and knowing where to look for different things, you’re talking about pulling time away from people who are really critical to the operation.
At times, we feel stretched thin as an operation and I know there are people in the department who have been burning the candle at both ends and some of them have been doing it since before I even got here. I think that is eventually unsustainable for the elections ecosystem in the United States.
Do you personally feel stretched thin?
It’s frustrating, and it is not what I envisioned in terms of the allocation of my time. And it’s not what I would want, but I’m doing fine, thank you for asking, and you play the hand that you are dealt.
Do you empathize with the significant percentage of election officials across the country who have left their positions or considered leaving since 2020?
It’s not a surprise. We’ve been very lucky here in Maricopa County. In fact we’ve even picked up some people who have left other counties and wanted to work different jobs or wanted to be part of the process but not in the public eye. We’ve actually strengthened our team at a time when other teams have been decimated by turnover. But certainly employee morale, well-being, mental health are all more prevalent conversations now than maybe this office was having six years ago.
How much of the mental health conversation is due to threats and harassment?
I think most people are shielded from that on a day-to-day basis. It’s going to be people who are doing our communications who are going to see the vile responses on social media. It’s going to be people who are public facing who are going to get incoming email traffic.
For the most part, it stays at a non-zero but manageable level, but then there are periods in which it spikes, and I’m hopefully more attuned to how everyone is doing at that point. My goal and hope is that for somebody who is working in tabulation or processing or signature verification, that they are aware that this is in the world and environment, but they are not personally experiencing it.
Do you ever have conversations with election deniers and do you feel like you can change their minds and convince them that the election was fair if you explain the process and the intricacies of elections to them?
It’s a depressing question because it’s like, are you suggesting that everything we’re doing hasn’t moved the needle, and there are some data points that give some credence to that. Despite all the lawsuits, despite all the educational efforts, despite all the public statements, despite all the reports, despite all the reviews, despite all the professional audits, that the percentage of people who think that the 2020 election had material fraud hasn’t plummeted down to less than 10% or something like that of the American public.
But we see it on a one-off basis. Even if they don’t have a religious-like revelation, we can see people who have some questions answered or they feel better about the process or they understand the process better.
Is it tough to approach an Election Day looking at 2020 and knowing that in all likelihood, it’s not going to be anywhere near the end of your work?
One very real thing that will be coming is that we will likely be doing a recount. The margin for triggering a recount in Arizona got expanded this last legislative session, and so, according to 2020 results, multiple different races would have triggered automatic recounts.
We’ll be doing, in all likelihood, post-canvass recounts which means we’ll be working through December, which is a rough thing to ask of the team. In 2021, we spent an immense amount of time rehashing 2020, reliving 2020, facilitating reviews of 2020, so it was not a peaceful year and 2022 has not been either.
I’m hoping that maybe we have to push hard through Thanksgiving for the first canvass and then we have to push hard through the recount, but then I’m hoping that come Christmas, things quiet down materially.
But that’s obviously barring any post-election stuff like in 2020, when all of a sudden the subpoenas happened in December 2020, there were Senate subcommittees that were having hearings on the 2020 election, obviously there was tons of post-election litigation. That’s fine, that’s an important part of the process. I’m hoping that by the time we get to 2023, that’s behind us and we have winners that are installed.
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