Arizona’s new attorney general will use electoral fraud to boost voting rights

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A unit set up under the former Republican attorney general of Arizona to investigate claims of voter fraud will now focus on voting rights and ballot access under the newly elected Democratic attorney general.

Related: ‘I’m now seeing things I’ve never seen before’: Maricopa prosecutor fights false election claims

Democratic Attorney General Kris Mayes told the Guardian that rather than prosecute voter fraud claims, she will “re-prioritize the unit’s mission and resources” to focus on “protecting access to voting and combating voter suppression”. Mayes won the November attorney general’s race against election denier Abe Hamadah by just 280 votes, a race that went to a state-mandated recount.

“Under my predecessor’s administration, the Election Integrity Unit did a lot of searching for voter fraud and found scant evidence of it happening in Arizona,” Mayes said in a statement. “That’s because voter fraud cases are exceedingly rare.”

Mayes also plans to have the unit work to protect election workers who have faced threats of violence and intimidation. And she plans for the unit to defend Arizonans’ voting rights by mail, which has come under attack in recent years from Republican lawmakers and the state’s GOP despite being the most common way Arizonans of all political parties vote.

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In 2019, Republican-controlled legislature and then Arizona governor Doug Ducey added about half a million dollars in funding for an “election integrity unit” in the attorney general’s office. Since then, the unit has filed a number of lawsuits, including charges against four Latina women in a rural part of the state for collecting other people’s ballots, which is illegal in Arizona.

It’s not yet clear what will happen to pending cases, including the collection charges in Yuma County, Mayes’ office said. A webpage on the Attorney General’s website created to allow people to file election complaints for possible investigation is still live.

Until recently, the head of the unit under the previous Republican Attorney General, Mark Brnovich, was Jennifer Wright, an attorney who had criticized the Maricopa county election and sent a letter to the county to investigate the election. Wright left the office shortly before Mayes took over.

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Since its inception, the unit has come under fire from Democrats who deemed its existence unnecessary, questioned its lawyers and said it played false claims about elections. Republicans also criticized the unit for not going far enough with electoral fraud. In one notable case, the unit investigated claims of hundreds of votes cast by people who were dead, and found only one voter among those declared dead in whose name a vote had actually been cast.

When Brnovich sought funding for the unit, his agency defended the move as a way to protect elections and debunk false claims of fraud.

Despite several full-time staffers and hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding each year, the unit has not detected widespread or coordinated voter fraud. Most of the 20 cases it has brought over three years have focused on individual, isolated violations of electoral law, such as people casting the vote for a deceased relative or casting a vote despite being ineligible to vote.

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In a study published last year, the Washington Post found that the unit’s work did not bolster people’s confidence in the voting system, but instead “increased distrust among many of those who deny that President Biden won and undermining public resources”.

Brnovich could not be reached for comment on the unit and its fate under Mayes.

Other Republican-led states have created similar voter fraud units, some with much larger staffs than Arizona’s. A Virginia unit includes more than 20 personnel transferred from other parts of the Attorney General’s office to focus on election issues, and organizations such as the NAACP struggle to get information about what that unit does. In Florida, a new election crimes office launched by Governor Ron DeSantis has led to the arrest of 20 people with criminal records who falsely cast ballots when they believed they were legally able to vote.