Behind the Mysterious Right-Wing Group Suing To Roll Back Arizona’s Voting Laws

In the lead up to and aftermath of the 2020 election, Republicans launched an all-out legal assault on voting, fueled by election disinformation and conspiracy theories. The assault didn’t stop after the 2020 election. 

The 2022 midterm election brought more frivolous and conspiracy-laden lawsuits and, as the 2024 election season shifts into high gear, there’s currently anti-voting litigation ongoing in 19 states and Washington, D.C., according to Democracy Docket’s litigation tracker. Few states have been as heavily targeted by right-wing groups and figures than Arizona, where there are currently seven active anti-voting lawsuits making their way through the courts. 

At least three of those lawsuits were filed by a little-known conservative advocacy group called the Arizona Free Enterprise Club (AFEC), the self-described “leading organization in the state dedicated to advancing a pro-growth, limited government agenda in Arizona.” Since its founding in 2005, the AFEC has mostly directed its resources toward promoting right-wing economic causes in Arizona— lobbying for tax cuts and other economic incentives for private enterprise growth — but in the past year the group has diverted its resources to a different cause: Arizona’s elections. 

Since March of 2023, the AFEC has filed three high-profile lawsuits seeking to thwart various aspects of how voting and elections are run in Arizona. Though two of its lawsuits — challenging the state’s rules around drop boxes and signature matching — were recently rejected by a state court judge, another lawsuit filed by the group that challenges the state’s Election Procedures Manual (EPM) could potentially throw a major wrench in Arizona’s 2024 election. 

But what’s curious about these lawsuits isn’t what they’re challenging — as a key swing state, Arizona is frequently targeted by anti-voting conservative groups and figures — but that a nearly 20-year-old organization that, until last year, has seldom involved itself in Arizona’s voting laws has filed three high-profile election lawsuits in a single year

Similar anti-voting lawsuits filed in Arizona have come from prominent right-wing politicians, groups and election deniers — like Kari Lake and Mike Lindell — which makes it even more curious that the AFEC is a relatively unknown group in the voter suppression space. 

The three anti-voting lawsuits filed by the AFEC challenge provisions of the Arizona’s Elections Procedure Manual (EPM), which spells out all the details — down to the minutiae — of how elections are to be run in the state. 

The first lawsuit that the AFEC filed in the current election cycle came in March of 2023, in conjunction with the anti-voting group Restoring Integrity and Trust in Elections (RITE) — a conservative legal group founded by former U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr. The lawsuit took aim at Arizona’s signature verification for early mail-in ballots. 

In the 2023 EPM, all voters who cast an early mail-in ballot have to sign an affidavit attesting to their identity, which is then compared with previous signatures in a voter’s record to confirm the match. Since the EPM outlines that county recorders can compare signatures from early mail-in ballot envelopes from prior elections instead of voters’ original voter registration records, the AFEC claimed that the recorders would not be properly verifying signatures, which the group alleged violates state law.

Another AFEC lawsuit challenged how the EPM allows the use of drop boxes in the state for early voting. The EPM allows the use of drop boxes for turning in ballots but because it has yet to be approved by the legislature the lawsuit alleged that the use of drop boxes violates state law. 

In late April, both of these lawsuits were rejected in a joint ruling by a state court judge , who held that the rules for signature matching and drop boxes outlined in the EPM comply with state law. 

The joint ruling was certainly a victory for pro-voting groups in a state where the entire election process is, once again, under heavy attack. But the one AFEC lawsuit that’s still pending in court is one that could have the most consequence. 

In February, AFEC filed a lawsuit against Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes (D) alleging that the entirety of the state’s EPM — essentially the bible used by election officials all throughout the state — violates state law and the U.S. and Arizona Constitution because it limits free speech. In essence, its lawsuit argues that the EPM limits free speech because it allows local election officials to stop outsider groups and individuals from monitoring drop boxes and polling locations — as a way to protect election workers and voters from harassment and intimidation. In the 2022 midterm elections, members of armed extremist groups monitored drop boxes in Maricopa and Yavapai counties.

A history of right-wing advocacy.

The Arizona Free Enterprise Club was founded in 2005 with a mission to “educate the public about, and to advance policies that promote economic growth, limited government, fiscal restraint, and lower taxes,” according to its founding year tax filing. The group’s first president was Steve Voeller, a veteran congressional staffer who worked for Sen. Jon Kyl (R) and then-Reps. Matt Salmon (R) and Jeff Flake (R) — all of whom represented Arizona in Congress.  

In 2012, Voeller left the group to work as Flake’s chief of staff after Flake was elected to the U.S. Senate. At AFEC, Voeller was replaced by Scot Mussi, a longtime conservative advocate in Arizona who also serves on the board of the Arizona Freedom Foundation, a right-wing media organization, and the AZ Liberty Network, a conservative civic engagement group. 

The AFEC, under Mussi’s leadership, first made a splash in Arizona as a major donor to a number of GOP campaigns in the 2014 election. “Seemingly overnight, the Arizona Free Enterprise Club has morphed from a low-profile, low-tax advocacy group into the biggest-spending organization of this year’s election season,” according to a 2014 AZ Central article, which detailed how the group spent $1.1 million in the months before the midterm election to support a wide range of local right-wing candidates.

The AFEC then led the effort in a heavily debated 2019 ballot initiative to kill the funding for a major expansion of Phoenix’s light rail and other fixed-rail transit projects. The effort, which was overwhelmingly rejected by voters, was heavily funded by a Koch Brothers-backed dark money group. 

Mussi and the AFEC were once again in the news in 2022 for their efforts to oppose a ballot measure in Arizona to disclose the source of dark money in state and local campaigns. The measure, Proposition 211, requires that any person or entities that makes an independent expenditure to a campaign that’s over a certain amount of money has to disclose the names of where the money came from. 

“They want the names of private citizens so that they can dox, harass and cancel them in their communities,” Mussi said to the Arizona Capitol Times at the time. “And they intend to use their friends in Big Tech and the Corporate Media (which are exempt from this initiative) to aid them in their quest.” Proposition 211 was approved by an overwhelming 72% of voters, despite the massive effort from Mussi and the AFEC to get voters to reject it.

Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s dark money connections.

As a nonprofit organization, the AFEC doesn’t have to disclose its donors, but an analysis of its tax filings reveals that, in the year before it started to file election lawsuits, its annual revenue more than doubled. It’s unclear where their revenue comes from — nearly all of their revenue in 2022 came from donor contributions and grants — but a further inspection of its 2022 tax filings reveals a connection to a controversial dark money group. 

To spearhead such high-profile lawsuits isn’t a cheap endeavor, but it’s unclear who is funding the AFEC. For most of its existence, the group has operated with a tight budget of roughly $500,000 to $1.5 million dollars annually, according to its tax filings. In 2021, the group posted its highest annual revenue at the time, at $1.5 million. In 2022 that revenue more than doubled to $3.4 million. 

Last year was also the first year the group described its work in “promoting election integrity reform” in the state legislature in its tax filings. The AFEC mentions in its filings spending at least $500,000 in “promoting election integrity,” and outlines its role in helping to pass legislation preventing noncitizens from voting and purging the state’s voter rolls. The organization also notes giving a $20,000 grant to The Concord Fund for “promoting election integrity reform.” The Concord Fund, also known as the Judicial Crisis Network, is a Leonard Leo-linked dark money group best known for spending tens of millions of dollars to promote conservative judicial nominees to federal and state courts at every level.

A lawsuit that could have enormous consequences.

It’s no secret that the GOP and other conservative organizations and figures are diverting — or at least trying to — much of their resources into anti-voting litigation. Lawsuits in key states like Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania could have a serious impact on how the presidential election plays out in those vital states, which could decide the election. 

As Arizona is one of the key battleground states in the 2024 election, the legal threats to the state’s EPM has drawn widespread concern from voting advocacy groups, who have  sought to intervene and defend the state’s election rules.In March, the Democratic National Party and the Arizona Democratic Party, recognizing the threat that AFEC’s lawsuit poses, intervened and filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

“MAGA Republicans are attempting to meddle with elections for one simple reason: they know when more eligible voters cast their ballot, Republicans lose,” President Joe Biden’s campaign manager, Julie Chávez Rodríguez in a statement to POLITICO. “Making it more difficult for Arizonans to vote by stripping away protections that keep elections safe and fair is part of their strategy — and their latest attempt to undermine American democracy.”