WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Wednesday, Oct. 18, an Arizona appellate court affirmed a lower court ruling that determined that Cochise County, Arizona could not conduct a hand count audit of all early ballots for the 2022 midterm elections. As Cochise County has indicated it would conduct future hand count audits, this ruling bars those as well.
Ahead of the 2022 midterms, the Cochise County Board of Supervisors voted to adopt a proposal to conduct a hand count “audit” of all its ballots. After initially walking back the plan and some back and forth, Cochise confirmed that it intended to move forward with an even more extensive plan to perform a full hand count audit of all early ballots in the county. Despite receiving numerous warnings from the Cochise County attorney and Arizona secretary of state advising the county against this broader plan the county decided to move forward with an expanded hand count audit of all early ballots, prompting an immediate lawsuit.
The Arizona Alliance of Retired Americans and a Democratic voter filed a lawsuit ahead of the 2022 elections against multiple Cochise County officials and election administrators challenging the county’s plan. The plaintiffs alleged that the audit of all early ballots (which, according to the lawsuit, “make up the vast majority of all ballots cast”) violated Arizona law and would “sow confusion among voters and undermine the public’s confidence in Arizona’s elections.”
In November 2022, an Arizona judge ruled that Cochise County could not proceed with its plan to perform a full hand count audit of all early ballots. After losing its battle to conduct the hand count audit, the county initially refused to certify its election results, but after several lawsuits and a court order, it finally obliged.
Even after the 2022 midterm elections, Cochise County’s Republican supervisors continued to fight their appeal and told the appellate court that “the Board wishes to conduct full hand count audits in upcoming elections and intends to do so if and only if this Court reverses the trial court’s ruling.”
In its opinion today, the Arizona Court of Appeals put an end to this plan. The court held that because “the legislature provided for a detailed method to verify the results from electronically tabulated voting machines, counties must follow that method unless and until the legislature determines otherwise. Accordingly, the County did not have independent authority to conduct a hand-count audit of all precinct or early ballots in the first instance for the 2022 election.”
This decision once again affirms that Cochise County’s plan to conduct a hand count audit of all early ballots was not lawful. As a result of today’s opinion, Cochise County will not be able to conduct a hand count audit of all ballots in the future.
During the 2022 midterm elections, Arizona was a hotbed for election denialism and conspiracy theories, particularly as it pertains to electronic voting machines. Cochise County’s failed plan to conduct a broad hand count audit of early ballots is part of a larger trend of Republican efforts to foment distrust and promulgate misinformation and disinformation about election procedures that are credibly proven to be safe and secure. Although hand counts are an important tool for recounts or confirming tabulator machine accuracy, using them as a counting method for all ballots is both time consuming and subject to human error.
As we head into 2024, Republicans continue to push for hand counts as a way to instill doubt about the electoral process. Today’s opinion offers a critical reminder — if Republicans attempt hand counts in places where they are not legally permitted — courts will be tasked with stepping in to ensure that elections are conducted legally and securely.