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Opinion: A legislator who howls about election fraud and another who passed a law making it more difficult to vote? These are our candidates for the state’s chief elections officer? Seriously?

As the Republicans in Arizona continue to obsess about 2020 election, it’s worth noting that the race to become the state’s chief elections officer – the person who will preside over the 2024 presidential election – already has begun.

So far in the running:

The state senator who just made it more difficult for certain people to vote – one who was ready to slap handcuffs on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors for not cooperating with the Senate’s now-infamous election audit.

And a state legislator who for six months has been howling about a stolen election – a Stop the Steal organizer who hosted a hearing with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani to explore imagined conspiracies then later attempted to justify the Jan. 6 insurrection, given “rampant fraud.”

Both Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, and Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, are running for secretary of state, a job that would put one of them in charge of elections in one of the nation’s key swing states – not to mention just a heartbeat away from the Governor’s Office.

No, Arizona. I am not making this up.

GOP picks, so far, are appallingly appalling

Republicans are aiming to retake the post they held for more than two decades until 2018, when Democrat Katie Hobbs knocked off Republican SOS Michele Reagan.

Hobbs is widely expected to run for governor and thanks to the Republican Senate’s election audit, she’s now widely known throughout the state, making her a frontrunner for the No. 1  job in 2022.

As for her replacement? The pickins’, thus far, are appallingly appalling.

Finchem would seem to have a leg up among Republican voters given that most of them buy into the conspiracy theories he’s been pitching since Donald Trump’s defeat.

He’s a key figure in the Stop the Steal movement, the legislator who convened an 11-hour hearing on election fraud in Arizona, featuring Giuliani waxing on about the many ways the vote was supposedly rigged.

All that was missing was actual evidence, which seemed to bother Finchem not at all.

“Ladies and gentleman, this is a skirmish,” he said, at the end of the Nov. 30 hearing. “You ain’t seen nothing yet. Because when Satan wants to extinguish a light, he will stop at nothing. So be on your guard, put on the full armor of God, and be prepared to fight.”

Finchem thinks there was real fraud

Five weeks later, Finchem was in Washington, D.C., for the Jan. 6 rally-turned-riot, though he says he wasn’t part of the mob that stormed the Capitol, hoping to stop certification of the election results.

He did, however, post a picture of the mob on his now-deleted Twitter account, justifying the insurrection as, “What happens when the People feel they have been ignored, and Congress refuses to acknowledge rampant fraud. #stopthesteal”

Finchem is a member of the Oath Keepers, a right-wing militia group that figured prominently in the insurrection. He’s a regular on Steve Bannon’s podcast and recently told a QAnon audience that he’s hoping the Senate audit will result in overturning Arizona’s election and reassigning the state’s presidential electors to Trump.

On that basis alone, I’m guessing he’s got a great chance of snagging a Trump endorsement, which is golden in primary elections but, as Sen. Martha McSally can tell you, in general elections not so much.

Ugenti-Rita would’ve arrested supervisors

Unlike Finchem, Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita doesn’t run around spouting conspiracy theories.

But she was one of 15 Republican senators who voted to hold the Maricopa County supervisors in contempt for refusing to hand over the county’s 2.1 million ballots, voter files and election machinery for the Senate audit. Had the resolution passed, the supervisors could have been arrested.

Kwok: Ugenti-Rita’s problem isn’t her voter bill. It’s the audit

She also has used Republican doubts about the election to push a variety of bills that appear aimed at suppressing the vote. She reasons that it’s all about making elections more secure – never mind that top elections officials with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency have called the November election “the most secure in American history.”

One of Ugenti-Rita’s bills would bar county elections officials from going out into the community to register people to vote. That one never made it out of the Senate.

Another will purge easily more than 100,000 people from the state’s early voting rolls. The bill, which was signed into law earlier this month, will bar people from automatically getting early ballots if they haven’t voted early in the last two election cycles, though they could submit a request in writing to remain on the list.

Ugenti-Rita has said the bill is simply a clean up of voter rolls and certainly not an effort to do whatever it takes for Republicans maintain their grip on power in the state.

But it’s worth noting that in November, 88% of the 3.4 million Arizonans who voted cast early ballots and for the first time, Democrats came out in droves to vote early. What always had been the Republicans’ secret weapon to winning suddenly was being used by Democrats to drive up turnout.

Democrats have estimated that Ugenti-Rita’s bill will drop more than 126,000 voters from the rolls, 30,000 of them Latinos.

There’s a rumor mill of who else could run

These, then, are your candidates thus far for secretary for state. 

Please, please, please tell me there will be other choices.

There is talk Rep. Shawnna Bolick could get into the race. This Phoenix Republican proposed stripping Arizona voters of the right to appoint presidential electors. Under her fortunately doomed bill, the Legislature could disregard the popular vote and appoint presidential electors of their own choosing.

There has been talk about Sen. Kelly Townsend of Mesa getting into the race though that talk seems to have waned — fortunately. Townsend this week proposed a sweeping set of reforms that would require, among other things, a criminal investigation any time an early ballot is rejected because a signature doesn’t match what’s on file.  I picture the SWAT team descending on Granny when her arthritis flares up.

Keep your eye on Beau Lane, who just may represent the Republicans’ best chance of winning the job should he get that far. He’s an advertising executive who is better known in business circles than political ones, one who could raise decent money for the race. Fifty prominent business executives, including Jerry Colangelo and retired Pinnacle West Capital Corp. Bill Post, recently signed a letter urging him to run.

Lane is a member of Greater Phoenix Leadership and one of more than 50 GPL members who in April urged the Legislature to oppose Ugenti-Rita’s voter purge and several other voter suppression bills.

The headline on their letter: “Disenfranchising voters is not ‘Election Reform’.”

How a guy like that wins a Republican primary is tough to see. 

On the Democratic side, there really isn’t much chatter, which seems shocking, really, given Republicans’ determination to put a thumb on the scales – or as they call “restoring integrity” – in our elections.  

I’ve heard House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, Rep. Diego Espinoza, D-Tolleson, and former Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes, who was defeated last year by Republican Stephen Richer.

But for now, it’s Finchem and Ugenti-Rita for the state’s chief elections officer.

Um. Yeah. If that’s not enough to keep you lying awake nights … 

Reach Roberts at Follow her on Twitter at @LaurieRoberts.

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