Republican officials in an Arizona county voted on Monday to hold up certification of local results in this month’s midterm elections, reflecting an expansion of partisan battles into obscure elements of the election system and largely uncharted legal territory.
The Cochise County board of supervisors refused to certify the results, although members cited no issues with the count or problems in the vote. In Mohave County, Republican supervisors delayed a vote to certify the election, but then backtracked and certified the vote on Monday.
The move is unlikely to significantly stall the final results of this year’s elections; state officials have said that if necessary they will pursue legal action to force the board’s certification. But it represents a newfound willingness by some Republican officeholders to officially dispute statewide election results they dislike, even when the local outcomes are not in doubt.
“Our small counties, we’re just sick and tired of getting kicked around and not being respected,” said Peggy Judd, one of two Republican supervisors in Cochise who voted to delay the certification of county results until Friday.
Ms. Judd described the move as a protest over the election in Maricopa County, where Republican candidates have claimed — with no evidence — widespread voter disenfranchisement, largely as a result of ballot printing errors.
Similar actions have taken place in Pennsylvania, where activists have sued to block certification in Delaware County, and Republican election officials in Luzerne County voted against certification, forcing a deadlock on the county election board after one of the three Democratic board members abstained from voting.
In Arizona and Pennsylvania as in most states, elections are run by county governments, which must then certify the results. The act was regarded as little more than a formality until the 2020 election.
Since then, local Republican officials aligned with the election denier movement have occasionally tried to use their position to hold up certification. The tactic has become more widespread this year and earned encouragement from Republican candidates and right-wing media personalities.
“People were suppressed and disenfranchised,” Charlie Kirk, the conservative pundit, said on his radio show this month. Mr. Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA, which is based in Phoenix, cheered on Cochise and Mohave officials in their efforts: “We’re not going to let this one go.”
These actions have mostly unfolded in heavily Republican counties and have only rarely been prompted by suspicions about local elections. More often, local Republican officials and activists have described the actions as an effort to complicate or at least protest the certification of elections elsewhere that they claim have been compromised.
The Aftermath of the 2022 Midterm Elections
A moment of reflection. In the aftermath of the midterms, Democrats and Republicans face key questions about the future of their parties. With the House and Senate now decided, here’s where things stand:
Biden’s tough choice. President Biden, who had the best midterms of any president in 20 years as Democrats maintained a narrow hold on the Senate, feels buoyant after the results. But as he nears his 80th birthday, he confronts a decision on whether to run again.
Is Trump’s grip loosening? Ignoring Republicans’ concerns that he was to blame for the party’s weak midterms showing, Donald J. Trump announced his third bid for the presidency. But some of his staunchest allies are already inching away from him.
G.O.P leaders face dissent. After a poor midterms performance, Representative Kevin McCarthy and Senator Mitch McConnell faced threats to their power from an emboldened right flank. Will the divisions in the party’s ranks make the G.O.P.-controlled House an unmanageable mess?
A new era for House Democrats. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to serve in the post and the face of House Democrats for two decades, will not pursue a leadership post in the next Congress. A trio of new leaders is poised to take over their caucus’s top ranks.
Divided government. What does a Republican-controlled House and a Democratic-run Senate mean for the next two years? Most likely a return to the gridlock and brinkmanship that have defined a divided federal government in recent years.
In Cochise County, a heavily Republican and largely undeveloped desert and mountain area southeast of Tucson, Monday’s vote followed more than a month of efforts by Ms. Judd and Tom Crosby, the other Republican on the county’s three-member board of supervisors, to audit or otherwise review the election results. Mr. Crosby did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.
After a judge blocked a plan to hand-count all of the county’s ballots, which both the county attorney and county elections director had believed was illegal, Ms. Judd and Mr. Crosby briefly pursued their own lawsuit. On Nov. 18, they voted for the first of two delays on the county’s certification to date.
As justification, they have publicly cited an elaborate theory that claims that many voting machines in the state are technically illegal — which has been debunked by federal elections officials and rejected by the state’s Supreme Court.
But in an interview shortly after Monday’s vote, Ms. Judd acknowledged that this was mostly a pretext for a certification delay that was intended as a protest of Maricopa County’s own certification.
“It’s the only thing we have to stand on,” she said, referring to the voting machine claim.
While still rare, such actions by Republican county officials are a new frontier in the politicization of elections, according to Richard L. Hasen, an election law scholar and law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“I don’t think we’ve seen this in modern times before the 2020 election,” he said in an email. “It all goes back to Trump and election denialism.”
In November 2020, two Republican members of the canvassing board in Wayne County, Michigan’s largest county, briefly refused to certify the election results there, deadlocking the four-member board and drawing encouragement from President Donald J. Trump as he spread false claims about a stolen election.
The unexpected move was short-lived — they withdrew their objections several hours later. But this year local Republican officials with connections to the election denier movement have gone further.
In New Mexico in June, the state Supreme Court ordered Republican officials in Otero County to certify the county’s primary election results after they had refused for weeks to do so, citing uncertainty about the integrity of elections. (A partisan audit of the election results in the county had found no evidence of fraud.)
Election law experts say the same thing would most likely happen in Arizona if Cochise County were to withhold certification. Last week, Arizona’s secretary of state, Katie Hobbs, wrote a letter to the county supervisors warning that if they did not certify the results by Monday, she would take “all available legal action” to make them do so. On Monday, she filed a lawsuit.
Such action in effect amounts to Ms. Hobbs, a Democrat who won this month’s governor’s race, asking the state Supreme Court to certify her own victory. Kari Lake, a 2020 election denier who lost to Ms. Hobbs, has tried to make a campaign issue out of Ms. Hobbs’s role as the state’s top elections authority.
“Katie Hobbs is in charge of the certification process,” Caroline Wren, a spokeswoman for Ms. Lake, told Stephen K. Bannon on his “War Room” podcast this month, “and so she’s going to fight this every way. But I would hope that the courts end up stepping in to fight with us as well.”
Ms. Lake won Cochise County by 18 percentage points.
The focus on certification is in part a reflection of election deniers’ other tactics failing to get traction. Right-wing activists have spent much of the last two years unsuccessfully pursuing audits of election results at the state level or in large urban counties and organizing on behalf of sympathetic Republican candidates who largely failed to win statewide offices this month.
Increasingly, activists have turned to local Republicans who they believe have the power to build momentum behind major changes to the election system, or, as in the case of certification, at least momentarily disrupt its operation.
This year, Republican officials in both Cochise and Nevada’s Nye County tried to institute hand-counted audits of the machine-tabulated ballots cast, which activists view as a step toward getting rid of the machines entirely.
Ms. Judd said the effort in Cochise was inspired by Jim O’Connor, a member of the state corporation commission. Mr. O’Connor wrote a letter in August to county supervisors across the state urging them to “act immediately to secure our November election by use of paper ballots processed by hand count.”
In the letter, Mr. O’Connor said he had been convinced of the need to do so by the Moment of Truth summit, a conference hosted that month by Mike Lindell, the MyPillow chief executive and prominent election denier.
Activists have also packed county government meetings in Arizona and Pennsylvania, criticizing and in some cases leveling wild accusations at local officials over certification.
At a meeting to consider certification in Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County, a member of the public was ordered to leave after calling Audrey Serniak, a Democratic member of the election board who voted to certify the results, a “liar” and a “communist.”
In Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, the board of supervisors on Monday voted unanimously to certify that county’s election results after a rowdy and heated meeting.
Over the course of two hours, speakers, including several out-of-state activists and right-wing media personalities, brought up conspiracy theories about elections and complained about the process. Echoing the Lake campaign, many claimed that Maricopa County voters were unable to vote because of a printer problem on Election Day.
Several speakers evoked violence, with one suggesting that members of the board were “traitors” who may have committed treason “punishable by the death penalty.”
“This is a war between good and evil and you all represent evil,” said one activist, Chris Hamlet, as he pointed at members of the board.
After many of the activists left the hearing room, elections officials gave a presentation that addressed the activists’ points and debunked each of them. The officials said the county had backup systems that ensured that every vote was counted.
Ms. Lake and her campaign posted video clips of the activists’ testimonies on social media, but as of Monday afternoon had not posted any of the county officials’ rebuttals.
In Cochise County, Ann English, the lone Democratic supervisor, who has consistently opposed the delay tactics, has been similarly berated during recent public meetings. In an interview after Monday’s vote, she expressed weariness with her colleagues’ efforts to withhold certification.
“I think they’re trying to breed chaos and discontent,” she said.
Ms. Judd would not say whether she will vote to certify the results on Friday, and seemed uncertain of what would most likely happen if she and Mr. Crosby again refused.
“What I’ve heard is that the Legislature will just have to take over,” she said, citing messages posted on Telegram, the social media platform, by a group associated with the 2021 partisan audit in Maricopa County.
In reality, the matter would be adjudicated by the state courts. In her letter to the county officials this month, Ms. Hobbs warned of a scenario in which the county’s votes would simply not be counted — an outcome that could tip the state’s race for attorney general, which appears headed to a recount.
In the letter, Ms. Hobbs derided the claims that several election deniers had made on behalf of blocking certification as “baseless conspiracies.”
Ms. Judd countered: “The secretary of state calls them conspiracy theorists, but a theory is just a fact to be proven. So maybe they’ll be conspiracy facts one day.”
Alexandra Berzon, Trip Gabriel and Neil Vigdor contributed reporting.