Arizona official endures a job that’s 'psychologically unfun' — here's why
On the morning of the first big election he’d ever run, election deniers’ most hated man in Arizona wore an easy smile and downed a Diet Coke while brushing off mean tweets, misinformation and angry emails.
Just like he’s done for the past 20 months.
Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer took office in January 2021 and immediately took heat for the 2020 election, which he didn’t run. A Republican, he’s been vehemently defending the county’s elections since then against the fringes of his own party, to the likely detriment of his own political future.
Tuesday’s primary was the first major test of Richer’s work as a recorder. And the election went smoothly in his county, despite what his detractors say.
“They would prefer if we fell flat on our face, which is kind of interesting considering, if you’re rooting against our success, you’re rooting against elections in Arizona,” he said.
While the rampant criticism gets to him sometimes, Richer is driven by an intense belief that he’s doing the right thing by defending the county and its election workers. He’s heard and responded to every claim about the 2020 election; the evidence is on his side. He wants to improve the office before he leaves it. The question is, will that be enough to make him stick around for another term’s worth of pummeling?
Previously a private practice lawyer, Richer ran for office for the first time in 2020 to try to replace Democrat Adrian Fontes, whose election changes drew near-constant ire from the GOP. Richer, at the time, said he wanted to depoliticize the office and relieve it of controversy. He’s instead spent his time in office defending Fontes’ work, and the controversy never ceased.
By the rubric that elections used to be analyzed by, Maricopa County went well: Vote centers opened punctually. Mailed ballots went out on time. People with problems got quick answers. No super long lines greeted voters casting ballots in person. Results were released on time and with updates throughout the night.
Certainly, the election had the kinds of problems all elections have: Printers went down here and there throughout the day. Some tabulation machines needed to be cleaned after ink clogged them. Some voters who insisted they were registered turned out not to be.
“We haven’t delivered on some sort of significant error or confusion,” he said.
While some on the right, like Turning Point USA leader Charlie Kirk, still insist Maricopa County had major problems on Tuesday, most turned their focus to a smaller county south of here, Pinal, where ballots ran out in some precincts.
Arizona’s most vehement 2020 election deniers, like secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem and state Sen. Wendy Rogers, largely won or are leading in their races. Don’t expect that to affect their views on elections much, though.
Despite all the scrutiny that comes along with the job, he doesn’t plan on leaving before his term runs out, as some of his colleagues in other counties have after facing endless harassment.
“We’re at the center of the universe in one of the most important topics in the United States right now, maybe in the world. I try and remind myself of that,” he said. “But of course, I would be lying if I wasn’t sometimes saying like, I signed up for this? I put in $120,000 of my own money [into my campaign] to have people say this type of stuff? But I’m in it now. I’m not a quitter.”
On Election Day, Richer was up at 4:30 a.m. and quickly started answering emails and messages. He dropped in on some polling sites to check out operations, talked to media, answered voters’ questions online, gave Maricopa County Supervisor Bill Gates a tour through the county’s central elections office. Over the course of the day, he drank probably a dozen Diet Cokes to keep him going. The Diet Cokes are a cornerstone of his days — on Twitter, he lists “I (heart) diet coke” first in his bio. By the end of a long Election Day, his desk was littered with empty cans.
But well ahead of Tuesday, it was clear what the biggest scandal of the day would be, and there was nothing Richer could do to quash it.
In 2020, it was #SharpieGate, a thoroughly debunked theory — which dogged his predecessor Fontes — that the use of Sharpies invalidated ballots. Under Richer, the county tested out a variety of alternative pens, landing on Pentel felt-tip pens as the ones least likely to gum up tabulators with wet ink, as ballpoint pens do.
Cue #PentelGate and a movement of GOP activists insisting that these pens were also flawed. One candidate running for Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, Gail Golec, told her followers to steal the Pentel pens from their polling sites. Some did. That prompted a letter from Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell’s office, reminding Golec that stealing is illegal and that encouraging theft of the pens was a “deliberate attempt to interfere with election administration.”
The pen-stealing was an isolated problem, Richer said, and not one that affected anyone’s vote. Poll workers handed out pens rather than leaving them in voting booths. If people wanted to vote with a ballpoint pen instead, they could. They ideally would wait a bit for the ink to dry, but they weren’t required to do so.
Former County Recorder Helen Purcell told Richer this week that the county has used felt-tip pens since 1996, aside from the 2020 election, when it used Sharpies.
“It’s nothing new,” Purcell told Votebeat.
In the day since the election ended, the county has faced criticism that it’s not counting fast enough. For a large county with voting options including mailed ballots, dropping off an early ballot in person, and voting at the polls, it takes time and staff to manage a complicated count and ensure it’s accurate and that signatures match up.
The election results’ release times have largely tracked with previous cycles. The big difference in recent years in Maricopa County is close elections. People don’t wait with baited breath and frustration for results to drop when the result is a blowout.
It wasn’t just the pens. And it wasn’t just in the days leading up to Tuesday.
Since Richer took office in January 2021, he’s faced a barrage of conspiracies about his county’s elections, from Sharpies to dead voters to bamboo-laced ballots. All debunked, all responded to in depth by the county.
The waves of nasty emails increase when far-right website Gateway Pundit writes about the county or him, as they’ve done dozens of times so far during his tenure. He sends the ones that contain certain “special words” to law enforcement, the ones that verge on threats of physical violence.
Richer was accused of being a ballot harvester after security footage showed him picking up a ballot left on the ground and putting it in a dropbox. As an elections official, he can handle anyone’s ballot, regardless of a state law that prohibits the average voter from turning in ballots for people outside their family or people in their care. At the time, he was walking with the sheriff’s office, he said.
“I suppose they could have just cuffed me up right there,” Richer joked.
It’s not all funny to him. It’s sometimes disconcerting. Like the time recently when he was scheduled to speak at an event and had to cancel because of threats to the building. He shared that online because “some people are still behaving as if words and actions have no consequences” when they spread election lies.
And it’s sometimes … weird. He’s gotten a box containing mouthwash in the mail four different times, noting that he should wash his mouth out. It’s always in a beat-up package. (For the record, he hasn’t used the mouthwash.)
The county put up a fence around the downtown tabulation center, the site of protests after 2020 and of a dumpster-diving incident in March 2021. That’s when the fence went up permanently, a visual indicator for the level of additional security needed to protect elections and the people who run them against the ongoing threats.
That part of the job can be “psychologically unfun,” Richer acknowledges, and it’s human nature to fixate on the negative feedback. He mostly hears from people who are upset, which makes him feel like an airline worker: It’s not like people reach out if they had a normal, satisfying flight, he said.
But not everyone directs vitriol at Richer. Some buy him lunch or send him a postcard thanking him. Some at the polls thanked their poll workers, knowing how intense it’s gotten for them.
Most voters, though, aren’t paying much attention to the daily dramas of election administration in the first place. They notice when they have to wait a long time to cast a ballot or if their voting experience didn’t go smoothly, but that’s about the extent of it, he said.
Richer, as the elected official in charge of the office, expects to be put through the “meat grinder,” but it weighs on him when the venom hits his staff. He struggles with whether to beat back a rumor about a staff member, worried about drawing more attention while trying to beat it back. As the boss, he sits down with new hires one-on-one to lay out his three main expectations: treat each other with respect, operate with integrity and help make the office better.
“Regardless of where you thought this office was on January 1, 2021, we want it to be improved by December 30, 2024,” he said.
Some vocal critics of election administrators give Richer credit for his accessibility, even if they want to see more changes to how elections are run and laws changed to restrict voting.
Merissa Hamilton, a right-wing activist and former candidate for Phoenix mayor, is one of them. She’s been critical of election administration for years; her group submitted a list of potentially dead voters to the state attorney general, which netted one prosecution.
She appreciates that Richer will respond to calls, texts, and tweets. She helped a friend who was in the hospital use a special election team to vote this year and noticed ways the experience could have gone much better. Scheduling it required phone calls and documentation instead of a way to submit a form for assistance online, she said. She used a felt-tip pen and reported that it went all right, but said the county should be more accepting of other pens. She would like to see more printers at voting sites to make for a faster experience.
But she thinks Maricopa County’s election went “much smoother” this week than in the past few cycles, and she gives Richer part of the credit for that.
“For what the laws are currently today, and what the entire role of the actual election process is, I think the processes went well,” she said.
For Purcell, the former recorder who was voted out of office after long lines plagued voters during the 2016 presidential preference election, the level and frequency of criticism Richer faces outpaces anything she experienced.
“He’s had much more pressure put on him than any recorder, probably, has had,” she said.
Since he’s an attorney, his ability to analyze and keep a cool head helps him do his job well under the pressure, she said.
“Under the worst of certain circumstances, he’s done a fantastic job,” she said. Though she wonders — about him and others who’ve faced the level of constant criticism he has — whether they’ll run again.
Richer, for his part, says when he asks himself if he really wants to do this job for another term, the answer in his head is sometimes yes, sometimes no, depending on the day.
On Tuesday, as his first big election remained free of significant error and confusion, it was a yes.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.