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Arizona GOP’s rebuff of one-day, in-person, primary highlights party’s rift over election security

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Posted at 2:57 PM, Sep 02, 2023

PHOENIX (CNN) — Arizona state Republican chairman Jeff DeWit this week rejected a Maricopa County GOP proposal to hold a one-day state-run presidential primary in 2024, highlighting a continued fracture in the Republican Party in the wake of persistent election denialism stemming from the 2020 presidential election.

DeWit explained why he had not called for a vote on the proposal in a Thursday email to members of the party’s executive committee. He said the GOP doesn’t have the money to conduct its own contest — or the time to implement a plan and clear potential legal hurdles.

The decision by DeWit, who worked on former President Donald Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns, is likely to trigger backlash from conservatives in the state. The Arizona Republican Party has been driven rightward by Trump-aligned conservatives who distrust its elections and refuse to accept the losses of Trump in 2020 and a statewide slate that included gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, another prominent election denier, in 2022.

The Washington Post reported on the development earlier Saturday.

Arizona has emerged in recent years as one of the nation’s most important swing states – a former Republican bastion that has shifted leftward in recent years, with Democratic victories in 2018, 2020 and 2022 Senate races and President Joe Biden defeating Trump by less than 11,000 votes out of more than 3.3 million cast in the 2020 presidential election.

Most Arizona voters cast their ballots by mail — an option that has soared in popularity since the state legislature approved no-excuse mail-in voting in 1991 and in 2007 green-lit the creation of a permanent early voting list, allowing residents to sign up to have their ballots mailed to them each election cycle.

Those voting norms, once championed by Republicans who controlled the state’s government, are now being targeted by conservatives who have parroted Trump’s false conspiracy theories about widespread election fraud.

The Maricopa County GOP passed a resolution on August 26 asking the state party to back out of the state-run presidential primary and hold its own one-day affair.

“The actions taken by the MCRC are in solidarity with President Donald J. Trump, who has been persecuted, arrested and indicted for taking the very same positions,” Maricopa County Republican Party Chairman Craig Berlin said in a video posted this week on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

DeWit’s rejection of that proposal came just before Friday’s deadline for parties to withdraw from the government-run election. Paul Smith-Leonard, communications director for the Arizona secretary of state’s office, confirmed that no party had opted out of the presidential primary.

DeWit said in his email that the party has “no well-articulated plan” to replace the presidential primary and “no money with which to communicate this change to Arizona Republican voters.”

“As a result, the Party would almost certainly be forced back into the (presidential primary) by court order. There is simply not enough time or resources to make that shift in this presidential election cycle while upholding the requirement of the Bylaws that the Party act fairly to all primary candidates,” he said.

DeWit also cited the state party’s lawyer, saying that the state GOP is “very nearly certain” the state would face federal and state lawsuits alleging that such a shift would amount to “massive voter disenfranchisement.”

Instead, he proposed allowing the Maricopa County GOP to run a parallel primary election — one that would take place solely in Maricopa County, and be funded by the county party.

The rift is the latest evidence that, despite narrow losses in 2018, 2020 and 2022, many Republicans in the state reject a return to the tactics at which the party once excelled — including following up with conservative voters to make sure their mail-in ballots are returned.

There has been no broad reckoning for the party after those losses. Following her 2022 defeat, Lake launched a series of legal challenges seeking to reverse Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs’ victory.

Following Trump’s loss in 2020, the conservative-led Arizona state Senate hired Cyber Ninjas, an inexperienced Florida-based firm, to conduct a partisan review of the over 2 million votes cast in Maricopa County.

The sham “audit” pointed to inconsistencies that largely resulted from the inexperienced reviewers’ lack of understanding of how elections operate in Arizona. Elections experts debunked virtually all of the claims Cyber Ninjas and its subcontractors made about ballots they characterized as questionable and Maricopa County’s handling of cybersecurity.

Its final report, released by the state Senate, was issued in September 2021, and showed that the results of reviewers’ hand recount were nearly identical to the county’s tally. Still, the report has turned into fodder for Trump-aligned conservatives, including Lake, to sow distrust in Arizona’s election process.