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Meet the Faces of Democracy: Stephen Richer

Republican county recorder in Arizona’s largest county discusses the challenges of running elections when the the information environment is awash in lies

Ariana Rojas and Michael Beckel are part of the research department at Issue One, the leading cross partisan political reform group in Washington, D.C., uniting Republicans, Democrats, and Independents in the movement to fix our broken political system and build an inclusive democracy that works for everyone.

Editor’s note: More than 10,000 officials across the country run U.S. elections. This interview is part of a series highlighting the election heroes who are the faces of democracy.

In November 2020, Stephen Richer, a registered Republican, was elected as the county recorder of Maricopa County, Arizona — which is home to Phoenix and ranks as the second-largest voting jurisdiction in the United States, with nearly 2.5 million registered voters. On the same day that Republican President Donald Trump lost Maricopa County to Democrat Joe Biden by about 45,000 votes, Richer defeated the incumbent Democratic county recorder by about 4,600 votes, or 0.2 percent of the votes cast.

Richer is one of several local officials in Maricopa County responsible for election administration. In Maricopa County, election administration responsibilities are split between the county recorder and the five-member board of supervisors. As the Maricopa County recorder, Richer oversees voter registration and mail voting. Meanwhile, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors oversees voting on Election Day and the tabulation and certification of votes cast.

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Since taking office, Richer has been at the center of a firestorm fueled by election deniers. Most notably, Republican Kari Lake has baselessly claimed that Richer sabotaged the 2022 general election, in which Lake was a gubernatorial candidate. Earlier this year, Richer sued Lake for defamation, arguing that he and his family had their lives turned upside down by Lake’s lies, including being the target of death threats.

Richer has a bachelor’s degree from Tulane University, a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, and a law degree from the University of Chicago Law School. He is a former corporate mergers and acquisitions attorney and business owner. In 2006, Richer was awarded the Presidential Volunteer Service Award by President George W. Bush for his rescue, recovery, and rebuilding work in the South after Hurricane Katrina.

In 2021, Richer was among several GOP election officials in the state named as “Arizonan of the Year” by the Arizona Republic. And that same year, the Phoenix New Times named him the “Best Republican Politician of the Year” for his willingness to speak the truth about the integrity of the state’s election processes.

Richer enjoys sports, reading, writing, logic puzzles, word games, and spending time with his wife. Since 2023, he has been part of Issue One’s Faces of Democracy project advocating for protections for election workers and for regular, predictable, and sufficient federal funding of elections.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Issue One: Election deniers and election denialism have been center stage in Arizona — and Maricopa County — since the 2020 presidential election, often making national headlines. Why do you think that is?

Stephen Richer: There are incentives to lie about election administration. You can get endorsements. You can get donations. You can shock people and draw crowds. You can keep your name in the media even after you’ve lost. You can pave your way in a Republican primary.

For instance, the 2022 Republican nominees for governor, attorney general, and secretary of state in Arizona were all election deniers. Election denialism is especially strong in Maricopa County in part because of the six-month-long “audit,” which cost Maricopa County taxpayers more than $3 million. That circus became a rallying point that other states didn’t have.

Issue One: What part of the election administration story in your area do you think isn’t told enough or isn’t widely understood enough?

Stephen Richer: So many parts. I wish everyone understood we have hand-marked paper ballots; that would have killed the “hacking” and “internet” concerns.

I wish everyone understood that the political parties do a post-election, hand-count audit; that would have killed the “vote switching” theory.

I wish everyone understood that the tabulators produce a cast vote record of 1s and 0s for the different contests; that would have killed the “fractional voting” theory.

I wish everyone understood that we only send mail ballots to verified voters with verified addresses; that would have killed the “ballots flown in from South Korea” theory.

I wish everyone understood that early ballots must be returned in a special return envelope assigned to a specific voter, with a specific barcode, with a valid signature; that would have killed the “2000 Mules” theory.

I wish everyone understood that all critical parts of the process are bipartisan, subject to partisan observers, and under 24/7 video surveillance.

Issue One: What do you think are the most effective ways to combat conspiracy theories and false information about our elections?

Stephen Richer: I’m not sure. I read the same reports and see the same testing as you all, but I’m still not sure. So we try a bit of everything — videos, reports, interviews, tours of our facility, encouraging people to be temporary election workers, seminars, Q&As. I know it’s made a difference with some individuals who have participated. But we haven’t moved the needle significantly in terms of the number of Republicans who believe the 2020 and 2022 elections were stolen.

Issue One: This year, several Republican-controlled states have left ERIC. Why do you think this is problematic? What value does ERIC have, in your opinion?

Stephen Richer: It’s just politics. I’m concerned for some of those departing states who grasp desperately for pretextual reasons for abandoning ERIC. ERIC is a key tool for voter list maintenance. When someone moves to another state, he or she may not inform us to cancel their registration in Arizona. When they register to vote in their new state without telling us, we are not notified of that information. ERIC, however, provides some of that information. It’s the closest thing we have to a national voter registration database.

Issue One: Across the country, many election officials — including yourself — have been the target of threats and harassment. How have you responded to these challenges? How supportive have law enforcement agencies been?

Stephen Richer: We’re blessed with amazing law enforcement partners. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (Paul Penzone) and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office (Rachel Mitchell) have been especially wonderful. So too have local police departments, the Arizona Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the DOJ, CISA, etc. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey was very supportive. Now too is Governor Katie Hobbs. I really can’t say enough about how wonderful law enforcement has been.

The only challenge we’ve had with law enforcement was with the previous Arizona attorney general (his term ended at the end of 2022). He privately told people that the stolen election stuff was nonsense, but then he made public statements to the contrary (to support a run for U.S. Senate), and he subjected my office to a year-long criminal investigation that scared some of my team.

Issue One: What’s the current typical price tag of elections in Maricopa County?

Stephen Richer: We take into account how many temporary workers and support staff we’ll need and incidental expenses for facility rentals and things of that nature, so the cost of running an election may vary greatly from one election to the next. For the 2020 general election, the cost was $13.5 million. For the 2022 general election, the cost was $11.1 million. For the upcoming 2024 election cycle, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors has budgeted $10.1 million to fund the presidential preference election and prepare for the upcoming primary and general elections, plus an additional $9 million in contingency funding that will be used to replace certain ballot-on-demand printers that serve voting centers.

Issue One: A lot of people are surprised to learn that the federal government doesn’t routinely fund election administration. Why do you think the federal government should routinely invest in elections?

Stephen Richer: I’m pretty mixed on federal involvement in elections. My strong libertarian/conservative sensitivities cringe at the notion of a federal-driven system. But if we have federal races on our ballot, the federal government should contribute financial support. I’m also increasingly open to the idea of a more standardized election administration process. Oftentimes we hear: “Why don’t you do it like they do in Florida, Texas, Oregon, etc.?” It’s because we have different state laws.

Issue One: If your jurisdiction had extra funding, how would you spend it?

Stephen Richer: Extra space. The more space we have available, the more people we can immediately put on all parts of the process, and the quicker we can tabulate and release results. That would have a direct and positive impact on confidence in our elections. Getting to 98 percent of ballots tabulated within 24 hours is my No. 1 wish if I had a magical election genie. But our Arizona laws and voter behavior make it nearly impossible right now.

Issue One: How did you end up in this profession?

Stephen Richer: I ran for this office in 2020 as a Republican. I won the primary, and I absolutely destroyed the Democratic incumbent in the general election. I won by about 5,000 votes out of 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa County. He (Adrian Fontes) successfully ran for secretary of state in 2022, and we’re now friends and partners in election administration. I ran for this office because I thought it nicely combined my three interests and abilities: politics, law (I’m a lawyer), and administration (I’ve long been involved in business and management).

I also thought that it would be fairly non-controversial — just let people record their documents, register to vote, and vote, right?!, So I thought I could pretty easily keep all of my friends — Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, or otherwise. Whoops.

Issue One: How many voters are on the roll in your jurisdiction? And what are the main challenges of a jurisdiction of this size?

Stephen Richer: There are nearly 2.5 million active registered voters in Maricopa County. We are larger than 24 states in terms of population, larger than seven states in terms of square miles, and Maricopa County is the second-largest voting district in the United States, behind Los Angeles County. The main challenge is being a highly competitive county that makes up 62% of the voting population of a highly competitive state. People are super obsessed with us for this reason, and while that has some fun parts to it, it has a lot of bad parts too.

Issue One: Election administration in the United States is very decentralized, with each state using its own system. As county recorder, what are you responsible for?

Stephen Richer: Elections are administered at the county level in Arizona. We have 15 counties. The three statutory responsibilities of the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office include recording public documents, voter registration, and election administration. When it comes to election administration, we share responsibility with the Board of Supervisors. The Recorder’s Office administers early voting while the Board of Supervisors handles all Election Day voting and tabulation.

Issue One: Outside of being passionate about running safe and secure elections, what are your hobbies? Or what’s a fun fact that most people might not know about you?

Stephen Richer: I read a lot. Fantasy (e.g., Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss), business biographies (e.g., Jobs, Iger, Buffett, Welch, etc.), and classic fiction (especially 19th Century Russian and British lit). I love sports. Playing and watching. COVID killed a lot of the leagues I was in (basketball, baseball, soccer, dodgeball). Would love to get back into them. I love watching college football, NFL, and NBA in particular.

I love business and still do some business stuff. I like running. My wife and I do a lot of races. I used to be way faster. I’m trying to get back closer to mid-20s Stephen, but am currently about 1:15 per mile off. I like my wife a lot, and I closely follow her very impressive career as an attorney. We met at the University of Chicago Law School. She was the better student there, and she was the better lawyer after we left.

Issue One: Which historical figure would you have most liked to have had an opportunity to meet and why?

Stephen Richer: Adam Smith. No greater gift has ever been given to man than a freedom-based, rule-of-law-based market economy.

Issue One: What’s your favorite book or movie?

Stephen Richer: I grew up alongside Harry Potter. The first book was released in 1996, when I was 11 — the same age Harry is in the first book. So it will forever hold a very special place in my heart, and I’ve read the first four books at least 50 times each.

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