Arizona county recorders complain about state elections head Michele Reagan

Posted at 1:29 PM, Jan 28, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-29 13:54:00-05

County recorders in all 15 Arizona counties say their relationship with Secretary of State Michele Reagan is in "a dire state" and have called on Reagan to fix the problems. 

Recorders oversee voter registration and other election matters and said in a letter to Reagan that her state election director, Eric Spencer, has been rude and dismissive to them in meetings and ignored their requests for collaboration. 

They also criticize Spencer's push to rapidly move toward adopting a new statewide election database without what they called adequate consultation with recorders. 

Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez said Friday the letter shows recorders are fed up with dictates from Spencer. 

Reagan "is kind of disconnected and kind of left it with staff," and now "needs to engage" to fix the problems, Rodriguez said. 

Reagan spokesman Matt Roberts said she has asked Spencer for a "formal review and explanation." Spencer is not commenting about the dispute, Roberts said. 

Reagan also plans to meet with the leaders of the state Recorders Association next week, Roberts said. 

The Jan. 23 letter first obtained by the Arizona Center for Investigating Reporting is another sign that county elections officials are fed up with Reagan and her staff. 

They have previously complained about Spencer's failure to do a required update to the elections manual that all officials use to oversee elections and about other issues.

"Communication between the County Recorders and the Secretary of State's office is in a dire state, failing to function as an equal partnership or even a cooperative working relationship," the letter said. "There needs to be dialogue with State Election Director Eric Spencer, not dictation."

The letter said Spencer has rated the performance of county recorders as "incompetent," refused to answer critically important questions and been "a most ineffective and disrespectful liaison from your office."

"His tactics include being rude and dismissive to the county recorders and their staff, rising to the level of verbal abuse, in both public and private meetings," it said. 

The state plans to replace its voter registration database, potentially issuing a contract before June. 

The letter also said it "appears that the Secretary of State's office is advocating strongly for one statewide system for election management and actual voter registration processing."

That worries Pima and Maricopa Counties, which have spent millions of dollars developing independent elections systems that could be rendered useless without proper planning. 

Spencer's timeline would put the new systems in place in the middle of the 2018 election cycle.

"They're jamming this through," Rodriguez said. "It started in August, and what were we doing in August -- doing the primary and general elections -- that where our focus was at."

Roberts said the state is working with counties to get the right new system. 

"Let's be clear: The statewide voter registration database is something they work in every single day," Roberts said. "It's very important for them that they have a system that works for them, and we're trying to bring together 15 counties who have differing views as to what that should look like."

Gila County Recorder Sadie Jo Bingham complained that voter registration cancellations sent to her county did not contain required verification that the voters actually should be cancelled, Rodriguez said.

The state routinely sends updates to counties with information it reviews from other states or counties about new registrations and asks them to cancel outdated voter lists.

In one case, Bingham refused to cancel the registration of a voter she personally knew still lived in Gila County. She told the Center for Investigative Reporting that Spencer ordered her to cancel the registrations when she called to question them.

Spencer said in a response sent to Reagan Thursday that the office was acting based on a routine letter from another state inquiring about registrations. He said he never spoke with Bingham.

"In short, I categorically deny the character allegations that Sadie Jo has made against me," Spencer said in his email to Reagan, obtained by The Associated Press from her office. He did not address the letter from the recorders and its characterizations of his actions.

Rodriguez said Reagan needs to change the tone coming from her office and rein in Spencer. She said the letter was not a political attack against the Republican secretary of state. The recorders are split among both major parties, Rodriguez said.

"We're not the buck privates here and he's the general," she said of Spencer. "We're saying (Reagan) needs to engage 7/8-- and she needs to handle her employee."