David Stevens had never supervised a ballot count. He didn’t know how he would count nearly 50,000 ballots by hand, who would help, or where he would find enough space to do it.
But that didn’t dissuade him.
Less than a month before the November election, Stevens, the Cochise County recorder, told the county supervisors he would be happy to try.
Arizona GOP leaders had spent two years promoting unfounded claims about compromised vote-counting machines, and were scouring the state for a county that would willingly hand-count ballots. They found it in Cochise County, where Stevens grasped onto the idea, devised a plan, and stoked the sentiment starting to take hold locally.
The Republican recorder propelled the proposal to illegally hand count all midterm election ballots, thrusting a rural Arizona county known for historic mining towns and natural beauty into months of chaos, court hearings, and national headlines. Cochise’s two Republican supervisors bore the brunt of the backlash — threatened with jail time and, even now, facing a citizen-led recall effort. But the initial effort would have hit an abrupt stop without Stevens, who mostly remained behind the scenes.
Stevens, an affable former state lawmaker, is originally from Illinois but has spent enough time in rural Arizona to adopt a slight drawl and a penchant for Western wear. He has close connections with GOP state leaders who have worked to upend voting — including former Republican secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem — and a keen willingness to spread doubts about election security, experiment with proven processes, and test the boundaries of state law.
Together with the supervisors, Stevens allowed the county to become a test case for how to disrupt elections in 2024, according to local Democrats and officials at nonprofits focused on guarding elections.
“The fact that you have conspiracy theorists tinkering with the core functioning of systems that have worked so well is deeply, deeply alarming,” said Jared Davidson, counsel at Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit, who said the events that played out in Cochise County boosted Arizona’s status as a “laboratory” for elections.
For his part, Stevens is more than willing to keep tinkering.
Finchem, whose campaign centered around the idea that elections are rigged, and Stevens both said they have been close for many years and share many views, such as a belief that mail voting and voting machines are insecure.
As recorder, Stevens plans to pursue a $1 million state grant orchestrated by Finchem to test high-tech security features on ballot paper, an idea that many election administrators consider costly and unnecessary.