Yavapai County judge mediating Hobbs-Brnovich fight over election procedures manual

May 1, 2022, 8:00 PM
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, left, and Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (File Phot...
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, left, and Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (File Photos)
(File Photos)

PHOENIX (AP) — A judge in Prescott on Friday seemed skeptical of arguments brought by Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich that he should order Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs to completely rewrite a set of election rules because Brnovich won’t approve them.

But Yavapai County Superior Court Judge John Napper did agree with Brnovich that at least some rules Hobbs included in the Election Procedures Manual she drafted last year were not legal.

That’s the argument Brnovich made when he demanded wholesale changes to the manual county election officials use to run their elections — everything from voter registration to ballot drop boxes to reviewing early ballot signatures and ballot counts.

The judge said he wants a valid document in place soon. He seemed confounded, however, at many of the wholesale deletions Brnovich demanded, saying the attorney general gave no explanation for much of them and at least some seem to follow the law.

“I need some explanation of why you think certain, all of it, specifics, why you think it should be out,” he told attorneys for Brnovich.

Napper sided with Brnovich on a rule that allowed unmonitored ballot drop boxes, saying that seemed clearly outside of what the law required. But he said the attorney general’s demand that Hobbs provide a whole new section that outlines how signatures are verified didn’t pass muster.

“The manual tracks the statute almost verbatim,” Napper said.

The fight between Brnovich, who is seeking his party’s U.S. Senate nomination, and Hobbs, who wants the Democratic nod in the governor’s race, dates back to October, when Hobbs produced a manual for this year’s elections. Despite efforts by Hobbs’ office to engage with Brnovich, his contract attorney did not respond until early December, and then demanded wholesale changes with no explanations.

When Hobbs reached out to negotiate changes, Brnovich demanded she provide him a new version. Napper noted that lack of clarity and said the attorney general needs to engage.

And Brnovich noted he was angry that Hobbs filed a complaint against him with the state bar that eventually led to a settlement agreement. Napper wants a fix, regardless, and laid out a process to get it.

“What I need from the attorney general first (is) why each of these provisions needs to be struck. That’s the starting point,” Napper said. “Some of the things that you say need to be struck, as I sit here right now I don’t see why they need to be struck.”

The secretary of state is required to produce a manual, which must be approved by the attorney general and the governor. When she was unable to get Brnovich’s approval, she told county officials that the one approved in 2019 remained in force, and slightly updated it to show changes in the law.

Napper noted that Hobbs believed that without the attorney general engaging that’s all that can be done, since the manual wasn’t approved by Dec. 31 as required by the law.

“Let’s say I don’t cotton to that,” Napper said. “Let’s say I believe … that you have to have a functioning manual, that’s there’s a law on the books, and if there’s a law on the books by golly folks ought to follow it. Which includes creating a functioning manual.”

Napper declined to order Hobbs to create the one Brnovich wants. But he gave Brnovich until next Friday to produce that detailed document on his objections, and gave Hobbs two weeks after that to review it with election officials and file her response. Hopefully, in that time, an agreement can be reached.

“I’m of the opinion that you need to have a functioning manual constructed pursuant to the statute,” Napper said. “I’m unfamiliar with a law that doesn’t have a remedy.”

Brnovich and Hobbs have tangled in other fights as well. Earlier this year, Brnovich threatened to investigate Hobbs for temporarily taking down an online signature collection system used by candidates in order to update it with new congressional and legislative district maps approved early this year.

Hobbs then sought a judge’s intervention to stop that promised investigation, but the judge said her request was premature. Brnovich then farmed out the investigation to the Cochise County Attorney’s Office.

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Yavapai County judge mediating Hobbs-Brnovich fight over election procedures manual