An Arizona Republican election official targeted by conservative conspiracy theorists during the 2020 and 2022 election cycles announced he will not be running for a new term.
Thursday's announcement from Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Gates adds to previous stories of election officials leaving their jobs after facing threats over baseless right-wing claims of stolen elections.
A source close to Gates told CNN that his decision not to seek re-election doesn't mark the end of Gates’ political career and wasn't precipitated by the threats against him. Still, right-wing activists will likely view his decision as a signal that their violent, conspiratorial rhetoric can prompt officials' departures.
In May, Gates told The Washington Post he struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the hateful attacks and threats he and his family endured in the aftermath of the 2020 election and beyond.
Multiple investigations into the 2020 and 2022 election cycles found no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Maricopa County — which includes Phoenix and is Arizona's most populous county — or anywhere else in the United States.
Here, I can’t help but see similarities between Gates and other election workers nationwide who’ve spoken out about the pressures they experienced as targets of right-wing conspiracy theories. People like former Fulton County, Georgia, election workers Ruby Freeman and daughter Shaye Moss. Both women testified before the House Jan. 6 committee last year about the racist invective and death threats they faced after Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani and others falsely accused them of engaging in election fraud.
“There is nowhere I feel safe,” Freeman said, adding:
Do you know how it feels to have the president of the United States target you? The president of the United States is supposed to represent every American. Not to target one. He targeted me. A proud American citizen who stood up to help Fulton County run an election in the middle of a pandemic.
In her testimony, Moss highlighted the racist remarks and violent messages she received: “A lot of threats wishing death to me, telling me that I will be in jail with my mother, and saying things like, 'Be glad it is 2020 and not 1920'"
House Jan. 6 committee member Adam Schiff, D-Calif., posed an essential question during Freeman and Moss’ testimony:
If the most powerful person in the world can bring the full weight of the presidency down on an ordinary citizen who is merely doing her job, with a lie as big and heavy as a mountain, who among us is safe?
Seems to me that’s a question the Department of Justice will have to answer. For years, voting rights activists have criticized the DOJ for lacking vigor in enforcing voting rights and defending people — including election officials — who come under attack from forces trying to intimidate them.
The DOJ has tried to quiet some of that criticism by creating some initiatives and touting its work fighting harassment of election officials. But the jury’s still out on the extent of the DOJ's success, and whether its wins will last for elections to come.
As for Arizona, Gates’ choice to step away from his post is a worrying sign — particularly if he and other members of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors up for re-election are replaced with more conservative alternatives.
Arizona Republicans have made their sinister goals for Maricopa County clear. Right-wing members of the state Legislature, knowing it poses a hurdle to their electoral chances in the state, have proposed breaking it up into little pieces to diminish its power (and likely boost their own).
But with Gates stepping down, these conservatives may feel affirmed of their tactics. And where legislation failed, they may soon have another way to meddle in Maricopa County’s elections. With Arizona seen as a key “swing state” these days, any change in the board’s composition could have a broader impact on national politics.