Justin Heap pals around with and panders to election deniers, whether or not he’ll admit to being one himself. 

The Republican state representative from Mesa is now running for Maricopa County recorder, a position that would put him in charge of a portion of election administration in the fourth-most populous county in the United States. Last week, Heap posted to social media that he’d collected enough signatures to make it onto the primary ballot in just 30 days. 

When Heap announced his run for county recorder at a Feb. 28 press conference, he refused to answer questions from reporters about whether he believes the 2022 election for Arizona governor was stolen from Republican Kari Lake or if the 2020 election was stolen from her mentor, former President Donald Trump. 

“I’m an attorney,” Heap told members of the media. “I will only make statements that I feel I can prove.”

But Heap’s voting record in the House, his comments during the chamber’s Municipal Oversight and Elections Committee meetings, his campaign events and endorsements, and his statements on social media show that he is, at a minimum, sympathetic to election deniers — if not a believer in election conspiracies himself. 

Like several of his colleagues on the House and Senate elections committees, Heap is a member of the far-right Arizona Freedom Caucus, whose membership is stacked with fully avowed election deniers like Rep. Rachel Jones, of Tucson and Sen. Wendy Rogers, of Flagstaff. Freedom Caucus leader Sen. Jake Hoffman, one of the fake electors in the plot to overturn the results of the 2020 election in Arizona, has said that he recruited Heap to run for recorder. 

In his bid to become recorder, Heap first must defeat the Republican incumbent, Stephen Richer, who was elected to the post in 2020. Richer has spent his time in office fending off attacks from election deniers in his own party, some of whom believe he’s played a part in rigging elections. 

“Maricopa County elections are a laughing stock,” Heap posted on the social media site X, formerly Twitter, on Feb. 28. “Voter confidence is at an all-time low. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. I’m running for Recorder to restore honesty, transparency & integrity in our elections.”

When the Arizona Mirror asked Heap to comment on this story, he responded, “I know your angle for this story. No comment.” 

Richer told the Arizona Mirror during a phone interview that he doesn’t understand how Heap can accuse the Recorder’s Office of a lack of transparency when it comes to voting. Maricopa County has been a national model for opening up its elections spaces and giving tours to the media and political candidates, he said, as well as answering questions about various aspects of the voting process on the county website as well as during live social media events. 

Heap has received endorsements from many of the candidates who are regular critics of Richer, including Lake and conservative political operative Merissa Hamilton. 

While he has walked a fine line without flat-out admitting he thinks Maricopa County elections are rigged, Heap has voted in favor of bills that would ban electronic tabulation of ballots and force hand counts, that would eliminate the option to vote early for most Arizonans and that would bar the use of voting centers to be replaced by precincts capped at 1,000 registered voters each. 

Those are all ideas that are inspired by election fraud conspiracy theories. All have been opposed by Arizona counties and election officials have widely panned the proposals as completely unworkable. 

Richer told the Mirror that anyone who proposes capping precincts at 1,000 voters has obviously never had to seek out polling locations or hire temporary workers. 

“Good luck finding that many ADA-compliant, sufficiently spaced locations with accessible parking — and not having to pay for them,” Richer said. 

Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer in 2023. Photo by Gage Skidmore (modified) | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

He added that, if the county planned to staff those locations with only three workers apiece, it would be a critical problem if some of them don’t show up, which is common with temporary workers. The impact of no-show workers is much less with the larger voting centers that the county currently uses, since it typically hires 12 or so people to staff them, Richer said. 

“I understand some of the politics of this, and I understand there are lots of reasons to vote for a bill, but I think that’s indicative that the person has never tried to recruit, and never dealt with a large number of temporary workers,” he said. 

Tammy Patrick, an employee of longtime Republican Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell for 11 years, and the current CEO for programs at Election Center, explained that the concept of hand counting just wasn’t reliable. 

When she worked for Maricopa County, Patrick participated in state-mandated hand count audits that serve as a check on machine counts. 

“Every single one we did, in every single table, I would go and find where they had not counted the ballots accurately,” Patrick said. 

The workers would sort and count the ballots in groups of 10, counting each stack of 10 three times, and still Patrick would often find stacks of 9 or 11. 

“Repetitious functions are not the strength of the human race,” Patrick said. “I want my ballot to be counted by machines. Anyone who’s proposing (full hand counts) doesn’t understand elections.”

During a Feb. 14 meeting of the House Municipal Oversight and Elections Committee, Heap shared the thought process behind the ballot-chain-of-custody bill he sponsored this year, House Bill 2851

“I’m concerned, after multiple election cycles, every time after the elections there’s stories that appear everywhere, pictures of concern from voters that ballots are being injected in, that vans are pulling up moving those ballots,” Heap said. “And I think the best solution to that is just a simple chain of custody.”

But the actions of both the Senate and House elections committees over the past year have done nothing to increase voter confidence. They have invited speakers on multiple occasions to spout conspiracy theories during presentations, with one of them last year falsely accusing multiple members of the legislature and the governor of being involved in a fake housing deed scam along with Mexican drug cartels.

Studies show that, when the candidate that a voter backs loses, the voter’s confidence in the election system diminishes generally, but when their candidate wins, they think it’s legitimate, Patrick said. 

But when a losing candidate fails to concede, it can have a continuing impact on how the candidate’s followers view elections. 

“It doesn’t allow the American voter to move forward and get past that election,” Patrick said. 

The court cases 

Heap has publicly indicated that he believes that Lake could have won her court challenge to the results of the 2022 election that she lost to Democrat Katie Hobbs if a judge had given her more time to examine the evidence in the case. 

During a Jan. 22 House Elections and Municipal Oversight Committee meeting, Heap backed House Bill 2472, which would also allow the person or group that files an election challenge to physically examine all ballots, ballot images and early ballot envelopes in that race, as well as voter registration records. 

In addition, the bill would give all parties in the suit the right to full discovery of evidence, something that is currently limited in election challenge cases, because of time constraints. 

“Our courts are not very good at handling election challenges,” Heap said. 

In election challenges, courts move quickly, because there are firm deadlines for certifying elections and allowing winners to assume elected office. Heap said that his bill is ultimately about slowing down that process and extending the time that those challenging the results of an election have to review evidence. 

“If it’s limited to this short timeline, the case can’t be made — not because it’s invalid, but because they don’t have time,” Heap said. 

Richer called that argument “stupid,” adding that, in Lake’s election challenge case, which she lost twice each in the trial court, the appeals court and the Arizona Supreme Court, there were multiple evidentiary hearings. 

During a Feb. 1, 2023 House Elections Committee meeting, Heap said that it doesn’t matter if lawmakers believe it’s all a conspiracy theory or if they think the elections are fixed. The only thing that matters, he said, is that Republicans and Democrats don’t have faith in our election system. 

“And the reason for that is the system is opaque and, often, the counties don’t follow the law that they are required to follow,” Heap said. “As the legislature, if a large percentage of our population does not have confidence in our elections, that alone is a concern that our legislature needs to address and needs to take steps on.”

In a tweet shortly before Lake’s second election challenge trial, Heap said he was sure that her challenge would be dismissed, because the court intentionally set the bar so high that it would be impossible for her to win. 

“This is further evidence why our Courts are not equipped to handle real election challenges,” Heap posted on X. “As a trial attorney this appears, in my opinion, to be Court-imposed elevated standards of proof intended to guarantee dismissal, while preserving the appearance of impartiality. Republicans will again be disappointed, feeling that justice was not done while substantial evidence of malfeasance was ignored. Democrats will declare the dismissal as proof that our elections are ‘safe & secure’ and any concern about obvious election insecurity is delusional.”

The high bar of proof that Heap referenced was that no signature verification took place in Maricopa County on the 2022 general election ballots. But the judge didn’t set that bar himself: Lake’s lawyers did when they argued that she deserved another trial. 

Sympathy for Jan. 6 rioters 

Heap’s social media posts seem to indicate that he sympathizes with those convicted of crimes for storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in an effort to keep then-President Donald Trump in office. 

“It seems we don’t actually have an issue with activists storming a capitol building as long as they’re on the left,” Heap wrote in a post on X on Feb. 7, 2023. “Where is the FBI and a February 6th Commission to hunt down these ‘dangerous insurgents’ trying to ‘overthrow our democracy?’”

The post was referring to a group of transgender activists protesting at the Oklahoma Capitol building in an effort to stop Republican lawmakers from passing anti-trans bills. 

But those activists in Oklahoma weren’t attempting to overthrow an election, no law enforcement officers were hurt, and no one in the crowd died that day, unlike what happened at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. 

Local news organizations reported that law enforcement allowed the protestors inside the Oklahoma Capitol building and the communications director for the Oklahoma House Republican Caucus countered the insurrection narrative pushed by the likes of then-Fox News host Tucker Carlson, saying none of the protestors had broken the law. 

A line he won’t cross 

While Heap votes alongside his Freedom Caucus colleagues the majority of the time, there is a line that he refused to cross: flagrantly throwing out the votes of all Arizonans in the next presidential election. 

When discussing fellow Freedom Caucus member Jones’ House Concurrent Resolution 2055, Heap balked at the premise of giving the legislature the power to disregard the will of the voters and instead pick electors that would give Arizona’s electoral votes to Donald Trump, no matter what the voters decide. 

Josh Barnett, a local Republican businessman and perennial candidate, who was advocating for the resolution, asked Heap: “Do you not believe that 2020 was illegally run? I’m confused here.” 

Heap refused to answer. 

Patrick pointed out that it’s actually hard to know whether some candidates truly believe that election fraud is rampant, or if they’re simply pandering to those who might vote for them in a primary or donate to their campaign. 

“The challenge we have in this moment is not just individuals, but whether they bring their fellow citizens and neighbors along with them,” Patrick said. “The real challenge is very often they know it’s not true. They know it was a legitimate election, but there are too many incentives to continue the narrative.” 

What could go wrong?

Many Arizona counties have already seen an exodus of experienced elections officials

A 2023 report by Issue One, a nonpartisan political reform nonprofit, found that 12 of Arizona’s 15 counties would have new election officials this cycle, many of whom are less experienced than their predecessors. An estimated 98% of Arizona’s expected 2024 voters live in those counties. 

Cochise County has already lost a well-respected election official, Lisa Marra, to pressure from the county supervisors related to election conspiracy theories. 

Marra, who ran elections in the county for five years, resigned in January 2023 after refusing to release the ballots from the 2022 election to the supervisors for a hand count that she repeatedly told them was illegal; the courts agreed with her.

The two Republican supervisors who had insisted on expanding the small hand-count audit mandated by state law into a full hand count are now facing felony charges for refusing to certify that same election by the date mandated in state law.

The Arizona Secretary of State’s Office hired Marra as the assistant elections director shortly after her resignation from Cochise County last spring, and she was recently promoted to state elections director. 

Elections experts, including Richer, worry that if an election denier is elected recorder, many of the office’s qualified and experienced staff might leave. 

“You could name pretty much on one hand the number of longstanding election professionals who have bought into the lie that the 2020 election was stolen, and that’s because anyone who’s a real professional or has lots of experience just knows thousands of reasons why none of this makes sense,” Richer told the Arizona Mirror. “Those are the type of people, because of their experience and because of their knowledge of the system, that you want in an office.” 

Richer said he doubts that someone who believes that the elections in 2020 and 2022 were stolen would be able to keep all of those knowledgeable people on staff, saying that his office and the Secretary of State’s Office have served as havens for elections professionals who felt forced out of other counties. 

“I think that personnel would be very different,” Richer said of what he believes would happen if an election denier ran the county recorder’s office. “I think you would be hard pressed to recruit and retain any true election professionals if you were consistently voicing crazy theories about election administration.

“And I also don’t know how they would feel that they’re supported if you’re simultaneously indulging some of the theories that suggest that they’re all criminals.”

When counties lose experienced election officials, a lot can go wrong.

In Maricopa County, where more than half of the registered voters in the state live, the recorder is in charge of early voting, while the Board of Supervisors oversees voting on Election Day. 

“The voter registration database is probably the biggest thing that the county recorder does in the election context on a day-to-day basis,” Richer said. “If something was done procedurally improperly, there are many public interest groups that might sue. But that does require the vigilance of third parties.”

He added that the secretary of state could also step in, but that both of those possible resolutions would cost the county money. 

Patrick added that, if a new recorder comes into Maricopa County and changes the culture, or operates counter to strict codes of conduct for elections officials, there could be significant consequences.

“There are a million moving parts to voter registration, recording and elections,” Richer said. “If you don’t have people with a long professional career in the office, potentially the wheels would come off.” 

What’s happened around the country? 

“I think it’s important for the general voter to understand that there are checks and balances in our election system,” Patrick said. 

Those checks and balances — including requirements for poll workers from both parties to be present during certain activities and election observers at polling and tabulating locations — that don’t allow any single person to decide the outcome of an election. 

But if someone who believes that elections are being stolen is elected to a place of power within the election system, they could attempt to have an outsized influence on elections. 

“You don’t have to have too much of an imagination to think of what could be done,” Richer said. “There are a few instances where people have put a wrench in the system.” 

He pointed to Tina Peters, the former clerk in a small Colorado county and an election denier whose efforts to uncover evidence of election fraud on her office’s election equipment have resulted in criminal charges against her. 

Peters faces three counts of attempting to influence a public servant, two counts of conspiracy to commit criminal impersonation, one count of criminal impersonation and one count of identity theft. Peters is alleged to have participated in a scheme to breach secure equipment in her own elections office in 2021 in an attempt to find evidence that Colorado’s voting system was rigged. 

No evidence of fraud was ever uncovered. 

A long list of Colorado Republicans have denounced calls to support Peters through her criminal trial. 

But Peters isn’t the only election denier elected to a position of power when it comes to election administration. 

After election denier Sandra Merchant was elected as Clerk and Recorder of Cascade County, Montana in November 2022, elections in the county were plagued by problems. 

Merchant reportedly hired election deniers to work in her office and to help run elections in 2023. 

Issues during various elections that year included a polling place opening an hour late, misfolded ballots being sent to voters that wouldn’t fit in their return envelopes, people being sent two ballots or registered voters receiving no ballot. Then Merchant couldn’t get the tabulator to work. 

After the county missed a state-mandated deadline for the canvass due to problems lining up the vote totals in the November municipal election, the County Commissioners finally voted to take election duties away from Merchant and pass them to a nonpartisan elections director that they would appoint. 

It’s impossible to say what any politician would do, if elected to office, but Heap has made it clear that he intends to make changes at the Recorder’s Office, if given the chance. 

“I’m sick & tired of our voters being disrespected & our elections being mismanaged,” Heap posted on X. “Help me fix our elections!” 

But it is clear that Heap’s got the backing of Arizona’s most prominent election denier, who continues to claim that Richer rigged the 2022 election even after conceding in court to defaming him by spreading lies about his involvement in “stealing” the election from her. 

“We must return integrity to our elections in Arizona,” Lake wrote in her endorsement of Heap. “To do that, we need to restore integrity to the office that counts 63% of our state’s votes. Justin Heap isn’t interested in TV appearances, Twitter feuds, and putting his foot on the scales of individual races. He wants to rebuild voter trust and do the job. I’m proud to endorse Justin Heap to be our next Maricopa County Recorder.”

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