Behind the mysterious right-wing group suing to overturn Arizona's voting laws

In the lead-up to and aftermath of the 2020 election, Republicans launched an all-out legal attack on voting rights, fueled by election disinformation and conspiracy theories. The attack didn't stop after the 2020 election.

The 2022 midterm elections brought more frivolous and conspiratorial lawsuits, and as the 2024 election season gets into full swing, anti-election rights litigation is currently underway in 19 states and Washington, DC, according to Democracy Docket's Litigation Tracker. Few states have been as heavily targeted by right-wing groups and figures as Arizona, where seven active anti-voting lawsuits are currently filed in court.

At least three of those lawsuits were filed by a little-known conservative advocacy group called the Arizona Free Enterprise Club (AFEC), the self-proclaimed “leading organization in the state dedicated to advancing a pro-growth, limited government agenda in Arizona.” ” Since its founding in 2005, AFEC has directed its resources primarily toward advancing right-wing economic causes in Arizona — lobbying for tax cuts and other economic incentives to grow private businesses — but in the past year the group has taken its resources to another level redirected Cause: Arizona elections.

Since March 2023, AFEC has filed three high-profile lawsuits seeking to thwart various aspects of the conduct of voting and elections in Arizona. Although two of their lawsuits — challenging the state's mailbox and signature matching rules — were recently dismissed by a state court judge, another lawsuit filed by the group challenging the state's Election Procedures Manual (EPM) could potentially put a big dent in Arizona through the bill make election 2024.

But what's strange about these lawsuits isn't what they're challenging — as a key swing state, Arizona is often targeted by anti-choice conservative groups and figures — but that it's a nearly 20-year-old organization, up until last year rarely interfered with Arizona's election laws and filed three high-profile election lawsuits in a single year

Similar anti-voting lawsuits in Arizona have been filed by prominent right-wing politicians, groups and election deniers — like Kari Lake and Mike Lindell — making it all the more strange that AFEC is a relatively unknown group in the voter suppression field.

The three anti-election lawsuits filed by AFEC challenge provisions of Arizona's Elections Procedure Manual (EPM), which lays out in minute detail all the details of how elections are conducted in the state.

The first lawsuit filed by AFEC in the current election cycle came in March 2023 with the anti-election group Restoring Integrity and Trust in Elections (RITE) – a conservative legal group founded by former U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr. The lawsuit targeted Arizona's signature verification for early mail-in ballots.

In EPM 2023, all voters who cast an early absentee ballot must sign an affidavit confirming their identity. This is then compared to previous signatures on the voter file to confirm the match. Because the EPM outlines that county clerks can compare the signatures of previous absentee ballot envelopes from previous elections instead of voters' original voter registration records, AFEC alleged that the clerks did not properly verify the signatures, which the group contends violates state law.

Another AFEC lawsuit challenged how the EPM allows the use of drop boxes in the state for early voting. The EPM allows the use of drop boxes to drop off ballots, but because it still needs to be approved by the Legislature, the lawsuit alleged that the use of drop boxes violates state law.

In late April, both lawsuits were dismissed in a joint ruling by a state court judge, who found that the signature matching and drop box rules outlined in the EPM were consistent with state law.

The joint decision was certainly a victory for groups of voters in a state where the entire electoral process is once again under fierce attack. But the single AFEC lawsuit still pending in court could have the biggest consequences.

In February, AFEC filed a lawsuit against Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes (D), claiming that the state's entire EPM — essentially the Bible used by election officials across the state — violates state law and the U.S. and Arizona constitutions , because it represents restrictions to speak freely. The lawsuit essentially argues that the EPM restricts free speech because it allows local election officials to prevent outside groups and individuals from monitoring mailboxes and polling places – thereby protecting poll workers and voters from harassment and intimidation. During the 2022 midterm elections, members of armed extremist groups monitored mailboxes in Maricopa and Yavapai counties.

A history of right-wing advocacy.

The Arizona Free Enterprise Club was founded in 2005 with the goal of “educating the public about and promoting policies that promote economic growth, limited government, fiscal restraint and lower taxes,” according to its tax filing the year it was founded. The group's first president was Steve Voeller, a veteran congressional staffer who worked for Sen. Jon Kyl (R) and then-Rep. Matt Salmon (R) and Jeff Flake (R) – all represented Arizona in Congress.

In 2012, Voeller left the group to work as Flake's chief of staff after Flake was elected to the U.S. Senate. At AFEC, Voeller was replaced by Scot Mussi, a longtime conservative attorney in Arizona who also serves on the boards of the Arizona Freedom Foundation, a right-wing media organization, and the AZ Liberty Network, a conservative civic group.

Under Mussi's leadership, AFEC first made a splash in the 2014 Arizona elections as a major donor to a number of GOP campaigns. “Seemingly overnight, the Arizona Free Enterprise Club went from a low-profile low-tax advocacy group to the top-spending organization of this year’s election season,” says a 2014 AZ Central article detailing, how the group spent $1.1 million in the months leading up to the midterm elections to support a wide range of local right-wing candidates.

AFEC then led the effort in a hotly debated ballot initiative in 2019 to eliminate funding for a major Phoenix light rail expansion and other fixed rail projects. The initiative, which was overwhelmingly rejected by voters, was heavily funded by a dark money group backed by the Koch Brothers.

Mussi and the AFEC were in the headlines again in 2022 for opposing an Arizona ballot measure to disclose the source of dark money in state and local elections. The measure, Proposition 211, requires any person or entity that makes an independent expenditure for a campaign that exceeds a certain amount of money to disclose the names of the source of the money.

“They want the names of private citizens so they can dox, harass and cancel them in their communities,” Mussi told the Arizona Capitol Times at the time. “And they intend to use their friends in Big Tech and the corporate media (who are exempt from this initiative) to assist them in their quest.” Proposition 211 was approved by an overwhelming 72% of voters, despite massive efforts by Mussi and the AFEC to persuade voters to reject it.

The Arizona Free Enterprise Club's Dark Money Connections.

As a nonprofit, AFEC is not required to disclose its donors, but an analysis of its tax returns shows its annual revenue more than doubled in the year before it began filing election lawsuits. It's unclear where her income comes from – almost all of her income in 2022 came from donor contributions and grants – but further examination of 2022 tax returns shows a connection to a controversial dark money group.

Pursuing such high-profile lawsuits is not a cheap endeavor, but it is unclear who is funding AFEC. According to tax filings, the group operated on a shoestring budget of about $500,000 to $1.5 million per year for most of its existence. In 2021, the group achieved its then highest annual revenue of $1.5 million. In 2022, that revenue more than doubled to $3.4 million.

Last year was also the first year the group described its work “advancing election integrity reform” in the state legislature in its tax filings. AFEC mentions in its filings that it has spent at least $500,000 on “promoting election integrity” and explains its role in passing laws banning non-citizens from voting and purifying the state's voter rolls. The organization also notes that it awarded a $20,000 grant to the Concord Fund to “advance election integrity reform.” The Concord Fund, also known as the Judicial Crisis Network, is a dark money group linked to Leonard Leo that is best known for spending tens of millions of dollars to promote conservative judicial nominees to federal and state courts at all levels.

A lawsuit that could have enormous consequences.

It's no secret that the Republican Party and other conservative organizations and figures are pouring much of their resources into election litigation – or at least trying to. Lawsuits in key states such as Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania could have serious implications for the outcome of the presidential election in these key states that could decide the election.

With Arizona one of the key battleground states in the 2024 election, legal threats to the state's EPM have raised significant concerns among voter groups that have sought to intervene and defend the state's election rules. In March, the Democratic National Party and the Arizona Democratic Party, recognizing the threat posed by AFEC's lawsuit, intervened and filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

“MAGA Republicans are trying to interfere in elections for one simple reason: They know that when more eligible voters cast their ballots, Republicans lose,” President Joe Biden’s campaign manager Julie Chávez Rodríguez said in a statement to POLITICO. “It is part of their strategy to make it harder for Arizonans to vote by stripping away protections that ensure safe and fair elections – and their latest attempt to undermine American democracy.”

Anna Harden

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