PHOENIX -- The contest for secretary of state could boil down to whether voters believe that things are being better run now in the office than they were two years ago.
In a televised debate Thursday night, incumbent Michele Reagan acknowledged that 2016 was "a very bumpy year.
That may be an understatement.
At a press conference that year, Attorney General Mark Brnovich unloaded on Reagan for failing to comply with state laws requiring voters to get ballot pamphlets explaining the "issues before they got their actual early ballots. And he said there needs to be an investigation of why Reagan hid that information from the public for weeks.
"This was a complete fiasco,'' Brnovich said.
"It seems like every time we have an election here it ends up in a goat rope,'' the attorney general continued. "It's incredible we can't get these things right.''
Reagan conceded the point during the debate, saying the special election was the first statewide race run by her office.
But under questioning from host Ted Simons at KAET-TV, she said changes were made.
"Arizona now has an election system that they can be really proud of,'' Reagan said.
"We've had four statewide elections since that incident two and a half years ago,'' she continued. "And things have gone off swimmingly.''
But business owner Steve Gaynor, challenging her in the Republican primary, said that's not good enough, citing a report done following the incident showing that Reagan's office knew weeks before it told the public that the pamphlets had not gone out on time as required by law.
"What the report shows was that it wasn't just one error that happened on the 200,000 missed pamphlets,'' he said,
"It was a series of errors,'' Gaynor continued. "And then, at the end, instead of (the failure to send out the pamphlets) being publicized immediately it was kind of hidden.''
Gaynor conceded under questioning he has no actual hands-on knowledge of how to run an election, one of the key duties of secretary of state. But he said his business experience coupled with his study of the office qualifies him for the job.
He also lashed out at Reagan for failing to do something about what may be election fraud.
Gaynor cited the lawsuit filed earlier Thursday by attorneys for Pinnacle West Capital Corp. claiming that many of the signatures submitted for a renewable energy petition were invalid and possibly outright forgeries. He said that Reagan, as the chief elections officer, should have done something about it.
She countered that shows Gaynor's lack of knowledge about election procedures and the role of the Secretary of State's Office. Reagan said Arizona law relies on courts and legal challenges to determine if there are sufficient valid signatures.
"I don't think you ever want one person or one office being the judge of what gets on the ballot or not,'' she said. "That's exactly why the system is set up where there's multiple people that are involved.''
Gaynor sidestepped a question about why he has put $1 million of his own funds into getting elected to the office.
"Elections are the foundation of democracy,'' he responded, saying he believes how elections are run "is important.''
And Gaynor said he was not seeking the office in hopes of it being a stepping stone to governor. Under Arizona law, the secretary of state is first in line if the incumbent quits or dies, something that has happened several times during the last 30 years.
He said, though, that if he is elected "I will study the governor's office in order to be prepared.''
Reagan, for her part, said she wouldn't have to study.
"I've served 12 years in the Legislature,'' she said, saying she's been involved in "multiple state budgets, with is probably one of the hardest things that the executive branch does.''
And Reagan had another selling point.
"I would be an excellent governor if I was an accidental governor because I wouldn't be running for it again,'' she said. That, she said, would free her to consider issues based on their merits rather than partisan politics and an eye on the next election.
Gaynor said there's another side to that, saying it would mean "she would do a lot of things that conservatives wouldn't like because she wasn't going to run again.''
Whoever survives the Aug. 28 GOP primary will face off against state Sen. Katie Hobbs, the lone Democrat in the race, and Libertarian Jenn Gray.
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