This November, voters in Pima County will select a new Recorder for the first time since 1992.
Current county recorder F. Ann Rodriguez has held the position since she was first elected 28 years ago, but on Nov. 3, voters will decide between Democrat Gabriella Cázares-Kelly and Republican Benny White, two candidates with differing opinions on how to approach the office.
The county recorder is responsible for processing and maintaining voter registration records during elections and administering early voting ballots. The office also keeps track of public records such as property deeds and marriage licenses.
White has focused his campaign on ensuring the validity of voter registrations and enforcing election laws, while Cázares-Kelly is running on a platform of expanding access to voting and eliminating systemic barriers against historically underrepresented groups.
Cázares-Kelly is an educator and community organizer who grew up on the Tohono O’odham reservation and has worked in Native American institutions for more than 14 years.
White is a Marine Corps veteran who served on the Tucson Air National Guard as a lieutenant colonel. He graduated from Concord Law School in 2007 and soon became heavily involved in election law.
The Republican nominee has been involved in election law in Arizona’s elections for the past 12 years, has tested voting equipment for more than 30 elections and has audited the state elections department and county recorder’s activities after elections.
Cázares-Kelly has experience in voter outreach, a master’s degree in educational leadership and has served as the president of the Progressive Democrats of Southern Arizona and the vice-president of the Arizona Democratic Party’s Native American Caucus.
At a candidate interview with the Arizona Daily Star on Oct. 1, the candidates’ differences came to the forefront when White criticized Cázares-Kelly for giving special attention to Native American groups.
“I understand the voter turnout levels are lower in those communities than they are in the remainder of Pima County,” White said. “But I suspect...there are many underlying components as to why that is the case. I suspect that education is a problem, I suspect that healthcare is a problem.”
When given her chance to respond, Cázares-Kelly said, “We just allowed my opponent to go off on a white supremacist rant where he was questioning the education levels of the Native Americans that live in Pima County and talking about poverty and all these barriers to voting that are completely unfounded when we’re talking about the systemic part of voter suppression...My opponent just made some really terrible remarks about a whole population of people.”
White quickly responded, “I find it offensive when you call me a white supremacist and a racist as well, that is simply not my history.”
“Sounds to me like she wants to be in the legislature to change the laws,” he said. “But that’s not the role of the recorder.”
When working at Tohono O’odham Community College, Cázares-Kelly noticed many tribal members and those living in rural communities faced barriers preventing them from being able to vote, such as lack of access to necessary identification and having “non-standard” addresses that make answering the physical address question on the top of voter registration forms difficult. She began a widespread effort to educate those in rural Pima County on how get engaged in politics in the community.
“The Tohono O’odham nation is the size of Connecticut, but most people don’t know it’s there. The majority of it sits within Pima County,” Cázares-Kelly said. “There is one post office that serves the entire Tohono O’odham nation. When I first started registering people, we found out that they didn’t carry voter registration forms.”
After Cázares-Kelly spoke with F. Ann Rodriguez’s office twice about the missing registration forms, the reservation’s sole post office received them.
“This was just me as a private citizen, so if I hadn’t noticed, if I had not been doing the work, who would have been checking out that type of thing? What systems are in place to ensure that our rural and tribal communities are at the bare minimum, receiving voter registration forms?” Cázares-Kelly said.
After learning of Rodriguez’s retirement, Cázares-Kelly became frustrated with the thought of redoing her advocacy for the Tohono O’odham Nation at a new recorder’s office and decided to take matters into her own hands.
“These things that had been highlighted and brought to the attention of the recorder’s office, I was now going to now have to educate the new person, and I was going to have to cross my fingers and hope that they’re not a white supremacist. I was going to have to hope that they’re not anti-natives,” Cázares-Kelly said. “So rather than crossing my fingers, I decided to run because I am educated, experienced, creative and passionate about including more people in our democracies.”
Given his extensive experience, White decided to run for Pima County Recorder when the Republican Party approached him to enter the race. His platform emphasizes updating and ensuring the integrity of voter registrations.
“I’m very concerned about our voter registration records,” White said. “I have done a lot of logging in precincts and handing out literature to the voters, and for each of those I print out a section of the voter registration files for each individual precinct, and I find a significant number of errors in the records.”
White says he commonly found mistakes in the voter rolls such as registrations belonging to deceased persons, those who have moved from the county and misspellings of names and addresses.
“I want to find ways to make it easier for people to help us keep those records current,” he said.
White supports the application of an automatic signature verification system he believes would lead to quicker, more accurate results in elections. He would also like to independently audit every ballot cast.
“That way, you have two independent records of what votes were cast and how many votes each individual candidate got. There’s no question, then, about the accuracy of the results,” White said. “I think that would be very helpful to instill more confidence by the voters in the election process and in our system of government.”
Cázares-Kelly wants to establish ballot dropboxes and implement a text ballot confirmation system that notifies voters once their ballot is received and counted.
“We hear so often that people don’t feel like their votes count. But then you receive a text message or an email automatically that says your vote has been counted, and I think that’s really powerful,” she said.
While Cázares-Kelly has criticized her opponent for his comments on the Native American community, White has reservations about his opponent’s experience.
“I just don’t think that she is at all qualified. She’s been involved as a community organizer and a social activist. Those are all really great things to be involved in, but that’s not the role of the recorder,” White said. “The recorder has to be completely impartial, fair to comply with the law. My opponent seems to be almost entirely focused on the Tohono O’odham people...I just don’t feel it’s appropriate for the Pima County Recorder to go in there and start telling people in those sovereign nations what they should or should not be doing.”
Cázares-Kelly believes her experience in community outreach makes her the perfect fit for the job.
“I think that [White’s] bureaucratic experience has obviously shut him off to the needs of everyday people,” she said. “It’s really important to know that not everybody goes into public office having experienced what it is to be in that office. It takes leadership, accountability, a vision, creativity—those are things that can’t be replicated in other ways.”
Although Cázares-Kelly and White disagree on many policies, they both agree that the position they’re running for is essential to democracy.
“Trust in our elections is really fundamental to our trust in our system of government,” White said. “When the citizens can’t trust when they send that ballot and it gets counted properly, and that the reported results are accurate, then we devolve into some kind of third world mentality where somebody else is pulling all the strings behind the curtain.”
Cázares-Kelly agrees that trust in the county recorder results in higher voter confidence in elections and clearer guidelines on how to exercise one’s civic duties.
“This position is the first line of communication between you and your most fundamental of rights as a U.S. citizen to vote,” Cázares-Kelly said. “It doesn’t matter if you have the right to vote if you don’t know how to exercise your right.”