February 2023
Learning On the Job
Yavapai County Recorder Goes from Election Critic to Defender

It’s been a long, strange trip from election skeptic to Yavapai County Recorder for Michelle Burchill, who spoke of her experiences in the Elections Department through the 2022 election at a meeting of the League of Women Voters of Central Yavapai County on January 24.

Recorder Michelle Burchill speaks at Torme in Prescott Jan. 25.

Burchill took over after a series of resignations over 25 days in mid-2022, as the Elections Director, Recorder and several others in the department left amid unrelentingdeath threats and vitriol from constituents,  convinced without evidence that fraud had flipped the 2020 election. Longtime Recorder Leslie Hoffman, who resigned, even had her two dogs poisoned. (Luckily, they survived.)

Burchill herself started out working in the department in 2020 during the presidential primary election, and was determined to get  to the root of any election fraud or mismanagement, working diligently to find it. What she found instead amazed her.

“I really was uncomfortable with what I was reading on the internet,” Burchill said. “I didn't like my voting experience in 2016, and I was one of the ones saying somebody’s up to something, somebody’s cheating. … I decided instead of just talking about something I don’t know about, I wanted to walk the talk, I wanted to see for myself. And the day I started I had full access to everything from all the departments. They told me, ‘Michelle, just soak it in, sit, listen, walk around, soak it in.’ That day I actually thought, I'm gonna go around and I’m going to look, I’m going to find the vulnerabilities …. I spent that whole day dealing with that. I decided to answer the phone about noon, because I felt like I had to do something, watching everyone run around like crazy people. My first call was somebody from Bagdad telling me to drive myself off a cliff and kill myself. So I said, ‘Well, thank you very much, sir. Have a nice day.’”

At the end of the night, Burchill said, the ballot count was off by one.

“Our Voter Registration Department and Elections Department are separate, and we audit each other. At the end of the night they couldn’t find one ballot. And I’m going, okay, well, we’ve been here like 15 hours, it’s just one ballot, right? That’s what I'm thinking: I want to go home, I’m tired. Everything stopped, we were at a standstill. Everybody started pulling batches back out, recounting everything, going through all the valid affidavit envelopes, figuring out what went wrong. They found it in about 45 minutes, and it was as simple as two sheets stuck together. They figured it out. And I went, ‘Oh my god, every vote really does count!’”

When Burchill took over as Recorder she felt driven to be as transparent as possible with the public, to answer questions, respond to concerns and even give public tours of the department to show how things are done. Her first election in 2022, in which she also acted as Elections Director, had its challenges. Along with the appearance of armed protesters at ballot dropboxes, a legal gray area with no law to prevent it, there were glitches on election day despite the department’s best efforts. This led to criticism and protests.

Human error and a broken phone jack caused immediate issues on the morning of the election. A Chino Valley vote center’s election-clerk computers were set up early, but they weren’t connected to the ballot-on-demand printers, which wouldn’t work because the machines have to be connected in a specific sequence. So it took time to diagnose the problem and fix it. The call center for the Voting Centers, which answers questions and troubleshoots problems, was down because all the phones were connected to one phone jack that went on the fritz that morning, even though everything had been tested the night prior. Burchill had to defend the hardworking department and the integrity of the system at a Yavapai County Board meeting where about 200 people were protesting.

“There were 13 of the protesters that went up that had something specific to say, towards our county,” Burchill said. “I wrote down every one of those names, I wrote down every one of their grievances, I called every one of those people and we talked it out. People went up there saying ‘I was disenfranchised,’ ‘my vote didn't count, I have proof.’ I said, ‘You better show me the money, buddy.’ So I called every one of those, and every single one apologized and said, ‘Wow, I didn't realize’ or “I was looking on the wrong website,’ or ‘I was doing this or that.’ I said, ‘I wish you’d have given us the opportunity.’ Again, we are accessible. If you hear something, if you see something, if you’re a precinct chair and you go to someone’s house and something’s wrong with the registration, please come to us … instead of screaming bloody murder about something that’s incorrect information.”

Burchill said she will continue “fighting back” against misinformation about elections, especially now that she knows how poorly people understand the voting process. Along with personally talking with voters, she is working on a video series to explain how the process works.

“We’re going to try to start doing little instructional videos and dial down on specific topics,” Burchill said. “We’re going to talk about controversial things that people are going to have very strong opinions on, like dropboxes. We’re going to get down to those and say, ‘how did we come up with this? Why do we do it? What are the pros and cons? What are we going to do to secure it?’ So we're going to really focus on those things in a way that’s coming from me, from the source.”

Journalist Toni Denis is a frequent contributor.

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