Don Henninger
Problem Addressed Threats to Voting Rights
Solution Build a network of community leaders from across Arizona who understand the election process and who are able to reassure the public that the state’s elections are safe, fair, and secure.
Location Arizona
Impact State

What he is doing

Don Henninger is the Republican half of a collaboration that is defending democracy in his home state of Arizona. Hired by the Carter Center in 2021, along with colleague and former Democratic congressman Ron Barber, the pair have built a network of almost 300 “trusted messengers” from all walks of life, including the faith and business communities, to defend the integrity of Arizona’s election system against election denialism and disinformation coming from the extreme right.

His story

Don Henninger says it was divine inspiration that led him to his current work with the Carter Center.

Henninger retired in 2014 from a nearly four-decades-long journalism career that included long stints with the Phoenix Gazette and Phoenix Business Journal. A self-described workaholic, he referred to himself during his working years as mostly a “Christmas – Easter guy” to describe his religious observance. But while seeking to reassert his personal priorities, he began to get more involved with his church following his retirement. Eventually, he was elected the senior warden of his Episcopal church, which is a bit like being the chairman of the board.

Shortly afterward, the bishop of his diocese received an email from the Carter Center asking for someone to work as a co-leader with Ron Barber on an election integrity project being launched in Arizona. The project: combat the runaway train of election disinformation that is undermining public trust in elections and generating threats to Arizona’s election workers and a raft of legislation that poses further risks to election integrity. It was Henninger’s job to find someone to fill the position. He didn’t have to look far or long.

In his view, what he did as a journalist and the work proposed by the Carter Center were essentially the same: “It’s the pursuit of truth. When I look at what we’re doing with the Carter Center, it’s really about trying to correct and straighten out the mis- and disinformation that’s out there and come back with a fact based assessment of what’s happening in our election processes and in our democracy.”

The primary difference is that instead of distributing that fact-based assessment in print or online, his mission is to deliver it via word-of-mouth at the grassroots. He hopes to expand the network to the point that neighbors are reassuring neighbors that the election system, while it may not be perfect, is safe, fair, and secure.

In Arizona, as elsewhere in the nation, election deniers refuse to accept the results of the 2020 election and the numerous audits and legal outcomes that followed it. They have also harassed and threatened the election workers who ensured a smooth election and validated the results. The Arizona Republic, where Henninger once served as managing editor, reported that 17 election officials have resigned since the 2020 election, all citing such threats and intimidation, and three of Arizona’s 15 counties have critical vacancies. Bill Gates, a life-long Republican and chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, which oversees elections in and around Phoenix, has publicly acknowledged that he is suffering from PTSD as a result of threats made against him and his family. Earlier in his career, Gates had led Republican efforts in the state to ensure that every eligible vote was counted.

Additionally, baseless fears of voter fraud and acceptance of outright falsehoods have prompted the majority Republican Legislature to pass 28 bills related to how the state runs its elections. Democratic Governor Katie Hobbs has vetoed them all because she believes they either addressed problems that don’t exist or would have compromised the integrity of future elections. One bill required that ballot machines used in Arizona could only use parts that were made in the US. Hobbs rejected it, stating, “The election equipment required by the bill, as well as the problem it purports to solve, does not exist.” Another veto ensured Arizona’s continued participation in ERIC, the consortium of states that share voter registration data to eliminate dual registrations and possible double voting. ERIC has been the target of a national disinformation campaign that has caused eight Republican-controlled states to drop out of the consortium despite their persistent claims of concern regarding voter fraud (another problem that has been shown to be statistically not a problem).

In Henninger’s view, the Republicans who supported the legislation are out of touch with the moderates in the party who provided a pivotal bloc of votes for Hobbs in her victory over Republican election denier Kari Lake last November.

“We have a very fractured Republican Party out here right now. I still believe that the MAGA election denier crowd is formidable and maybe it’s perhaps 25 or 30% of the party, but that means there’s 60 or 70% of the party that doesn’t sign on to that stuff.”

Getting out the message that Arizona’s election system can be trusted – and enlisting the support, especially, of moderate Republicans – is the goal of the Arizona Democracy Resilience Network (ADRN). The ADRN, spearheaded by Henninger and Barber, is one of four such democracy resilience networks launched by the Carter Center. The other three are located in Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. Together, they represent the center’s first major attempt to bolster democratic norms and build trust in elections inside the United States. Since 1982, the center’s projects had been focused elsewhere in the world. The upheaval following the 2020 election prompted center leadership to take action here at home.

The Carter Center’s Principles for Trusted Elections

The Carter Center has established five principles for trusted elections, which it has posted on a web page where it encourages all Americans to sign on and support them.

  1. Honest process: Cooperate with election officials, adhere to rules and regulations, and refrain from knowingly propagating falsehoods about the electoral process.
  2. Civil campaign: Encourage a peaceful election atmosphere during the pre-election, polling, counting, and post-election periods. Denounce any attempt to intimidate, harass, threaten or incite violence against opponents, their supporters, and election workers.
  3. Secure voting: Respect voters’ freedom to exercise their lawful rights to register and vote, free from interference, obstruction, or intimidation.
  4. Fair oversight: Encourage political parties and others to train poll-watchers on the election process and appropriate roles and behaviors, responsibilities, and obligations.
  5. Trusted outcomes: Make claims of election irregularities in accordance with the law and acknowledge the legitimacy of the outcomes after the results have been certified and all contests decided.

As the election cycle ramps up, ADRN will promote these principles and encourage its trusted messengers and all Arizonans to embrace them.

The Arizona network now includes 250 to 300 leaders from the business community, the faith community, and other communities throughout the state. Naturally, the network is most heavily concentrated in and around Phoenix, where Hennigner is based, and Tucson, which is Barber’s home turf. The two are aiming to at least double the size of their network before the 2024 election and have established task forces to build a greater presence in more rural areas and among the faith community.

Their intention is to partner with the county supervisors association and a similar association of county recorders. The supervisors have oversight of elections and election personnel; recorders are responsible for processing and maintaining voter registration records and administering early voting. Their work makes them effective spokespeople for election integrity; it also puts them in regular contact with members of their communities.

Henninger, however, believes involving faith leaders from local communities is vital to the organization’s success. Faith leaders are consistently the most trusted people in their communities, according to polling data from Gallup. Henninger and Barber have recruited about 70 faith leaders so far, including several who are from the evangelical wing that is sometimes associated with Trump-cheering constituents.

This summer, Henninger has begun exploring how ADRN can collaborate with the American Values Coalition, a group that speaks to the “exhausted majority” who are worn out by the disinformation, divisiveness, and partisanship of the extreme right and asks this question of America’s pastors: “What can churches do to bring light and hope as bearers of the Truth?” The group is planning a Pastor Conference in Arizona for January, and Henninger expects to support the event.

No matter who his trusted messengers are, or how many join the ADRN, Henninger is under no illusions that the 30% or so of the election-denying population will change its mind or shift its position. His goal is simply to dispel what confusion and doubts may be generated by the election disinformation coming from the MAGA side and restore the public’s faith in the election process and its results.

Henninger’s efforts, and those of Barber and the rest of ADRN, were recognized in March with his appointment to Governor Hobbs’ Bipartisan Elections Task Force, which was created “to study and make recommendations to strengthen elections laws, policies and procedures in the State of Arizona.” Henninger is serving on the task force alongside Secretary of State Adrian Fontes (D), State Senator Ken Bennett (R), State Representative Laura Terech (D), eight current and former election officials, and several election experts. The task force members have been gathering information and are beginning to assemble their recommendations for strengthening the state’s election system. They will deliver their final report by November 1 with the expectation that Hobbs will be able to propose, pass, and implement improvements in time to strengthen the electoral process for the 2024 elections.

Henninger is excited by the task force’s mission to improve the state’s electoral system, which he sees as a path to building further trust in elections and their results. He also recognizes that it has expanded his contacts with people who share his faith in the system and enhanced his ability to grow the resilience network.

“I think at the end of the day, the vast majority of us still want the same stuff. We want different candidates, that’s fine. But we still want to have a good, solid, fundamental belief that our democracy is solid, our election processes can be trusted and are fair and we can move forward together.”

The success that he and Barber have in Arizona, and that their counterparts have in Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina, could have significant ripple effects for the rest of the country.

Author: George Linzer
Published: July 31, 2023

Please support our work

We are committed to covering
the growing effort to solve problems
for the public good.

Sources

Interviews with Don Henninger, Jun 1, 2023 and Jul 6, 2023; email follow up Jul 28, 2023

Mary Jo Pitzl, “The exodus of Arizona election officials continues. This time, it’s in ruby-red Mohave County”, Arizona Republic, Jul 9, 2023, https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/elections/2023/07/09/mohave-county-recorder-kristi-blair-latest-arizona-elections-official-quit-since-2020-election/70389859007/, accessed Jul 27, 2023

Michael Mitsanas, “Arizona county elections director resigns, citing politicization and ‘intimidation’”, NBC News, Jun 28, 2023, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/politics-news/local-arizona-elections-director-resigns-citing-intimidation-rcna91591, accessed Jul 27, 2023

Maricopa County, “Supervisor Bill Gates Biography”, https://www.maricopa.gov/5410/Biography#:~:text=Supervisor%20Gates%20is%20a%20member,ages%2021%2C%2019%20and%2019., accessed Jul 27, 2023

Elias Weiss, “Every bill Gov. Katie Hobbs has vetoed so far and why”, Phoenix New Times, Jun 27, 2023, https://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/news/every-bill-arizona-governor-katie-hobbs-vetoed-so-far-and-why-15984959#:~:text=%E2%80%9CThe%20election%20 equipment%20required%20 by,1253%3A%20Vetoed%20on%20April%206, accessed 30, 2023

The Carter Center, “Supporting U.S. Democracy and Equality”, https://www.cartercenter.org/resources/pdfs/factsheets/us-democracy-factsheet.pdf, accessed Jul 27, 2023

AZ Clean Elections Commission, “County Recorder”, https://www.azcleanelections.gov/how-government-works/arizona-county-recorder#:~:text=The%20County%20Recorder%20keeps%20public,personal%20and%2For%20business%20purposes., accessed Jul 27, 2023

Gallup, “Confidence in Institutions”, 2023, https://news.gallup.com/poll/1597/confidence-institutions.aspx, accessed Jul 27, 2023

13 News Staff, “Governor Hobbs names members of Elections Task Force”, 13 News/Tucson, Mar 8, 2023, https://www.kold.com/2023/03/08/governor-hobbs-names-members-elections-task-force/, accessed Jul 22, 2023

Arianna Grainey, “Cross-partisan Arizona network works toward peaceful civic engagement around elections”, Daily Independent, Aug 18, 2022, https://www.yourvalley.net/stories/cross-partisan-arizona-network-works-toward-peaceful-civic-engagement-around-elections,321874, accessed Jul 22, 2023

Bishop Jennifer A. Reddall, “Arizona Democracy Resilience Network”, Diocese of Arizona, Sep 28, 2022, https://azdiocese.org/2022/09/arizona-democracy-resilience-network/, accessed Jul 22, 2023

Sasha Hupka, “This group aims to protect Arizona elections by fighting falsehoods and encouraging common values”, Arizona Republic, Aug 16, 2022, https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/elections/2022/08/16/new-group-aims-protect-elections-encourage-democratic-principles/10331675002/, accessed Jul 22, 2023

The Carter Center, “Cross-Partisan Georgia Network Works toward Peaceful Elections”, Aug 25, 2022, https://www.cartercenter.org/news/pr/2022/cross-partisan-georgia-network-works-toward-peaceful-elections-082522.html, accessed Jul 27, 2023

Have a Suggestion?

Know a leader? Progress story? Cool tool? Want us to cover a new problem?

Leader Profiles

  • Ty Seidule: Dismantling the Lost Cause

  • Emma Petty Addams: Restoring Faith in Democracy

  • Jenny Zimmer: Movement Organizer

Progress Updates

  • Here, Where Climate Change and Immigration Intersect

  • Further Fracturing in the GOP

  • Why Applaud as the National Debt Continues to Soar?