13 allegations of candidate petition signature forgery forwarded for possible criminal charges

The Arizona Secretary of State's Office has forwarded suspicions of signature forgery to the Attorney General for the obvious forgery of voter signatures on a petition to get Republican Rep. Michele Peña on the 2024 primary ballot. Petition circulator Richard (Ricky) Guthridge, of Tucson, is responsible for gathering the signatures.

The Arizona Secretary of State’s Office has referred 13 cases of potential candidate petition signature fraud to the attorney general for investigation, including allegations that Republican Rep. Austin Smith personally forged voter signatures. 

The Secretary of State’s Office also pointed out what it said was a glaring case of candidate petition signature forgery, allegedly by a petition circulator for Yuma state Rep. Michele Peña, a Republican. 

Candidates for elected office in Arizona must collect a certain number of nomination petition signatures from registered voters they hope to represent to qualify for the ballot. The number of signatures required depends on which office the person is running for, but candidates typically attempt to gather at least 30% more signatures than needed because it’s a given that some of those signatures will be disqualified. 

The deadline to file a civil court case challenging the petition signatures gathered for candidates looking to get on this year’s July primary ballot was April 15. In all, 21 challenges were brought against Arizona candidates for the U.S. and state legislatures and nine of those candidates have already dropped their bids for office. 

The challengers — typically they are allied with a candidate’s political opponents —  must point out to the courts specific signatures that they say are invalid. Many of those individual challenges are aimed at signatures from unqualified voters, such as registered Democrats who signed a Republican’s petition or vice versa, or voters who live outside of the candidate’s district. 

Other challenges might target signatures from a voter who signed the same candidate’s petition more than once, or who signed petitions for multiple candidates running for the same office. In the latter case, the petition that the voter signed first is valid and subsequent ones are not. 

Signatures can also be challenged if they don’t belong to a registered voter, if they are illegible or if the signee didn’t date their signature. 

But the 13 cases that the secretary of state’s office referred to Attorney General Kris Mayes include allegations of signature fraud or forgery, which could result in criminal charges. 

However, JP Martin, a spokesman for Secretary of State Adrian Fontes, told the Mirror that it’s up to AG’s prosecutors to determine if fraud or forgery occurred and whether to file charges. 

Richie Taylor, a spokesman for Mayes, told Mirror that no charges had been filed in any of the cases as of April 24. 

The most high-profile forgery allegations that could garner criminal charges were leveled against Smith, a Republican state representative from Surprise and a member of the state legislature’s far-right Freedom Caucus. 

Smith announced that he was dropping his bid for reelection just days after the signature challenge was filed by a Democratic precinct committeeman who accused Smith of personally forging the signatures of more than 100 voters. Two voters whose signatures appear on his petition told the court in a sworn statement submitted alongside the challenge that they did not sign the petition. 

Smith released a two-page statement announcing the end of his campaign but he never took accountability, and blamed Democrats for launching a “coordinated attack” against him. 

Photos of petition sheets that Smith circulated himself show full pages of signatures that look as if they were all written by the same person, with handwriting that is strikingly similar to Smith’s. 

A candidate challenge to state Rep. Austin Smith, R-Surprise, alleges that he forged more than 100 voter signatures on his nominating petitions.

In the statement, Smith said that he didn’t want to start out his life with his new wife in debt because of costly legal fees to fight the allegations. Although the challenge to his candidacy is moot since he’s no longer running for office, he could still face criminal charges of forgery. 

And though Smith hasn’t announced it or removed the job from his social media profiles, the Washington Post reported last week that he had resigned from his job at Turning Point Action, the campaign arm of the far-right Turning Point USA, which is aimed at young Republicans and run by Charlie Kirk. 

The Secretary of State’s Office also identified what appears to be an even more obvious case of signature fraud on Peña’s petitions. 

Even though no one filed a challenge to Peña’s petition signatures, the Secretary of State’s Office still forwarded its suspicions of fraud to the Attorney General. 

In an email obtained by the Mirror through a public records request, Lisa Marra, the state’s election director, told several other staffers in the office that she suspected “possible circulator fraud” on some of Peña’s petition sheets. 

Richard (Ricky) Guthridge, of Tucson, is accused of gathering these obviously forged signatures on a petition to get Republican Rep. Michele Peña on the 2024 primary ballot.

All of the petition sheets that Marra highlighted were circulated by a man named Ricky Guthridge, and the 60 signatures that he collected seem to be obvious forgeries. The signature lines on the petition sheets that he collected differ significantly from the ones collected by other circulators for Peña in that they almost exclusively consist of single-name signatures. 

The signatures, printed names, addresses and dates on Guthridge’s petition sheets all feature the same, often illegible, handwriting. 

Richard (Ricky) Guthridge, of Tucson, is accused of gathering these obviously forged signatures on a petition to get Republican Rep. Michele Peña on the 2024 primary ballot.

Neither Guthridge nor Peña responded to questions from the Arizona Mirror asking if the petition circulator is the same Ricky Guthridge who is president of the University of Arizona College Republicans, but the address of the petition circulator is an off-campus apartment building for students who attend the university. 

While Peña lives in Yuma, her district also covers part of Tucson. 

The Guthridge who attends UofA is a national committeeman for Arizona College Republicans and is on the boards for Pima County Young Republicans and for Turning Point USA’s operations at the university. He has been active in supporting candidates like election denier and U.S. Senate hopeful Kari Lake. 

Other candidates whose cases were referred to the Attorney General for allegations of fraud are: 

  • Michael Eaton, a Libertarian running for Legislative District 9 in the state House, who has already dropped out of the race and whose civil case has been dismissed. 

  • Shaunte Saulsberry, a Democrat running for Legislative District 13 in the state House who has already dropped out of the race and whose civil case was dismissed. 

  • Jesus David Mendoza, a Republican running for Congressional District 3 in the U.S. House, whose civil challenge case, brought by Shelby Busch, head of the conservative election denier group We the People Az Alliance, has been dismissed. 

  • Izaak Ruiz, a Democrat running for Legislative District 11 in the state House, whose civil case has been dismissed. 

  • David Cook, a Republican running for Legislative District 7 in the state Senate, who was challenged by incumbent Republican Wendy Rogers. A judge ruled on Wednesday that enough of his signatures were valid for Cook to remain on the ballot. The judge also found that Rogers provided no proof of signature forgery. 

  • Christy Kelly, a Republican running for Arizona Corporation Commission who has withdrawn from the race

  • Arturo Hernandez, a Green Party candidate running for U.S. Senate, whose civil case was set for trial on Thursday. 

  • Clifford Cast, a libertarian running for Congressional District 6 in the U.S. House, who has dropped out of the race. 

  • Marlene Galan-Woods, a Democrat running for Congressional District 1 in the U.S. House whose civil challenger dropped the challenge after the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office found that she had gathered enough signatures. Galan-Woods’ attorneys also refuted the challenger’s claims that she participated in signature fraud.  

  • Ralph Heap, a Republican running for Legislative District 10 in the state House whose civil challenge was dismissed, along with three others filed by the same law firm that the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office found had made false allegations throughout their petition signature challenge filings. 

  • Matt Welch, a Democrat running for Legislative District 18 in the state Senate who has already dropped out of the race. 

Even if a candidate has dropped out of a race, their petition circulators (in some cases the candidates themselves) could still be charged criminally if the Attorney General finds evidence of fraud or forgery.

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