BISBEE, Ariz. — A judge in Cochise County in Arizona ruled on Monday that the county could not proceed with a plan to count ballots by hand in this week’s election.
It is the second setback in two weeks for Republican efforts to use such counts to audit the results of the elections this week. Democratic and civil-liberties lawyers have fought such plans, arguing that they could in effect allow a handful of local officials to disrupt the certification of whole states’ election results.
Supporters of the audits have argued that they are necessary to assuage the widespread distrust of the election system that many Republican politicians have encouraged since the 2020 election.
“We’ve got 50 percent of our country that does not trust our elections, that does not trust the voting machines,” Bryan Blehm, a lawyer for Cochise County’s board of supervisors, who argued during a hearing on Friday before the county’s Superior Court in the county seat, Bisbee.
This case stood as a proxy battle in the broader fight over the nation’s election system, a status evident in the legal teams that assembled at Bisbee’s small Art Deco courthouse on Friday morning.
Representing the plaintiffs, a state organization that lobbies for retirees, was Lali Madduri, a lawyer from the firm of Marc Elias, the prominent Democratic elections lawyer. Mr. Blehm, based in Phoenix, previously represented Cyber Ninjasthe contractor at the center of the partisan investigation into the election results from Maricopa County, Ariz., last year — a touchstone event in the movement to overturn the 2020 election even though the audit itself ultimately confirmed President Biden’s victory.
There is unlikely to be much actual doubt about the outcome of the general election this year in Cochise County, whose 126,000 residents voted by a margin of nearly 20 points for Donald J. Trump in 2020.
But in the past year, right-wing activists who initially mobilized around the cause of overturning the 2020 election based on Mr. Trump’s false claims of victory have increasingly turned their attention to solidly red, rural counties. There, they believe local Republican elected officials will be more receptive to their calls for audits of past and future elections — investigations that they hope will build momentum for similar measures in more closely contested urban and suburban counties.
In Nye County, Nev., Republican county commissioners ordered a hand count of votes after prominent national election deniers urged them to do so. That count was halted on Oct. 28 after a lawsuit was filed by the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Tom Crosby, who sits on Cochise County’s board of supervisors, said the impetus for his own county’s proposed hand count was a group of local activists, who had been inspired by the activity surrounding the 2020 election in the state.
“When Giuliani came and talked to the Legislature at the end of November of 2020, there were people saying that the machines could be hacked from satellites, from outer space,” Mr. Crosby said.
(Rudolph W. Giuliani, then representing Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign in its postelection legal challenges, met unofficially with Republican state legislators in Phoenix that November. At the time, he was promoting a conspiracy theory circulating online that an Italian military contractor had used satellites to switch votes in the election. Defense Department officials investigated the claim at Mr. Trump’s request and concluded that it was “patently absurd.”)
“I don’t think that in 2020 the machines in Cochise County were messed with,” Mr. Crosby said. “There’s other people that say, ‘Oh, they could be messed with, you just can’t tell.’ So I just don’t know.”
At an Oct. 24 meeting, the three Cochise supervisors voted 2 to 1 along party lines to pursue a hand count. The decision ran counter to the advice of both the secretary of state’s office and the county attorney.
The two Republican supervisors, Mr. Crosby and Pamela Judd, have since retained Mr. Blehm as the board’s lawyer in the case.
“My fundamental issue is, Why can’t we audit our elections?” Mr. Blehm said.
Arizona and other states do require the hand-counting of a randomized sample of cast ballots in order to check the accuracy of the machine count. The question in Cochise County has been whether the laws and the official guidance prescribing this limited audit also allow for a hand count of all the ballots cast. Casey F. McGinley, a county Superior Court judge, ruled in his opinion that they do not.
Mr. Crosby said the county board would consult with its lawyers on whether to appeal. “I don’t think the actions of the board were unlawful,” he wrote in an email on Monday evening.