Problems With Some Arizona Voting Machines Are Stoking Right-Wing Conspiracy Theories

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Election officials in Arizona’s largest county spent much of Election Day scrambling to reassure the public and push back against false claims after problems emerged with vote counting machines at some polling sites.

Beginning Tuesday morning, technicians in Maricopa County were working to determine why ballot tabulators at roughly 40 of 223 locations—20% of voting centers—were experiencing problems. Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Gates and Recorder Stephen Richer acted quickly, posting a video on social media two hours after the polls opened. They walked people through the issue with the tabulator machines, demonstrating how their ballot might not go through. They reassured voters that they had a backup plan in place, showing how to place the ballot in the secure lock box attached to the machine, which would be taken to a central counting location on Tuesday evening.

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“This is actually what the majority of Arizona counties do on Election Day all the time,” Gates said. “And if you would prefer to go to another location, you can do that—doesn’t matter where you go, as long as you’re a registered voter here in Maricopa County.”

Maricopa County—which is home to nearly 4.6 million people, and about 6 out of 10 Arizona voters—operates on a voting center system, meaning anyone registered to vote in the county can vote at any location.

By midday, Maricopa County released a statement saying it had identified the cause of the tabulation problems and was working to rectify it at all of the affected vote centers. “County technicians have changed the printer settings, which seems to have resolved this issue,” the statement said. “It appears some of the printers were not producing dark enough timing marks on the ballots.”

But by then, the issue had already been seized by right-wing politicians and pundits as evidence of widespread voter fraud conspiracies, exploding on Twitter as well as far-right Telegram channels and online message boards. More than 40,000 tweets had spread misinformation about the voting machine issue in Maricopa within two hours, according to the Election Integrity Partnership, a group of research organizations focused on elections.

“There is high likelihood that these narratives around machine malfunctions will gain traction in other states, as audiences and influencers become primed to search for and amplify similar stories elsewhere,” the group said. The video posted by local election officials had only been shared less than 3,000 times as of Tuesday afternoon.

“Every f— one in that office needs to be fired, investigated and thrown in prison for this s—,” one person posted on a forum for supporters of former President Donald Trump amplifying election conspiracies with the headline “Here we go again.”

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Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, who has promoted Trump’s false claims of widespread election fraud, also quickly jumped on the development. “I am getting flooded with calls and text messages from people who are having trouble voting all over Maricopa County,” she tweeted Tuesday morning, sharing a video posted by conservative commentator Charlie Kirk.

She also tweeted a guidance to voters at polling places having equipment troubles that claimed that votes put in a secure lock box would “likely not be counted for weeks.” Murphy Hebert, communications director for the secretary of state’s office, later disputed that.

“The ballots that do not go through the tabulator and are dropped in that secure drop box will be tabulated today,” she tells TIME. Lake later deleted the tweet.

Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon alleged during a livestream Tuesday morning that the machine issues are a deliberate effort to suppress Republican votes: “They’re doing it on purpose.” His guest, conservative activist Ben Bergquam, responded “The only way they can win is if they cheat. Trump himself weighed in, spreading similar false claims about Arizona on Truth Social and posting “Here we go again? The people will not stand for it!!!”

After the 2020 election Arizona became ground-zero for election conspiracies, and Tuesday’s reports of malfunctioning machines are likely to fuel even more false claims. Rep. Paul Gosar blamed the state’s top election official, Lake’s opponent, Democrate Katie Hobbs, saying the “legitimate integrity concerns” were “directly related to [her] incompetence.” Lake and other Republicans had called on Hobbs to recuse herself from overseeing the election because she was a candidate for governor.

Lake, who has been coy about whether she would accept Tuesday’s election results if she loses, expressed frustration with the situation in Maricopa County at a press conference midday Tuesday.

“They’ve got to fix this problem,” Lake said. “This is incompetency. I hope it’s not malice. But we’re going to fix it. We’re going to win. And when we win, there’s going to be come to Jesus for elections in Arizona.”

Last week, the Lake campaign hired Harmeet Dhillon, one of Trump’s lead attorneys who contested the 2020 election, to run its Election Day operations. In an interview with TIME On Tuesday, Dhillon tied the voting equipment problems to the role of Hobbs’ office in testing and certifying the machines.

“It says to me that the Arizona Secretary of State is grossly incompetent and should not have been charged with this election,” Dhillon said. “And that’s why she should not be holding any elected office here in Arizona.”

The situation in Arizona was among scattered voting problems around the country on Tuesday. In Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, a judge ruled that polling places should remain open until 10 p.m. on Tuesday after a paper shortage caused long lines at several locations.

Ahead of the midterm elections, right-wing groups pushing false claims that the 2020 election was stolen recruited tens of thousands of Americans to serve as poll watchers across the country. Analysts and experts have warned that is likely to lead to more disinformation, the further harassment of election workers and deepening distrust in the country’s elections. “When you come in with a conspiratorial mindset, and not a lot of knowledge about how things work, it’s very easy to misconstrue what’s going on and to act in bad faith,” Rick Hasen, an election-law expert at the University of California, Los Angeles, told TIME in October. “Some of the people who are coming in have been manipulated into believing things are not on the up and up, and they may—deliberately or inadvertently—further undermine people’s confidence in the process through misunderstanding of the system.”

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