Election deniers air baseless fraud claims over Arizona glitches

By Ryan Teague Beckwith, Elise Young and Katrina Manson
Bloomberg

Editor's note: This story updates with details beginning in third paragraph.

Arizona Republicans are seizing on technical problems with ballot tabulation machines in the state’s largest county to make unsubstantiated claims about the validity of Tuesday’s elections, signaling a contentious aftermath for the 2022 midterms. 

In Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, elections officials flagged printer problems with ballot tabulators in about 20% of the county’s polling locations but made clear that voters can cast ballots without concerns.

Voters arrive at a polling location in Phoenix, Arizona, on Nov. 8, 2022.

None of these issues were unusual, a senior official at the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said Tuesday, and the troubles in a handful of other places around the U.S. were well within the normal range of glitches to be expected in thousands of jurisdictions with millions of people voting. 

Even so, the problems with Maricopa County in the key battleground state of Arizona quickly emerged as a flashpoint Tuesday, with several prominent politicians characterizing the technical issues, which were ultimately resolved, and did not prevent anyone from voting, as suspicious. In 2020, the state was ground zero for Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn his White House loss and in this year’s midterms, it’s the only state where all four major statewide candidates are election deniers. 

Overall, elections watchers say there have been a few scattered problems nationally. In Mercer County, New Jersey, some voting machines didn’t work; laptops used to verify voter registrations malfunctioned in Fort Bend County, Texas; and isolated complaints were reported about overzealous poll observers, typical for a national election.

In Arizona, Maricopa County election officials said voters whose tabulators didn’t count the ballots immediately will have their ballots counted later, in a process similar to early voting. Still, the state’s Republican Party chair and candidates for governor, secretary of state, attorney general and U.S. Senate called on voters to stay at polling places until ballot tabulators were fixed. Their messaging echoed conspiracy theories that spread rapidly online Tuesday.

Trump also posted on his social media platform, Truth Social, telling voters to stay in line, contradicting state officials who said that the paper ballots will be tabulated later.

At the core of the conspiracy is the so-called “box 3,” where voters whose ballots cannot be tabulated immediately can put them. The county elections office said in a statement that voters having trouble with the tabulator can “insert their ballot in the secure slot on the ballot box where it will be counted at the Tabulation and Election Center.”

Those ballots will be centrally tabulated later this evening, officials said, similar to how the county handles early voting — but without the need to further confirm identification, because ballots dropped at polling places Tuesday are already effectively signature-verified.

Yet the glitch was enough for some to spread misinformation. Senate candidate Blake Masters, who ran a campaign ad saying that Trump won in 2020, tweeted that the problem was “incompetence or something worse.” Secretary of State candidate Mark Finchem, who was outside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 attack, blamed incumbent Katie Hobbs, who is running for governor, for the problem and called on supporters to “not let them take your vote away.” 

State Republican Party chairwoman Kelli Ward, who was part of a fake elector scheme for Trump in 2020, told former Trump aide Steve Bannon on an online show that the problem was “not just incompetence; it’s malfeasance.”

“The sole purpose of misinformation is to cause fear and mistrust in our election processes,” countered Arizona Assistant Secretary of State Allie Bones. “I remain confident that our election is safe and secure.”

Ultimately, all it took was to fix the printer settings so that the timing marks on the ballots are dark enough, according to Maricopa County. “This solution has worked at 17 locations, and technicians deployed throughout the county are working to resolve this issue at the remaining locations,” the county’s press office said.

In the first election since Trump’s “stop the steal” movement began with his defeat to President Joe Biden, as many as 600 machines made by Denver-based Dominion Voting Systems Inc. also weren’t operating throughout Mercer County, New Jersey, which includes the state capitol of Trenton and Princeton University. 

About a dozen polling stations in Houston’s largest suburban county experienced voting delays after some voter-verification laptops malfunctioned because of a synchronization error related to this past weekend’s time change, according to John Oldham, the county’s elections administrator.

An early analysis by Bloomberg News of social media platforms — Twitter, Facebook, Truth Social and Tumblr — shows that as the day progressed, an initial wave of posts drawing attention to the problems have slowly given way to more explicit conspiracy theories by various pro-Trump groups.

— With assistance by Mackenzie Hawkins, Daniel Zuidijk, Elise Young and Kriston Capps