Voting machine problems in Arizona spark conspiracy theories

eElection officials in Arizona’s largest county spent the first few hours of Election Day trying to reassure the public and dispel false claims after problems emerged with vote counting machines at some polling stations.

As of Tuesday afternoon, technicians in Maricopa County were working to determine why tabulated ballots at approximately 40 of the 223 locations — 20 percent of the vote centers — were experiencing problems. Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Gates and Recorder Stephen Richer acted quickly, post a video on social media two hours after the polls opened. They walked people through the tab problem, demonstrating how their ballot might not pass. They assured voters they had a backup plan showing how to place the ballot in the secure lock box attached to the machine, which will be taken to a central counting location Tuesday evening.

“That’s actually what the majority of Arizona counties do all the time on Election Day,” Gates said. “And if you’d rather go somewhere else, you can — it doesn’t matter where you go, as long as you’re a registered voter here in Maricopa County.”

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

But the issue was quickly seized upon 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 spread misinformation about the Maricopa voting machine issue within two hours, According to Election Integrity Partnership, a group of research organizations focused on elections.

“There is a strong likelihood that these machine malfunction narratives will gain traction in other states as audiences and influencers prepare to seek out and amplify similar stories elsewhere,” the group said. The video, posted by local election officials, was shared just 1,100 times.

“Everyone in this office should be fired, investigated and jailed for this s—,” one person posted on a forum for supporters of former President Donald Trump, ramping up the campaign conspiracies with the headline “Here we go again.”

READ MORE: How ‘Stop the Steal’ became ‘Watch the Polls’

Arizona gubernatorial candidate Cary Lake, who promoted Trump’s false claims of widespread election fraud, was also quick to jump on the development. “I’ve been inundated with calls and texts from people having trouble voting all over Maricopa County,” she tweeted Tuesday morning, sharing a video posted by conservative commentator Charlie Kirk. Shortly after, Trump himself weighed in, repeating the false claims on Truth Social and posting “Here we go again? The people will not resist it!!!”

After the 2020 election, Arizona has become ground zero for election conspiracies, and Tuesday’s reports of malfunctioning machines are likely to fuel even more false claims. Rep. Paul Gosar accused the state’s top election official, Lake’s opponent, Democrat Katie Hobbs, of saying “legitimate integrity concerns” were “directly related to [her] incompetence.” Lake and other Republicans had urged Hobbes to withdraw from monitoring the election because she was running for governor. Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon claimed during a live broadcast Tuesday morning that the machine problems were 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.”

Ahead of the midterm elections, right-wing groups pushing false claims that the 2020 election was rigged have hired tens of thousands of Americans to serve as election observers across the country. Analysts and experts have warned that this is likely to lead to more disinformation, further harassment of election workers and deepening mistrust in the country’s elections. “When you come in with a conspiracy mindset and don’t have a lot of knowledge about how things work, it’s very easy to misinterpret what’s going on and act in bad faith,” Rick Hassen, an election law expert at the University of California, Los Angeles. told TIME in October. “Some of the people who come have been manipulated into believing that things are not up and they can – intentionally or unintentionally – further undermine people’s confidence in the process by misunderstanding the system.”

— WITH A REPORT BY ERIC CORTELESA/ARIZONA

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Write to Vera Bergengruen c [email protected].

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