Politics

Arizona election officials brace for impact in battle against conspiracy theories

Two years after former President Trump attempted to overturn his loss to Joe Biden, the electoral process remains in the shadow of the 2020 election, plagued by threats to election workers, efforts to misinform or intimidate voters and the rise of far-right candidates who have echoed false claims of election fraud.

Nowhere is the new paradigm more evident than in Arizona, where election officials in Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, have received hundred of threats and been forced to increase security around the office where mail ballots are counted. Last week, a federal judge restricted a far-right group from sending armed people to monitor ballot drop boxes and observe voters.

One of the state’s most popular Republican nominees, Trump-endorsed gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, has cast doubts on the last election and been vague about whether she would accept a loss in this one.

Arizona GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake takes the stage Monday in Phoenix.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Despite those trends, election officials have expressed optimism and pride in the work they’ve done leading up to Tuesday. In Maricopa County, which has 2.4 million registered voters, officials have received more than 974,000 early ballots and had verified signatures and processed the majority of them as of Monday night. Last week, the office answered more than 8,000 phone calls and 3,000 emails from voters, according to Stephen Richer, the county’s top election official.

“Arizona, and really Maricopa County, is at the center of the universe in terms of the democratic process that makes this country so beautiful,” Richer told reporters Monday.

Richer and other Maricopa officials held a news conference on the eve of the election to dispel false narratives and conspiracy theories, such as accusations that not having every ballot counted on election night implies that there is fraud or that counting machines are faulty, compromised or lead to inaccurate results.

For years, Arizona has allowed any voter to request an absentee ballot without providing a reason. Election officials are allowed to start processing those ballots a few weeks before the election, and ballots must be received by the time polls close. In a closely contested race, the results might not be available for a few days.

Close elections in other key states, such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, could also take days to tally. In California, where a handful of key U.S. House races could determine the margins of the chamber, the final count of mailed ballots will likely take weeks.
The concern for election officials is that misinformation and threats of political violence tend to spread in the time between when polls close and the final ballots are counted. Protesters descended on vote-counting centers in swing states in 2020, as Trump called on election workers to stop tallying ballots that had been mailed in on time.

That year, far-right supporters of Trump gathered outside the Maricopa County Elections Department, shouting to those inside that they were there to “stop the steal.” Since then, officials have increased security, with new fencing and cameras and more coordination with the sheriff’s department.

“For us, it’s about ensuring that balance between what potentially could happen and making sure that the ballots and all the people here at the elections department are safe,” said Megan Gilbertson, a spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Elections Department.

Arizona has been a hotbed for election misinformation since the 2020 presidential election, when Biden became the first Democrat to win the state in more than 20 years. Audits and lawsuits found no evidence of widespread election fraud.

Supporters of Arizona GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake wait for her to make an appearance

A rally for Lake, who has said she will accept the results of Tuesday’s election only if she wins.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Still, conspiracy theories around the electoral process have grown in the state, where the Republican candidates for major races have helped fuel Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

Arizona is one of the states featured prominently in “2000 Mules,” a discredited film by right-wing conspiracy theorist Dinesh D’Souza that claims cellphone data show that thousands of so-called “mules” stole the 2020 election by stuffing boxes in swing states with fake ballots.

Last month, armed and masked members of far-right groups including the Oath Keepers and Clean Elections USA started appearing at ballot drop boxes in Maricopa and nearby Yavapai counties, where they photographed, filmed and surveilled voters and their cars.

A federal judge restricted the ability of Clean Elections USA to monitor the drop boxes and required the group’s founder, Melody Jennings, a QAnon adherent, to stop posting misleading information about who may return an early ballot. Under Arizona law, relatives, housemates and caregivers may return a ballot on someone else’s behalf.

Democrats and voting rights advocates have warned that the candidates at the top of the Republican ticket could upend the state’s election process if they’re victorious Tuesday.

“Kari Lake is as fervent an election denier as Donald Trump, and unlike him, she’s actually on the ballot,” said Norm Eisen, an elections and political law expert who served as President Obama’s ethics czar. “If she is successful and becomes the governor, she’ll be in a position to implement that dangerous ideology, not only as a false conspiracy theory about the past but in the present and the future.”

The campaign of Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, the Democrats’ nominee for governor, has made that warning a key part of her messaging against Lake, a former local news anchor.

Arizona Democratic gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs(C) canvases

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs canvases Monday in Phoenix.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Rallying supporters Sunday in Tucson, Hobbs said it was perhaps the most important gubernatorial race in the state’s history.

“I know we say every election this is the most important election in our lifetime,” Hobbs said. “This is possibly the last election in our lifetime if we don’t elect the right people, if we don’t stop the election deniers on the ballot, who are much more focused on the 2020 election than this one.”

Steve Brown, a 73-year-old retired teacher who attended the Hobbs event, told The Times he thought a Republican streak at the top of the ticket is “the next step along the slippery slope to authoritarian government.”

Adele Allyn, a 57-year-old administrative assistant, attended the event with her daughter, 37-year-old registered behavior technician Adele Baker, and two grandchildren.

Allyn wore a shirt she made ahead of the 2016 election that read: “If we value our democracy we must vote.”

“This might be the last election that is not going to be just all about lies and hurting people and stopping people from voting,” Allyn said. “We’re losing our grip on democracy.”

“The election deniers can’t be anywhere near our elections. They just can’t, because our democracy is not going to ever recover from something like that,” Baker said. “We just cannot afford someone in our election process who will not accept an election result if it doesn’t fit their idea of what it should be.”

Arizona’s Republican statewide candidates have presented a united front on the campaign trail ahead of Tuesday’s election, in contrast to their Democratic challengers.

They’ve spent the last few days on an “America First” bus tour, joined by local candidates and conservative personalities. Aside from a major rally with Obama earlier this month, Democrats have not put on many high-profile events to bring together candidates from the party’s slate.

During a Sunday-night rally, Lake, Senate candidate Blake Masters and attorney general hopeful Abraham Hamadeh were joined by Arizona Republican Party Chairwoman Kelly Ward; Rick Grenell, who was acting director of national intelligence under Trump; conservative commentator Jack Posobiec; and Stephen K. Bannon, a former senior advisor to Trump.

Several speakers mocked Democrats for saying that democracy is on the line in the election.

Supporters cheer as Arizona GOP gubernatorial candidate Karie Lake takes the stage for a campaign rally

Supporters cheer at Lake’s rally.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

“The media wants to say, ‘Oh, it’s going to be terrible, we’re fascists.’ … That’s so silly, that’s what we need to stop,” said Melissa Katz, a volunteer with the grass-roots organization Mighty American Strike Force, which sends volunteers across the county to help Republican candidates.

Lake has said she will accept the results of Tuesday’s election only if she wins. Asked Sunday if she has faith in the state’s election system, she criticized Hobbs for not recusing herself from overseeing the election as secretary of state and blamed her for issues with recent elections at the county level, such as incorrect ballots and ballot shortages. Though the problems were resolved, critics have tried to point to the mistakes as evidence of widespread problems.

“How unethical to even be involved in this election,” Lake told reporters after the Sunday rally. “We’re gonna have to change the laws so that we prevent that kind of thing from happening again.”

A similar controversy occurred in Georgia in 2018, when Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican, refused to recuse himself from overseeing the gubernatorial election, in which he defeated Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic minority leader of the statehouse. Abrams, who is in a rematch against Kemp this year, has faced criticism from Republicans for claiming that the last election was stolen due to voter suppression.

Lake said Sunday that Arizona is “the pivotal state” ahead of the midterms.

“Everyone is watching what happens in Arizona,” Lake said. “We are at ground zero when it comes to the border, we’re at ground zero when it comes to the fentanyl crisis, we’re at ground zero when it comes to election integrity, crime — you name it.”

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