US midterm elections: Voting machine problems in Arizona fuel right-wing fraud claims

The county said it had isolated the problem: Printers were not making dark enough markings on the ballots. PHOTO: NYTIMES

MARICOPA COUNTY, Arizona - A series of technical glitches disrupted ballot counting Tuesday at about 1 in 4 voting centres in Republican-led Maricopa County, Arizona, rekindling embers of baseless voter fraud claims by the right-wing media and politicians.

Officials in Maricopa, one of the nation’s most populous counties and a focus of efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, said the problem affected ballot tabulation machines in about 60 of the county’s 223 voting centers.

In the afternoon, the county said it had isolated the problem: Printers were not making dark enough markings on the ballots.

Mr Bill Gates, chair of the Maricopa County board of supervisors, and Mr Stephen Richer, the county recorder, both Republicans, said the glitches were disappointing but that voters could still cast ballots and that nobody was being denied a vote.

“None of this indicates any fraud,” said Mr Gates. “This is a technical issue.”

But claims of widespread voter fraud circulated quickly on social media and in right-wing media anyway, with several commentators and politicians arguing that problems at voting sites would disproportionately hurt Republicans, who have generally preferred voting in person because of distrust of mail-in ballots.

“Can this possibly be true when a vast majority of Republicans waited for today to Vote?” former President Donald Trump wrote on Truth Social about the issues in Arizona. “Here we go again? The people will not stand for it!!!”

The chair of the state Republican Party, Kelli Ward, immediately raised the possibility of “malfeasance” and talked of recalling officials.

About 6 in 10 Arizona voters reside in Maricopa County, which has tilted increasingly toward Democrats since 2016. Several Republican election deniers are running in competitive races in Tuesday’s election.

Tabulators optically scan and count votes on paper ballots and are widely accepted as significantly more accurate and far less labor intensive than the hand-counting of ballots. The machines are used in 90 per cent of US voting jurisdictions, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Postelection audits of their results are customary, even in areas where they are used widely. Wisconsin, for example, will have workers hand-count ballots from 10 per cent of its voting precincts in public to verify the accuracy of the state’s election equipment.

But the tabulators have also been the target of groups that have denied the results of the 2020 election and have claimed that tabulators and other voting equipment can be hacked to rig results in favour of Democrats. Many of those groups have agitated for the complete elimination of voting machines in favour of hand-counting, despite the extreme logistical challenges of counting upward of 150 million ballots on Election Day.

Reports of the problems set off a quick firestorm. The Election Integrity Project, a coalition of online information researchers, found more than 40,000 messages on Twitter about the issue before noon Tuesday, with a large spike in traffic after a video was shared by Mr Charlie Kirk, a conservative radio host who later said that people “need to be arrested for what is happening in Maricopa County”.

The video shows a poll worker outside a polling station telling voters that two ballot tabulators were malfunctioning. The worker tells voters that if their ballot is rejected, they can have the ballot read manually or in a tabulator later.

“No one’s trying to deceive anybody,” the poll worker says.

“No, not on Election Day. No, that would never happen,” the person recording the video replies in a sarcastic tone.

Ms Kari Lake, the Republican candidate for Arizona governor who has sown doubts about election integrity, sought to strike a balance Tuesday between raising suspicion about Maricopa voting officials – and her Democratic opponent, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs – and discouraging turnout by her supporters at the polls.

“My message to the people in Arizona is do not get out of line until you’ve cast your vote,” Ms Lake told reporters outside a polling station on the downtown campus of Arizona State University. “Stay in line and vote, vote, vote – we’ve got to vote today.”

But Lake suggested, without providing evidence, that perhaps the problems were being caused, deliberately, by Maricopa County officials.

“They may be trying to slow a red tsunami, but it’s coming,” she said.

With her election lawyer beside her, Ms Lake said she had been planning to vote in a conservative precinct, but instead came to a voting centre in a left-leaning part of Phoenix.

“We switched from a Republican area to vote and came to the heart of liberal Phoenix to vote because we wanted to make sure that we had good machines and guess what? They’ve had zero problems with their machines today.”

She added, “This is incompetency – I hope it’s not malice – but we’re going to fix this.”

Maricopa County uses vote tabulators made by Dominion Voting Systems. Dominion, which has been the target of conspiracy theories about its machines since 2020 and has filed several defamation lawsuits in response, declined to comment on the situation in Maricopa County.

But according to Mr Jeff Ellington, the CEO of ballot printing company Runbeck Election Services, the issue in Maricopa did not appear to stem from Dominion’s equipment. Instead, he said, printers in voting centers were improperly set, which led to poor adhesion of toner to ballots, making them difficult for the Dominion tabulators to read.

Mr Ellington said that although Runbeck printed mail-in ballots for Maricopa County, his company was called on Tuesday to help and determined that the issue was limited to ballots made Tuesday by on-site printers. Those printers, Ellington said, were not made by Dominion.

“Everybody has been working on this since 6:30 this morning,” Ellington said. “It’s Maricopa County. It’s Dominion. It’s highly contested races. Everything about it makes for a highly salacious story, but it’s just the printers.” NYTIMES

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