Not much can grow naturally in the barren desert landscape of Arizona’s Maricopa County, but given its pivotal role in shaping national politics, it’s fertile ground for conspiracy theories to take root.
“We’ve anticipated legitimate mistakes and issues with election infrastructure being reframed as fraud,” Kate Starbird, an associate professor at the University of Washington who studies the spread of disinformation, explained to CNN.
That appears to be what precisely played out in Maricopa County on Election Day.
The right-wing personalities, who have spent the past two years convincing millions of Americans not to trust their democracy, pointed to this Election Day’s problem with printers at some Maricopa polling locations as proof that everything they had said was right. The printer issue was not a mistake, they suggested – fraud was afoot.
The reality of any Election Day in the United States is that issues are going to arise at the polls. We can argue whether that is unacceptable or inevitable, the result of incompetence or aging infrastructure. But it is another thing entirely to suggest, without evidence, that these issues are the result of a nefarious and sophisticated effort to “steal” an election.
Election deniers in 2020 attributed malice to the mundane, repeatedly claiming videos showed poll workers stealing the election, when in fact the videos showed them doing their jobs. Having studied this, Starbird and her colleagues at the University of Washington and the Stanford Internet Observatory published a report last month looking at “implied intentionality.”
“In elections, honest human errors can be opportunistically exploited to imply intentionality and to support unfounded narratives of intentional, widespread fraud, undermining the legitimacy of electoral outcomes. However, as research shows, election fraud is exceedingly rare and such mistakes are unlikely to impact election outcomes,” they wrote.
It all began early this Election Day when a Republican activist posted a video to Twitter showing a Maricopa poll worker explaining there was a problem that could cause delays.
For those who had been waiting to claim the election was a fraud, it was a gift and it could hardly have come from anywhere better.
Maricopa, Arizona’s most populous county, became the center of the election conspiracy theory universe after then-President Donald Trump lost the state in 2020. Republicans called for votes to be audited and audited again, even eventually bringing in the infamous “Cyber Ninjas” – they also concluded Joe Biden had won there.
As the video began to bounce around social media, Maricopa election officials explained that the printer glitch would not stop anyone from voting. Instead of putting their ballots into a machine, voters were instructed to put them into a secure ballot box. A judge in Maricopa County who was asked to adjudicate on the issue Tuesday evening said there was no evidence that anyone who wanted to vote was not able to.
Naturally, to those who didn’t want to hear it, those facts fell on deaf ears.
Data gathered by researchers at the University of Washington showed that discussion of the tabulator problem began to gather major traction after Republican activist Charlie Kirk and Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s son, shared the video on their social media accounts.
Even though neither said outright that the video was evidence of fraud, their followers and many others, having heard so many false allegations of a stolen election in 2020 were quick to jump to that conclusion.
Trump sent a flurry of messages about the issue on Truth Social, starting with a 2 p.m. post, stating, “Maricopa County in Arizona looks like a complete Voter Integrity DISASTER.” In other posts he suggested, without evidence, that only “Republican areas” were impacted.
“There is no partisan bias in what happened,” Bill Gates the Chair of the Maricopa County board of supervisors said Tuesday night, pointing out that the board was controlled by Republicans and the Maricopa County Recorder is a Republican. Gates himself is a Republican.
That this video emerged in the first place and so quickly went viral was hardly an accident. Like many things that grow in Maricopa County, this too grew artificially.
Election deniers had spent many months encouraging people to go to polling locations and look for fraud. This is exactly the kind of video they wanted to see, despite it showing no fraud whatsoever.
Baseless lies about elections have wreaked havoc in this country. They’ve convinced a third of Americans that Biden wasn’t legitimately elected president. They’ve prompted violent threats to election officials and their families, in turn leading many officials to quit. And, of course, they led to a violent January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.
The lies of Election Day 2022 are already taking root in the darker corners of the internet – on the very same forums used by people who previously committed violence, including attacking the Capitol .
Responding to a post about the alleged fraud in Maricopa on Tuesday, one anonymous user on a pro-Trump forum wrote, “We are way past prison at this point.” Another asked, “How about execution?”