Arizona county quick to bat down election misinformation

Officials in Arizona’s most populous county have aggressively batted down rumors and slanted and false claims as vote counting has come under intense scrutiny in the battleground state

PHOENIX (AP) — When the Republican candidate for Arizona governor accused the state’s most populous county of “slow-rolling” the vote count to skew early election results, a local official fired back.

"Quite frankly, it is offensive for Kari Lake to say that these people behind me are slow-rolling this, when they're working 14 to 18 hours" every day, said Bill Gates, the Republican chairman of the Maricopa County board of supervisors. On Monday, Democrat Katie Hobbs defeated Lake, a Donald Trump ally who falsely claimed the 2020 election was rigged and has refused to say she would accept the results of her race this year.

Gates and other Maricopa County election officials aggressively batted down rumors and slanted or false claims, as vote counting has come under intense scrutiny in the battleground state. The accusations have come in all types and at all hours from Trump and the former president's supporters, as well as other Republican candidates and voters.

"Sadly, there continues to be a lot of misinformation from all different sources that are out on social media right now," Gates said. "That's why we have to continue to do this."

Election officials have had two years to hone their game.

In 2020, Maricopa County landed in the national spotlight while certifying results amid false claims that the election was stolen from Trump. The following year, it underwent an “audit” pushed by Republicans in the state Senate, which ended with a report validating Biden’s win.

“That was just a constant flow of misinformation that we became adept at responding to," Gates said.

In May, county officials began talking publicly about what to expect in the upcoming midterm elections. They have held regular news conferences since early October, and since Election Day officials have held briefings nearly every day. They also have a large public affairs team that can quickly respond to new or renewed claims of fraud or mismanagement.

One persistent claim started when Lake accused the county of "slow-rolling" the count.

Lake and other Republicans said the county has timed vote releases so Democratic areas of the metro Phoenix area are released first. Gates has spent days explaining how that’s not happening and is not possible. In truth, the county processes ballots using a first-in, first out system.

That means mail-in ballots that are dropped off at the polls on Election Day are processed in the order they are received at the county’s election headquarters.

“That’s how we do this,” Gates said Saturday. “We’re not picking them from certain parts of town. In fact, we can’t do that, because we have a vote center model.”

Vote centers mean any voter can walk into any polling place across the metro area to cast a ballot in-person or drop off their early ballots. And because ballots dropped off at vote centers are kept together for processing, the votes could be from anywhere. He called the allegations “irrelevant” and an “incredible distraction.”

A record 290,000 of those ballots were dropped off at the county’s 223 vote centers on Election Day and are now being processed. As of Monday morning, the county had between 185,000 and 195,000 ballots to count, while nearly 1.4 million in-person and early ballots had been tabulated.

Gates said the audit taught the board and other county leaders the importance of battling misinformation quickly and accurately.

He and county Recorder Stephen Richer have taken the lead, with Democratic Sheriff Paul Penzone also taking the podium at times. Gates is a lawyer who for years represented the GOP during county elections. Penzone said the constant unfounded claims have forced Gates and Richer to spend an inordinate amount of time explaining why they are wrong.

“What’s the saying, a lie travels around the world … 10,000 times before the truth even gets started?” Penzone said Saturday. “That’s what we’re seeing here. We’re seeing people empowered by saying things that make them feel good, and they’re not accountable for it, and they lie.”

David Becker, a former U.S. Justice Department lawyer who now runs the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research, praised county election officials and Gates in particular for their rapid and consistent responses.

“They’re doing an outstanding job,” Becker said. “I’ll tell you, I think Bill Gates and his colleagues have been the best of American governance, not just in the last week, but over the course of the past several years while they’ve been running elections in Maricopa County.”

The Republican Party of Arizona has complained about Election Day issues and the prolonged vote count, which is normal in Arizona. Party Chair Kelli Ward complained about ballot-counting machines that could not always read the ballots. The 17,000 affected ballots were instead taken to the county's central facility. Black bags of those ballots were stacked for processing Monday.

Not every claim is a lie, but the accusations have answers that make sense. On Friday night, losing Republican U.S. Senate candidate Blake Masters accused the county of mixing up counted ballots with those that could not be tabulated by the vote center machines at least twice. He demanded that the more than 1.4 million ballots that had already been tabulated be recounted, calling it a "giant disaster.”

Megan Gilbertson, spokeswoman for the county elections department, told The Associated Press that election workers at two vote centers did combine voted ballots with a batch that could not be read by the on-site tabulators, but that the mix-up did not lead to double-counted or uncounted ballots because the department has systems in place to deal with such occurrences.

“Because ballots are tabulated by batch, we are able to isolate the results from those specific locations and reconcile the total ballots against check-ins to ensure it matches,” she wrote less than two hours after Masters made the statement. “This is done with political party observers present and is a practice that has been in place for decades.”

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Learn more about the issues and factors at play in the midterms at https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections

Credit: Matt York

Credit: Matt York

Credit: Alberto Mariani

Credit: Alberto Mariani