ARIZONA NEWS

Arizona expects to be back at the center of election attacks

Mar 23, 2024, 2:00 PM

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PHOENIX — The room sits behind a chain-link fence, then black iron gates. Guards block the entrance, which requires a security badge to access. The glass surrounding it is shatterproof.

What merits all these layers of protection is somewhat surprising: tabulating machines that count votes in Arizona’s Maricopa County. The security measures are a necessary expense, said the county’s recorder, Stephen Richer, as Arizona and its largest county have become hotbeds of election misinformation that drives harassment toward election workers.

“What would be even more of a shame is if we couldn’t look the workers in the eye and say we’re doing everything possible to make sure that you’re safe,” he said.

Richer’s job is to oversee voter registration and early voting, but much of his time has been diverted to preparing for disinformation and its consequences. The state’s razor-thin presidential outcome in 2020 made it a national epicenter for conspiracy theories about voter fraud and phony results.

The false claims promoted by prominent Republican candidates have driven protesters to rally outside vote-counting centers and to patrol drop boxes. They have led to death threats against election workers and their families and prompted top election officials to quit.

Election meddlers have also attempted to hack the state’s electronic systems, Secretary of State Adrian Fontes said.

The challenges come as understaffed and underfunded election offices nationwide are dealing with persistent misinformation and harassment of election workers, artificial intelligence deepfakes, potential cyberattacks from foreign governments and criminal ransomware attacks.

With looming elections this fall, Republican Richer and Democrat Fontes are taking more aggressive steps than ever to rebuild trust with Arizona voters, knock down disinformation and immediately address threats.

They said they are hoping it’s enough to counter an onslaught they know is coming in November.

Fontes, a Marine Corps veteran, has brought his military mindset to the office since he started last year. He has deployed “tiger teams” to troubleshoot problems and hosted simulations on AI-generated disinformation.

He also created a four-person information security team. One member is solely devoted to monitoring the internet for election-related disinformation and threats.

Conservatives in other states have balked at their election offices partnering with companies to track online postings, arguing it enables government surveillance and censorship. Arizonans voting before last Tuesday’s presidential primary in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe also weren’t convinced.

“You’re monitoring it for threats? Sure. You need to ensure safety,” said 40-year-old Thomas Abia. But he called monitoring for falsehoods a “gray area.”

Fontes defends the need for the dedicated staffer, whose name he declined to share to protect that person’s safety.

“Yeah, we are surveilling a certain group,” he said. “We’re surveilling people that want to destroy our democracy. And that’s not political.”

The team’s leader, chief information security officer Michael Moore, used to do similar work for Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix. He said after seeing threats that disrupted workers’ lives, he believes those who spread misinformation are responsible.

“Sophisticated snake oil salesmen are telling people what they want to hear in the election conspiracy vein — and that emboldens people to take action,” Moore said.

Fontes and Richer agree that rebuilding public trust will require transparency.

Fontes is testing a statewide system for voters to receive text messages when their ballot is mailed, delivered, returned and counted. Richer recently hosted his first “Ask Me Anything” live video session on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

Misinformation has created doubt among many voters.

Jane Carter, a 62-year-old property manager, is one of them. A Republican, she said she doesn’t have faith in election officials.

“I don’t have a lot of confidence in anybody that’s doing anything, really,” she said.

Carter said her concerns grew when a 101-year-old she looks after received multiple ballots in the mail.

Signature verification and other security measures make the chances of fraud by mail ballot exceedingly low. But Richer said he has been culling voter lists to minimize the number of ballot packets sent to the wrong place, in hopes it can boost voter confidence.

His office also posts 24-hour live feeds of the tabulation center, even when some activists have harassed the workers shown on camera.

“We continue to default on the side of transparency and then try to address the consequences when they’re negative,” he said.

Republican state Sen. Ken Bennett argues even more transparency is needed. Last year, he sponsored a bipartisan bill that would have required detailed voter data and images of cast ballots to be put online.

The legislation, which Fontes supported, passed but was vetoed last May by Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat. She said it threatened the anonymity of voters and unnecessarily burdened election workers.

Turning around public perception is proving difficult.

In the recent presidential primary, Richer noticed a conservative activist complaining on X about receiving two mailed ballots. He suspected she had changed addresses too close to the election, resulting in a second ballot delivered to her new home.

That would be no cause for concern: As soon as the new ballot went out, the county’s system would void the initial ballot and it would never be counted.

Richer responded to the post to explain. But people on the internet still used the post to claim elections weren’t reliable.

Richer said he’s had to accept that some people won’t change their minds.

“I was a romantic who believed in sort of the marketplace of ideas — that, you know, gosh, the best ideas and the truth will bubble to the top, because man is a rational creature,” he said. “I’m not sure if I feel that way anymore.”

So when a voter during the presidential primary posted on X to say “I don’t trust you,” Richer responded the best way he knew how.

“OK,” he wrote. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you think otherwise.”

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Pass it along to the KTAR News team here.

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Arizona expects to be back at the center of election attacks