No signs of political motivation in Maricopa County election center theft, sheriff says

Jun 25, 2024, 1:17 PM | Updated: 1:43 pm

PHOENIX – Last week’s Maricopa County elections center theft doesn’t appear to have been politically motivated, authorities said Tuesday.

However, interim Sheriff Russ Skinner said during a press conference he isn’t ruling anything out during the ongoing investigation into a stolen digital security key.

“We’re going to leave no stone unturned,” Skinner said. “We’re going to make sure that we do evaluate all the evidence that was out there and ensure that we follow up on anything that may be potentially directing us somewhere else or [to] other actors who may be involved in this, but at this point we do not have anything that indicates [political motivation].”

Walter Ringfield, a 27-year-old temporary elections worker, was arrested Friday for allegedly taking the black digital key from the Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center (MCTEC) in downtown Phoenix a day earlier.

What is stolen digital key used for?

Supervisor Bill Gates, who appeared alongside Skinner at Tuesday’s press conference, said the incident won’t affect the upcoming primary election process.

Gates said election workers had been testing tabulation machines ahead of the July 30 election when the digital key, which also has been referred to as a security fob, was stolen Thursday.

He said the key is one part of the process to turn on the ballot-counting machines on Election Day.

“With this alone … nefarious actors would not be able to turn on the tabulation machine. … I’m not going to get into all the various layers that are involved, but know that this in and of itself would not be able to start a tabulation machine,” Gates said.

The election center theft was discovered when workers did inventory Friday morning. Ringfield was identified as the suspect through security camera footage.

“We cannot thank the sheriff and the sheriff’s office enough for their incredible partnership,” Gates said. “They jumped right into action on this. … The suspect was arrested the day that we determined it was missing, and the black security key was recovered again on the same day. That’s incredible work by our law enforcement partners.”

How has the county responded to the election center theft?

Gates said one of the reasons for the press conference was to head off speculation.

“At Maricopa County, we have been subject to many conspiracy theories over the past few years, which have been debunked time and time again,” he said. “I certainly hope that people don’t take this incident to spin up new conspiracy theories.”

Gates said the key was deactivated and the tabulation machines were reprogrammed after officials learned it had been taken out of MCTEC.

“The additional measure that we took was that we did a brand new logic and accuracy test, and we reached out to all of the county political parties and invited them to be a part of that logic and accuracy test,” he said.

Additionally, all county political parties were briefed on the situation Monday morning, Gates said.

Officials estimated the cost of reprogramming the equipment at around $20,000.

What did suspect say about stolen security key?

Ringfield was booked into jail on counts of theft and criminal damage. He is not eligible for bond because he was on release as part of a felony diversion program in a 2023 case when he was arrested Friday, according to court records.

The suspect allegedly admitted taking the key but claimed he gave it back after about 20 minutes, according to his arrest report.

As for a possible motive, “Walter stated his reason for taking the fob was because he wanted to ‘clean up.’ Walter said the job was temporary and he was trying to make it permanent, so he wanted to clean up,” the report says.

Like all temporary election workers, Ringfield underwent a criminal background check before he was hired. Gates said the felony diversion program didn’t show up on the check, but it wouldn’t necessarily have disqualified him from being hired.

“That’s a case-by-case basis that we look at. … But it takes 2,000 to 3,000 temporary employees to run an election in Maricopa County, so security is very important,” Gates said.

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No signs of political motivation in Maricopa County election center theft, sheriff says