Arizona county quick to bat down election misinformation

PHOENIX - 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.

Gates and other election officials in Arizona's most populous county have been aggressively batting down rumors and slanted and false claims as vote counting comes under intense scrutiny in the battleground state. The accusations have come in all types and at all hours from former President Donald Trump and his supporters, 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. “So 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 the election was stolen from former President Donald 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. "We began to understand the importance of responding to that misinformation.”

This year, the county began holding press conferences months before the midterm election, and has held daily briefings since. It now has a team that can quickly respond to new or renewed claims of fraud or mismanagement.

One persistent claim started when Lake, who is trailing Democrat Katie Hobbs by a percentage point with less than 200,000 votes left to count, accused the county of “slow-rolling” the count.

Lake and other Republicans say 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.”

“So let’s say we have someone who lives in Gilbert, but they work in Surprise,” Gates explained on Saturday. “They go to the vote center in Surprise on their lunch hour. Where’s that from?”

A record 290,000 of those ballots were dropped off at the county’s 223 vote centers 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 that the constant unfounded claims have forced Gates and Richer to spend an inordinate amount of time batting them down.

“You know, what’s the saying, a lie travels around the world … 10,000 times before the truth even gets started?” Penzone said at Saturday’s media briefing. “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.”

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 and uncounted ballots on at least two occasions. He demanded that the more than 1.4 million ballots that had already been tabulated be recounted, calling it “a giant disaster.”

That actually happened, but the mix-up did not lead to double-counted or uncounted ballots. That’s because the county plans for such issues.

The spokeswoman for the county elections department responded to the statements just over an hour after being contacted by The Associated Press.

Megan Gilbertson said at two vote centers, election workers combined voted ballots with a batch that could not be read by the on-site tabulators. Such mistakes happen in election, and Gilbertson said the department was ready because of 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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