/ Modified mar 23, 2024 8:45 a.m.

Arizona expects to be back at the center of election attacks

Top officials are going on the offense.

360 mail ballots

By Ali Swenson, AP

PHOENIX (AP) — 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 the votes during elections in Arizona’s Maricopa County. The security measures are a necessary expense, said the county recorder, Stephen Richer, as Arizona and its largest county have become hotbeds of election misinformation and conspiracy theories that have led to near continuous threats and harassment against 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 ever since he took office in 2021, 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 misinformation about voter fraud, voting machine problems and phony results.

The false claims, promoted by prominent Republicans such as presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump and Arizona Senate candidate Kari Lake, have driven protesters to rally outside vote-counting centers and to patrol drop boxes. The claims have fueled death threats against election workers and their families and prompted top election officials to quit across Arizona.

The battleground state also has become a target for attacks from election meddlers and other bad actors who repeatedly attempt to hack or disable the state’s electronic systems, Secretary of State Adrian Fontes said.

The challenges come as election offices nationwide have dealt with mounting concerns, including persistent misinformation and harassment of election workers, artificial intelligence deepfakes used to disenfranchise voters, potential cyberattacks from foreign governments and criminal ransomware attacks against computer systems. Many of these offices are understaffed and underfunded, even as the federal government has raised alarm about foreign election interference attempts this year.

In Arizona, with a looming presidential rematch and high-profile U.S. Senate race, Republican Richer and Democrat Fontes are taking more aggressive steps than ever to rebuild trust with voters, knock down disinformation and immediately address attacks.

In recent interviews and tours of their operations, they said they are hoping their efforts are enough to counter an onslaught they know is coming as the November general election draws closer.

Protecting Democracy

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 to prepare workers for AI-generated disinformation.

He has created a four-person information security team that bolsters defenses against cyberattacks and gathers intelligence on election-related threats, which descend on Arizona from near and far.

The team includes a position that’s so far been unusual in statewide election offices: a full-time analyst solely devoted to monitoring the internet for 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 at an early-voting site 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 said monitoring for falsehoods is a “gray area” that makes him concerned about privacy.

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, said the team doesn't compel social media platforms to remove posts and only reports especially egregious posts, as any platform user can.

Run and Hide

Moore came to his job after doing similar work for Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix.

He said that after seeing the hundreds of threats that disrupted the lives of election workers during the 2022 midterm elections, he believes those who spread misinformation are directly responsible.

In one case, the day after Richer spoke at a chaotic public meeting during which county officials certified the November 2022 election results, Richer received two voicemails on his cellphone telling him to “run” and “hide.”

The caller, a California man whose expletive-laden voicemails claimed Richer wanted to “cheat our elections” and “screw Americans out of true votes," was arrested last month, according to the Justice Department.

“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. “If someone you trusted told you that elections were being stolen, democracy being stolen, wouldn’t you want to act on that?”

Fontes and Richer hope to steer Arizonans back to disagreeing on the issues, rather than about trust in elections.

“We're not talking about American transportation infrastructure or education infrastructure, all the other things that we really want to see develop,” Fontes said. “That loss of civic faith is the real problem that we have."

They also agree that rebuilding public confidence will require transparency. They are practicing that already.

Fontes is testing a statewide system for voters to receive text messages when their ballot is mailed, delivered, returned and counted. Such a system exists in the state’s two largest counties.

Richer recently hosted his first “Ask Me Anything” live video session on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. He frequently engages directly with voters, and his team has hosted more than 30 tours of the tabulation center in the past year, inviting anyone to sign up.

Lack of Confidence

Fontes and Richer say one of the toughest challenges of misinformation is the doubt created among large swaths of 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 after dropping off her ballot on a sunny afternoon in early March.

Carter said her concerns grew when a 101-year-old she looks after received multiple ballots in the mail. But Carter said she will track her ballot and she appreciates that resource.

Other voters said they had no such concerns and were angered by false information in their state.

“I’m really disturbed at what seems to be a high level of ignorance,” said 76-year-old Democratic voter Loretta Greene. “I trust the leadership in the highest positions in the state of Arizona.”

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

He has taken other steps to address public concerns, such as removing excess wiring around tabulators so observers can see there is no internet connection. His office posts 24-hour live feeds of the tabulation center, even when some activists have at times revealed personal information and spread misinformation about 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,” Richer said.

Republican state Sen. Ken Bennett argues that 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 for the public to see.

“Way too many of the public still have doubts about the integrity of our elections,” Bennett said. “It’s still building and will continue to build until we do reasonable, commonsense things that allow people to verify elections."

The legislation, which Fontes supported, passed but was vetoed last May by Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs, in part because she said it threatened the anonymity of voters and unnecessarily burdened election workers.

Uphill Battle

Turning around public perception is proving to be an uphill battle in the county where election lies have proliferated even after a Republican-led audit and other post-election reviews found no evidence of widespread fraud or inaccurate results in the 2020 vote.

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 activist's viral post to claim the elections weren’t reliable.

“HERE WE GO: Maricopa County is Sending Phony Mail-In Ballots AGAIN,” a conservative website’s headline read.

“Early voting equals early cheating,” an X user replied. “Now you get to witness one of the many ways it happens.”

Richer said he has had to accept that no matter how hard he tries, 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 after the last few years in this office.”

So when a voter responded to his X post during the presidential primary 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.”

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