PHOENIX — Maricopa County has emerged as a flashpoint in the midterm elections after a state judge declined a last-minute effort to extend voting hours following widespread issues that led officials to use secure ballot boxes.
Technicians were dispatched to polling sites across Arizona's largest county on Election Day to fix dozens of malfunctioning vote tabulation machines, a widespread issue that frustrated voters and led some GOP politicians and pundits to spread misleading or false information.
Election officials stressed that the machines were not inaccurately reading ballots, but rather, not accepting them at all.
While Maricopa County election officials initially categorized the problem as a "hiccup," it took hours before a solution was identified early Tuesday afternoon. The fallout over the course of the day forced officials to scramble on messaging and push back on claims that sought to question the integrity of the election.
"Everyone is still getting to vote. No one has been disenfranchised," Bill Gates, chairman of the Maricopa County board of supervisors and a Republican, told reporters in downtown Phoenix following reports of equipment problems Tuesday morning.
"When we test these machines, that's part of the process. We go through it for every election," he added. "And in this particular instance, this is something we didn't anticipate."
About 60 of the county's 223 voting locations reported related problems. Gates said technicians were "doing what they can to get these back online."
The Republican National Committee filed an emergency request to extend voting hours just ahead of the closing of state polls at 9 p.m. ET. Judge Timothy Ryan, who was appointed by Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano in 2005, denied the request, saying that GOP failed to show that anyone was actually prevented from voting.
Ryan said “there might have been some confusion” but there was not any evidence that anyone was “precluded the right to vote.” He added that even if there were such evidence that he would have “no way to communicate” with the polling places given the late time, with polls just about to close.
Matthew Sanderson, co-leader of the political law group at the law firm Caplin & Drysdale, said in an email that these are common problems.
“Some tabulator machines in Maricopa County, Arizona, have malfunctioned, and some commentators on the right have tried to paint that as part of a sinister plot,” Sanderson, a Republican and an NBC News and MSNBC election law analyst, wrote. “The reality, though, is that equipment malfunctions have always been a part of Election Day, and Maricopa election officials have had contingency plans in place to make sure that voters can cast their ballots without interruption.”
Sanderson said the the judge's decision "was in line with past decisions by Arizona courts, which have historically been hesitant to extend polling place hours."
"The judge seemed to focus in this case on the Republicans’ delay in filing the complaint until late on Election Day and on voters’ ability to cast ballots that would be counted through alternative means," he added.
Maricopa, the fourth-largest county in the country and home to Phoenix and Tempe, is widely considered the key to Arizona elections. Most of the state’s ballots are cast there and the results typically match the outcome statewide.
In 2020, Joe Biden won Maricopa County by about 6,000 of the more than 2 million votes cast there. Statewide, he won by less than 12,000 votes out of more than 3.3 million cast.
The dynamics have been similar in midterm elections. When Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema won her seat in 2018, she did so with 50% of the statewide vote, including the 51% she took in Maricopa County. About 2.4 million people voted in that race statewide, with 1.4 million of the ballots cast in Maricopa.
Election officials urged voters at polling sites where machines had malfunctioned to exercise other options, including either dropping their ballots in a secure box to be counted later in the day or going to another location to vote.
At around 2:30 p.m. local time, officials announced they had found an apparent fix to the problem by changing the machines' printer settings.
When asked about whether the technical issues were further fueling distrust in the election system, Gates told NBC News that it was precisely because Maricopa County voters have options in how they cast their ballots in such a situation that they should be confident in the election process.
"We have hiccups," Gates added. "They had a hiccup with the Powerball drawing last night, right? These things happen, but I would say to them, actually this should make them feel good because they see the type of redundancies that we have in place."
But conservative commentators on social media used the failure to claim votes were being suppressed.
Charlie Kirk, founder of the conservative youth activism group Turning Point USA, tweeted that there were long lines at sites and the result was a "traffic jam by design."
Maricopa County election officials responded that the tweet was inaccurate and "all voters are being served."
Former President Donald Trump also seized on the situation, writing on his account on Truth Social that Arizona had "another big voter tabulation problem" and Maricopa County was a "complete Voter Integrity DISASTER." Trump has endorsed Kari Lake for Arizona governor over Katie Hobbs, the Democratic secretary of state.
Meanwhile, the word "cheating" trended on Twitter on Tuesday morning, with some accounts amplifying a burgeoning right-wing conspiracy theory drawing from a single video in Anthem, Arizona, in which an election worker informed a crowd that a pair of vote tabulators were not working.
The election worker told the crowd to place their ballots in "Box 3," where they would get counted manually or later fed into the tabulator, a routine way to count ballots in the case of a tabulator outage.
Each tabulation machine has various "doors" in which ballots are inserted and read. But in the event that a ballot cannot be properly scanned, they can be fed into "door 3" of the tabulator for reading at a later time. (Some have conflated "door 3" with the term "Box 3.")
Several prominent GOP Twitter accounts shared the video as well, including Lake and Arizona GOP Chairwoman Kelli Ward, who tweeted an image with language telling voters to "not put your ballot in Box 3." Both Lake and Ward have disputed the results of the 2020 election.
Right-leaning audiences have been primed for misinformation around the Arizona elections. For weeks, conservative media pundits and influencers have focused disproportionately on elections there.
Kirk and conservative podcast host Jack Posobiec co-hosted Kirk’s web series from his home state of Arizona on Tuesday and rallied with Lake the previous evening.
Former journalist and conservative pundit Benny Johnson was also on the ground in Arizona, amplifying issues at polling stations with hyperbolic posts that misrepresented the issues with tabulation machines. Trump’s former top political adviser Steve Bannon spent the majority of his internet show, WarRoom, interviewing correspondents and Republican advisers and candidates on the ground.
Framing faulty equipment or administration errors as intentional is a common tactic from those who spread misinformation during elections, according to the Election Integrity Partnership, a coalition of researchers who study misinformation and elections. “Tactics that facilitate this spread are often designed to invite engagement — and are difficult to moderate,” the group wrote in an October report.
Allie Raffa reported from Phoenix, and Erik Ortiz, Jonathan Allen and Brandy Zadrozny from New York.