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How Maricopa County defeated election disinformation — for now

Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Gates gives an update about the ballot counting during a news conference at the Maricopa County Recorders Office in Phoenix, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022.
Ross D. Franklin
/
AP
Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Gates gives an update about the ballot counting during a news conference at the Maricopa County Recorders Office in Phoenix, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022.

PHOENIX — Maricopa County Chairman Bill Gates is the first to tell you he's in a bizarre position.

The longtime Republican activist, who once even served as the Arizona state GOP's own election lawyer, is now the target of violent threats and other intimidation by far right extremists.

"This isn't about partisan politics. It's not about conservative versus liberal. This is about truth versus lies," Gates told NPR.

He's incredulous that he is being attacked by members of his own party, "given my background, all the Republican clubs that I started up, the things that I did to make sure that there wasn't fraud going on in elections on behalf of the Republican Party."

The drama began when President Biden narrowly won Maricopa County and Arizona in 2020 and continues today.

For Gates, the cascade of falsehoods has followed a similar pattern, starting with debunked claims that election officials can and should count all votes on election night, when, by Arizona law, most mail in ballots can't be processed and counted until the day after.

Gates called two news conferences in the week leading up to Tuesday to get out in front of that and other prominent disinformation. He and other election officials repeatedly raised and then refuted misinformation they've seen circulating on social media and elsewhere.

"The reason that it takes several days to have all of the votes counted here is due in part to the mail-in voting that we have," Gates told reporters last week.

Security has been enhanced at the Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center in Phoenix
Kirk Siegler / NPR
/
NPR
Security has been enhanced at the Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center in Phoenix

Fighting back against mistrust

Arizona was one of the first states to implement mail-in and early voting in the 1990s, an effort then widely backed by Republicans. Now the party's hard right activists here and nationwide are claiming without evidence that that same process is vulnerable to fraud.

For his part, Gates has generally been praised by Democrats and independents for his skilled handling of this election in the face of attacks from his own party.

More of those came on Election Day in the Phoenix area, when some voting machines were temporarily rejecting ballots due to what was later diagnosed as a printer problem.

"No wonder people don't trust the system. It just adds fuel to the fire," said Georgeanna Hawes, outside a Phoenix polling place where she said her ballot was initially rejected.

She cast a new ballot in person and was told it would be counted at the Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center that night. But Hawes, a longtime conservative voter, saw it as another example of possible fraud.

"I'm not a conspiracy theorist. I just want to know my vote counts," Hawes said.

The issue was resolved Tuesday afternoon and ended up affecting 17,000 ballots out of more than 1.6 million votes cast in Maricopa.

Efforts by radicals to use the glitch to sow doubt never really took off, though, because county technocrats repeatedly went in front of TV cameras and got on social media quickly, explaining what happened and patiently answering questions.

They often escorted news crews into a warehouse to see the ballots being dropped off by Democratic and Republican poll workers, and they live streamed and posted video of ballots being counted and processed.

One big difference compared to 2020 has been the overwhelming police presence outside, though.

On Tuesday night, a helicopter with a spotlight flew overhead as a dozens of police patrolled the streets around the center, some on horseback.

The center itself looks like a fortress. A newly erected permanent black security fence surrounds its immediate perimeter. A line of police SUVs buffers it from a temporary chain link fence along the street where typically no more than a handful of election protesters have stood.

The need to harden a voting facility this much makes even Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone bristle. A sign of the times, but he thinks it doesn't represent American values.

"This isn't reflective of that," Penzone said in an interview. "This type of behavior where it requires basically making this almost a militarized zone of law enforcement to protect ballots and people and the opportunity to vote in a free and thoughtful nation."

Maricopa County, which used to be solidly Republican, has been tilting blue and recent elections were won by razor-thin margins.

For Board of Supervisors Chairman Gates, it's no coincidence this is ground zero for the stop-the-steal movement.

"There are a lot of people out there that have decided to push those lies, push that misinformation in the direction of Maricopa County elections because it is [so] important and a true, if not the swing county in the country," Gates says.

He and other elections officials have been the consistent target of death threats since 2020, but he says he's not backing down.

"What really gives me energy are all these workers in here, the 3,000 workers who are out here just trying to do the right thing. They've chosen to work in election administration," he says. "It's so noble, and it is so under attack."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.