ELECTIONS

'Safe, secure and accurate': Maricopa County certifies election after rowdy crowd objects

Sasha Hupka
Arizona Republic

A four-hour meeting packed with conspiracy allegations, outbursts and threats was capped off by a unanimous vote by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors to certify the results of the Nov. 8 election.

In closing remarks, Supervisor Steve Gallardo declared the 2022 election "over."

But not everybody in the room agreed.

At least 35 people stood at the podium Monday to address discontent and doubt around the elections system. The Board of Supervisors' auditorium, usually close to empty, was packed for the meeting.

In the span of a few hours, speakers took turns calling county leaders "political hacks," "clowns," "traitors" and "vote traffickers." As at a Nov. 16 meeting, they lambasted officials with unproven claims about a rigged election and asked them to refuse to canvass, or certify, the election tallies.

Their claims and demands were familiar to county supervisors, who were first hit with unfounded accusations of widespread fraud and a stolen election after Donald Trump's loss to Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential race.

Statewide polling shows that large majorities of Arizona voters believe elections are fair and secure. But those unproven claims continue to circulate. The board has been under siege despite a Republican state Senate-ordered hand count of ballots that affirmed Biden's win and the county's point-by-point response to questions raised during that process.

The situation has only intensified since the most recent election, with conservative candidates and personalities launching challenges and criticism at Maricopa County before, during and after Election Day.

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Currently, the county faces a legal challenge over records from Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and an election lawsuit from Abe Hamadeh, the Republican nominee for state attorney general.

It also recently replied to a letter from the Arizona Attorney General's Office requesting answers to questions about its Election Day printer woes. County officials rejected a legislative subpoena from state Sen. Kelly Townsend seeking information and records related to the same problems, saying it wasn't "properly issued."

Despite the pushback, county leaders were firm going into Monday's meeting that they would be certifying the election results, even as some other counties delayed the process.

"Certification is not an optional act for the Board of Supervisors," said Chairman Bill Gates, a Republican. "It is our statutory duty to complete this part of the election process."

Meeting sees disruptions, well-known figures

As public comment got underway, numerous speakers called for an election redo.

"We do not have accuracy; we do not have integrity in these results," said Gail Golec of Scottsdale, a former candidate for county supervisor who encouraged people to bring their own blue-ink pens to the polls during the August primary.

Under the watch of about a dozen law enforcement officers, speakers booed and jeered as county supervisors thanked Recorder Stephen Richer for his work during the election. The room briefly erupted into shouting when Richer said there were "conspiracy theories about the election promoted on social media," prompting Gates to threaten to recess the meeting.

Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer addresses the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors during their general election canvass special meeting on Nov. 28, 2022, in Phoenix, Ariz.

One speaker said “violent revolution” was needed when peaceful processes like voting fail and another asked whether Supervisor Clint Hickman, the owner of Hickman's Egg Farms, had “another chicken farm to burn down." The comment referenced a 2020 conspiracy theory that falsely alleges Hickman, a Republican, fed ballots to his chickens and then set fire to his barn.

Election officials across the country have faced a wave of violent threats since the 2020 election. In Arizona, that harassment has caused some to leave their posts.

Some speakers were well-known figures within conservative circles. Those addressing the board included Ben Bergquam of Real America’s Voice, a conservative television network, and podcaster Joe Oltmann of Colorado. Both repeatedly have suggested that the 2020 election was rigged.

“If you certify today, the only thing you’ll be certifying is your own corruption,” Bergquam said to applause.

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Most of the crowd left after the public comment period closed, just as election officials began to present material on voting administration and problems at the polls. Republican Supervisor Jack Sellers said he wished more would have stayed after raising questions.

"I was disappointed that so many people clearly weren't here for answers," he said.

Those who did stay didn't stay quiet. One woman was asked to leave the room after yelling that supervisors were telling "lies, lies, lies." A man later walked out of the auditorium while shouting that the meeting was "political theater."

A woman is escorted out of the room after not following decorum at the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors general election canvass special meeting on Nov. 28, 2022, in Phoenix, Ariz.

Officials present on printer issues

Election officials responded to questions from the public and misinformation narratives point-by-point during a presentation that stretched for much of the meeting.

One point of clarification was around a box used for ballots unable to be read by on-site tabulators, known as "door 3." Officials said that misreads box has been in place in Maricopa County for decades and is used by all Arizona counties.

In eight of the counties, placing ballots in the box is the primary method of voting. Seven other counties, including Maricopa County, use it as a backup to on-site vote counting machines.

Officials also addressed complaints that ballot counting took too long. By state law, Arizona voters can drop off their early ballots at the polls on Election Day. Those ballots have to go through multiple stages of processing, including signature verification, which is a check intended to confirm voter identity. Officials have repeatedly said that the more last-minute early ballots received, the longer it takes to count votes and determine tight races.

And they gave additional details on the printer troubles Maricopa County had on Election Day, announcing that outside experts will review the issues.

"We will do everything we can to make sure this does not happen in future elections," Gates said.

Printers used at Maricopa County polling sites on Election Day were tested in advance and used the same settings as in previous elections, according to election officials.

Nevertheless, 31% of the county's vote centers had problems with printers producing ballots too light to be read by on-site tabulators on Election Day. About 1% of total ballots cast ultimately couldn’t be counted at polling sites by those machines, officials said, but were tallied later at the county’s elections center.

Officials said they first heard of the problems at 6:20 a.m., minutes after the polls opened. Election workers were actively implementing a settings change to solve the problem by 11:30 a.m., they said Monday.

Supervisors recommit to transparency; one lambasts Lake

Supervisors stressed in closing remarks that they remain committed to election transparency, calling the election "safe, secure and accurate."

"This was not a perfect election," Gates said. "There were issues. But we were transparent about that."

Gallardo, the county's lone Democratic supervisor, also lambasted some candidates, including Republican gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, for "not wanting to tell voters the truth."

He noted that Lake's campaign posted numerous times on Twitter during the meeting, showcasing people sharing "concerns and comments and yelling at us" but didn't post anything related to election officials' presentation and explanations.

"She wants to tell one side of the story," he said. "Shame on her. Shame on her."

Lake's campaign was not immediately available for comment.

Sasha Hupka covers Maricopa County and regional issues for The Arizona Republic with a focus on voting and democracy. Do you have a tip about elections or a question about voting? Reach her at sasha.hupka@arizonarepublic.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SashaHupka.