Maricopa County, Arizona, has become a focal point for our crisis of trust in democratic elections. According to the Arizonans I met, the state is in a dangerous place, and Maricopa is in the eye of the storm—representing one of the largest voting districts in the country.
For more than two decades, I lived overseas working to advance democracy and credible elections, including leading multiple election observation teams, conducting election audits and reform efforts, and training election management bodies. In my new role at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund, I work both abroad and at home and can view U.S. democracy through the lens of my experience and global best practice.
Arizona election officials are still battling false claims over the 2020 results, while under intense scrutiny for the upcoming midterms. Rogue “poll watchers” stake out drop boxes, photographing citizens, taking down license plate numbers, and harassing voters as they deliver their ballots. Vile, descriptive death threats inundate the inboxes of hard-working election officials. Enormous resources, machinery, and staff have been poured into the county to keep up with constantly evolving election regulations, such as a recent decision to mandate a recount for any election with a 1 percentage point or lower difference in results, to mitigate against problems that do not exist.
Political leaders have instigated this volatile state by propagating false allegations of fraud in the 2020 elections, despite multiple court cases, audits, and reviews that verified the results and integrity of the process. This verification famously includes even election deniers’ own Cyber Ninja audit declaring Biden the winner. None of this matters or will be enough—new conspiracies and allegations will continue to emerge unless these actors get the electoral outcome they want. Elections cannot be fair if their side loses, putting upstanding election officials and administrators in an impossible position.
Alarmingly, the instigators are the Republican candidates for the most consequential state offices in the midterms, who will also determine the conduct of elections going forward.
Kari Lake, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, has called for a 2020 “redo” and has not committed to accepting the results of an election she does not win. This has caused, according to Maricopa officials, a fresh onslaught of violent threats against their offices. Mark Finchem, secretary of state candidate, is one of the most prolific spreaders of Big Lie conspiracy theories, was part of the riots outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, and has a laundry list of election “reforms” he pledges to enact.
Republicans have proposed legislation that includes reducing early voting and drop boxes, hand counting of all ballots within 24 hours, allowing any voter to sue the outcome of elections in court, and empowering the state legislature to reject the results of any election or primary and demand a new election. In addition to making it more difficult for people to vote, particularly the elderly or people with disabilities, the proposals allow a partisan body to simply reject the will of the people without clear criteria or justifications.
The changes also would require an exponential increase in resources and staff to conduct hand counts and hold re-elections. It’s unlikely that hand counting of millions of ballots would be possible in a 24-hour period, and would probably result in far more inaccuracies than machine counts—causing further chaos, conflict, and distrust in the process.
Election administrators told me they’ve seen an exodus of staff due to the threats and harassment, just when they need more personnel than ever to accommodate demands from policymakers to “enhance integrity.”
They have, in fact, gone above and beyond the requirements of the law.
Maricopa County has installed 24-hour live-streaming cameras in their tabulation room, so citizens can watch the counting process at any time. The room also has glass walls, so anyone can see the machines are indeed not connected to the internet, a persistent false claim. Election officials give regular press conferences and the county has increased their comms staff to address citizen complaints and debunk lies. They’ve implemented additional checks and audits to ensure no one staff person is in charge of any process, such as signature verification.
Mostly, I was struck by the professionalism, courage, and commitment to democracy these election officials demonstrated, despite the intense pressure and threats they are under. I’ve observed elections around the world, and this was one of the most exemplary, transparent election centers I’ve ever seen.
Election officials here are indeed worried about violence. Though there is a perimeter around the station, mobs of angry protestors show up threatening and harassing them, showing off their weapons, particularly after the 2020 elections. When asked what was on their “wish list,” what would make their lives easier, they had plenty of ideas, many technical and resource-based. But their main wish was the inoculation of people to all the lies around them, for political leaders to stop destroying faith in elections and democracy, and accountability for those who spread disinformation.
There was a painful recognition that no matter what they did, or how ever many hoops they jump through—going above and beyond the best practices demanded of them—it will never be enough. The lies and conspiracies are a bottomless well, and for each theory they debunk (from crazed beliefs about the types of pens used to mark ballots to theories that counting machines are connected to the internet and manipulated), another emerges. They are simply not sure what else they can do.
My Arizona visit ended with an event at which Bill Gates, Republican Chair of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, spoke passionately about the crisis in his state.
He pointed out how his county had become the center of attention for journalists from across not only the U.S., but also Europe. Maricopa is “ground zero” for election denialism, but also the case study for the future of American democracy.
His emotional remarks echoed those of Gabriel Sterling, a Republican election official from Georgia, after the 2020 elections, pleading with people to stop the threats and foreshadowing that “someone is going to get hurt.” Gates too implored that it “has got to stop”—referring to the lies perpetuated by the party’s leaders and driving the public’s anger and threats.
It might simply be too late to put this deranged genie back in the bottle, but the leaders who created that genie must be held to account. Voters have the power to do so by refusing to elect them to office. Rewarding them for their lies will send Arizona down a dark, undemocratic path, and the few brave leaders whom I met will not be able to stop this trajectory.
The world is watching, Arizona.