Republican Kari Lake could still catch up to Democrat Katie Hobbs in Arizona’s contentious race for governor.
Election workers continue to tabulate ballots in several counties, including Maricopa, the state’s most populous and vote-rich. Officials have asked for patience, stressing in daily news conferences that the process is unfolding at a normal pace and in accordance with the law.
But that hasn’t stopped a barrage of increasingly cynical conspiracy theories from some Republicans, including former President Trump, who has endorsed and campaigned with Lake.
For days, the former president has railed against Arizona elections after outlets projected Friday that Trump-backed Senate candidate Blake Masters lost to incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly. He also took aim at Nevada, where Democratic incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto was projected to defeat GOP candidate Adam Laxalt, clinching control of the Senate for the Democrats.
On Friday, Masters said he would not concede until “every legal vote is counted.” That same day, Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked Lake what she thought of social media posts that suggest her opponent didn’t campaign aggressively because she planned to cheat.
Lake said she understood the reasoning behind the online discussions and leveled criticism of election administration under Hobbs, who is Arizona’s secretary of state.
“We’ve had such terrible elections. They’re run poorly. They’re ripe with fraud,” she said. “Our elected officials tell us that if we dare bring it up we’re conspiracy theorists, we’re election deniers. Darn it, we’ve got to start bringing this up.”
Election officials in Arizona, particularly in Maricopa County, have been working overtime to combat criticism, misinformation and insinuations of malfeasance as they work through hundreds of thousands of mailed ballots returned on election day.
Much of the vitriol has come from Lake, her campaign and her allies, who in addition to Trump include conservative pundits such as Carlson, Charlie Kirk and former Trump advisor Stephen K. Bannon, who appeared with her at a rally last week. Her supporters have used social media and appearances on conservative media outlets to belittle election officials and accuse them of “slow rolling” the results.
Lake has said in those interviews that she has “100%” certainty that she will win the race, and has not committed accepting the election result if she doesn’t. One of her first acts as governor, she said, would be to call a special legislative session to overhaul the state’s voting system and move away from early ballots.
Heading into the 2022 midterm elections in Arizona, Republicans controlled both chambers of the Legislature, the governor’s office and the top election official roles in Maricopa County.
Democrats keep razor-thin control of the Senate after Catherine Cortez Masto defeats Republican Adam Laxalt to win a second term representing Nevada.
Arizona lowered the threshold required for a recount to 0.5% of votes cast for the top two candidates earlier this year.
A Lake victory would be a boon to the “America First,” pro-Trump movement, which suffered significant losses on Tuesday when the “red wave” forecast by pundits and pollsters failed to materialize. In the leadup to the midterms, Trump endorsed dozens of candidates who repeated his false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him by widespread fraud.
Several of the defeated Republican candidates, such as Michigan secretary of state nominee Kristina Karamo and Pennsylvania gubernatorial hopeful Doug Mastriano, would have been in key positions to oversee the 2024 presidential election. Trump is expected to announce his plans to run for reelection on Tuesday at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla.
By Friday night, in addition to Kelly’s reelection victory over Masters, another key race in Arizona for secretary of state was won by a Democrat, according to the Associated Press. Adrian Fontes defeated Mark Finchem, a member of the far-right group the Oath Keepers, who was at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
The defeats of Finchem and Masters, who has said Trump would be in the White House today if the 2020 election had been “free and fair,” have raised the stakes in the governor’s race. Lake was seen as the most popular of the Trump-endorsed candidates and has been the subject of speculation as a possible contender for Trump’s 2024 running mate.
State and national Republicans have trained their focus on Maricopa County, demanding that officials institute “around-the-clock shifts of ballot processing” until all votes are counted.
“We will not hesitate to take legal action if necessary to protect Arizona voters’ right to have their ballots counted,” Harmeet Dhillon, a conservative attorney assisting the Lake campaign, wrote in a statement on behalf of the Republican National Committee and the Republican Party of Arizona.
Bill Gates, the GOP chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, has countered criticism of the length of time it has taken to count ballots and strongly rejected the idea that officials were purposely delaying the results, noting that the county’s election workers have been working 14 to 18 hours a day.
“We are absolutely not slow-rolling it,” Gates said Thursday. “And quite frankly, it is offensive for Kari Lake to say that.”
The county uses a “first in, first out” approach, he said, which is why early ballots received on the last day of voting have not been counted yet.
Election officials, particularly in Maricopa County, have been under increased scrutiny and threats since the 2020 election. After the 2020 race was called for Joe Biden, hundreds of Trump supporters, some armed, protested outside the county election office. Election day mishaps that might previously have gone unnoticed are now fuel for rampant speculation of fraud.
That was the case with a Maricopa County printer issue that prevented an estimated 17,000 election day voters from running their ballots through counting machines at 30% of county vote centers. The issue was eventually fixed and voters were given the option to place their ballots in a secure drawer, known as box three.
Officials have discussed the issue in several news conferences and said no voters were disenfranchised.
“Idiot, and possibly corrupt, officials have lost control of the tainted Election in Arizona,” Trump wrote on Truth Social Friday. “A NEW ELECTION MUST BE CALLED FOR IMMEDIATELY!”
Several Republicans have cast the printer issues as further evidence against using voting machinery, which were the subject of intense scrutiny in 2020 after Trump lawyer Sidney Powell falsely claimed Dominion Voting Systems machines were used to change Trump votes to support Biden.
In the days after the election, critics focused on the pace of the ballot counting, accusing officials of playing politics to delay an announcement of a Lake victory, or selectively withholding batches of ballots that favor Republicans.
In Arizona, the bedrock issue of free and fair elections is on the ballot as Trump acolytes vie to seize the state’s election machinery.
“They’re trying to pour cold water on this movement,” Lake said Thursday during an interview with Kirk, the founder of the conservative youth activist group Turning Point USA, which is headquartered in Phoenix. “This movement is on fire and no amount of water is going to put that fire out.”
For decades, Arizona voters have been able to request absentee, or early, ballots without providing a reason when doing so. The option has proved popular and, as a result, it has taken an average of 10 to 12 days to verify, process and count those ballots.
Arizona has taken some steps to speed up the process before election day. Election workers are allowed to start processing and verifying signatures on early ballots a few weeks before the election. The state also requires early ballots to be received by the time polls close at 7 p.m. on election day.
There is a reason why the state’s process is slower than others, said Gerry Langeler, the director of research and communications at the National Vote at Home Institute.
“They are very careful,” he said. “And hats off to them for being very careful.”
Arizona’s ballot-counting timeline wasn’t heavily scrutinized in past cycles, when media outlets were able to quickly call races for Republicans after decisive victories. But the once-reliable GOP stronghold has become more purple, leading to some of the most competitive races in the election cycle.
Those factors have left Arizona election officials in a difficult position, as some of the most high-profile proponents of false election fraud claims are now awaiting the results in the highly competitive race between Lake and Hobbs.
As the aftermath of the 2020 election showed, the time period between when polls have closed and the results are announced can be a dangerous time for election officials. The longer that gap lasts, the more time there is for fraud claims, meritless lawsuits, conspiracy theories and threats of violence to develop.
After days of relative quiet, protesters started gathering outside the Maricopa County election center Saturday with billboards and signs, including one that read, “Hobbs is a cheat.”
Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone attributed the protest to a tweet from far-right Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers, who on Friday called for “patriots” to “rise up” and rally at the office on Saturday afternoon. Rogers later backtracked after other conservatives, including Kirk, urged people to stay home.
“Hey everyone, honestly, it’s better for folks to STAY AWAY from Maricopa county offices, SO THEY CAN FINISH their job of counting votes,” Rogers wrote in a tweet. “The last thing anyone wants is a reason to stop the counting. Understood?”
At issue are about 290,000 absentee, or early, ballots that were dropped off on election day. Republicans, who encouraged their voters to cast their ballots in person on election day or hand-deliver their early ballots, say those “late early” ballots will favor their party.
“That’s the $10,000 question,” said Paul Bentz, the senior vice president for research and strategy at HighGround Inc., a Republican public affairs firm in Phoenix. “How do they act? What do they look like? And that’s the source of the biggest amount of speculation.”
While it’s clear that Republicans tended to vote in person and Democrats dominated early ballots received before election day, history has been split on which party the late earlies will favor.
In 2020, those ballots favored Republicans and helped shrink Biden’s lead over Trump. But in 2018, they tilted Democratic, allowing Kyrsten Sinema to defeat then-incumbent Republican Sen. Martha McSally.
Lake said she’s expecting a repeat of 2020.
“These are heavy-duty Republican voters,” Lake said on Carlson’s show.
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