Arizona’s ‘Tricky Voting Machines’ Sounds Suspiciously Familiar

In political conspiracy theories, as in television shows, the plot elements are always the same. (From The Atlantic)
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When polls opened in the Phoenix area Tuesday morning, some vote-tabulation machines weren’t working; within half an hour, conspiracy theories about the problem were running rampant on the internet. Prominent right-wing influencers with millions of followers were clamoring for arrests, and outraged citizens using Telegram channels and online message boards debated whether prison or execution was the appropriate punishment for what was clearly another steal. In reality, officials in Republican-run Maricopa County had transparently informed residents about the problem and offered a few options to make sure everyone’s ballots would be counted: Voters could wait until the problem was fixed, go to a different polling place, or put their completed paper ballot into what was called Box 3 for processing later. Although some social-media users appreciated this information, others sincerely believed they’d uncovered a nefarious plot. The voting machines had been deliberately broken, they insisted, and word on Twitter was that they were broken only in Republican parts of town. Whatever went into Box 3, many were convinced, was not going to get counted.

As part of the Election Integrity Partnership, my team at the Stanford Internet Observatory studies online rumors, and how they spread across the internet in real time. As we watched speculation about intentional tampering with Maricopa voting equipment multiply on social media, racking up tens of thousands of user engagements, I was reminded of a similar 2020 incident—one that also falls into the category that my colleagues and I sometimes call “Tricky Voting Machines.” In what came to be known as Sharpiegate, supporters of former President Donald Trump claimed that, because they’d been given felt-tip markers to fill out their ballots, tabulation machines weren’t recording their votes. At the time, half of the American voting public had been told for months by media commentators and political leaders whom they trusted—indeed, by the president himself—that the election would be stolen from them. Compounding that mindset today are two years of claims that the 2020 election was in fact fraudulent. The details of how remain shrouded in mystery, unknowable even after a variety of investigations and audits. But that didn’t matter in Maricopa County this week. Especially after two years of conspiracy-mongering by Trump and his most influential supporters, the mere mention of Tricky Voting Machines makes the rest of the plot immediately clear.

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