I spent the first week of November, 2020, at a gun range outside Prescott, Arizona, taking a class in tactical firearm skills. On Tuesday of that week—Election Day—after practicing speed reloads, I sat in my hotel room and watched the returns. After Fox News called Arizona for Joe Biden, I went to sleep. The state hadn’t given its electoral votes to a Democrat in close to twenty-five years, and the next morning my classmates were dismayed. “Welcome to the new, blue state of Arizona,” someone said glumly. For some of them, the dismay soon curdled into disbelief. “I just don’t know if it really happened that way,” a woman told me.
Since that day, conspiracies about the U.S. electoral process have taken hold all over the country, but nowhere more fervently than in Arizona. Groups of armed men in tactical gear have staked out ballot drop boxes; election officials in Maricopa County, Arizona’s most populous county, have received numerous death threats. The state’s Republican Party, including its candidates for the highest offices, is now dominated by election deniers. “We’re having an epistemological crisis that’s focussed right here, in Maricopa County,” Stephen Richer, a Republican in charge of administering the county’s election and a vocal critic of his party’s electoral conspiracizing, said earlier this week. Other states have close, consequential elections, so why has Arizona become the focal point for rigged-election claims?
Election conspiracies began gaining traction there in 2018, when Democrats made a surprisingly strong showing in the midterms, flipping a Senate seat. Republicans had comfortably controlled most of the state government for decades, and the results came as a shock to some. Two years later, Biden won the state by fewer than eleven thousand votes. Since then, Republican officials in Arizona have gone further in attempting to overturn the 2020 results than those anywhere else. Shortly after the election, a slate of false electors, including the head of the Arizona G.O.P., sent their signatures to Congress in an attempt to throw the state’s electoral votes to Trump. (Then Vice-President Mike Pence’s refusal to use this as an excuse to delay or block the election’s certification, on January 6, 2021, helped to spark the storming of the Capitol.)
The Republican-led State Senate then ordered a lengthy and expensive audit of Maricopa County’s election results, even though the county had already conducted a forensic audit and a hand recount. The audit was run by Cyber Ninjas, a cybersecurity firm that had no experience conducting election audits and whose C.E.O. had promoted claims of election fraud. After indulging conspiracies about bamboo fibres and suspicious mail-in ballots, the company, too, eventually conceded that Biden had won Maricopa County. “It actually became a breeding ground for a new sort of politician,” said Bill Gates, the chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, and a Republican who has spoken out against election conspiracies. “It’s my strong belief that the people who won the 2022 primaries here in these statewide races would not have if it weren’t for the audit.”
In 2019, state Republicans had established an election-integrity unit, meant to investigate reports of voter fraud. The woman appointed to run it was an attorney with apparent ties to True the Vote, the group featured in Dinesh D’Souza’s widely debunked (but still widely influential) election-conspiracy film “2000 Mules.” Instead of uncovering widespread fraud, however, the unit found commonplace errors: felons who thought that their voting rights had been restored; women who turned in ballots on behalf of their recently deceased mothers. After three years, the unit has reportedly prosecuted twenty cases. But, instead of dispelling myths about rigged elections, the election-integrity unit seems only to have undermined confidence. Arizona’s Legislature has spent the past few years passing laws that toughen voter-identification requirements, mostly criminalize turning in ballots for other people, and mandate recounts for close races. New burdens and regulations lead to more opportunities for mistakes; these in turn bolster accusations that something fishy is going on.
The state is now poised to be run by people who have gone all-in on election denial. Kari Lake, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, has said that she would not have certified the 2020 results. Mark Finchem, a candidate for secretary of state, Arizona’s top election official, who has described himself as an Oath Keeper, attended the January 6th rally in Washington, D.C., but who has denied participating in the riot, and has appeared on Steve Bannon’s podcast more than fifty times in the past two years. As a state representative, he introduced resolutions to decertify the election in three counties, including Maricopa.
Arizona has a strong libertarian strain, embodied most famously by Barry Goldwater, which is amenable to anti-government conspiracies. “For those strongly inclined towards skepticism of the government, it doesn’t take much to convince them that an election might be rigged, particularly when inundated with disinformation suggesting as much,” Joshua Sellers, an elections expert and an associate professor of law at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, said. Arizona is also the home of influential right-wing political organizations, including the Goldwater Institute and Turning Point USA, which have a vested interest in home-state races.
Wild theories about ballot mules and sinister Sharpies have had an easier time finding an audience among a population that’s been primed by other conspiracies circulating in the state. Arizona has been a key location for the QAnon movement. (Ron Watkins considered by many to be behind Q, which he has denied, ran for an Arizona congressional seat this year; he finished dead last in the Republican primary.)
And, well before armed ballot-drop-box watchers became an issue of national concern, militarized civilian groups had a presence in the state, which has a tradition of permissive gun laws. Arizona shares a border with Mexico, and militia groups patrol that border, sometimes with the tacit approval of authorities. The state is a nexus of the constitutional sheriff’s movement, whose advocates believe that sheriffs have the authority to nullify state or federal laws that they believe to be unconstitutional. The movement, which often manifests in anti-immigration activism, has gained traction during recent years, when some sheriffs refused to enforce mask mandates and other pandemic-related orders. Now they’ve turned their attention to the electoral process. “I was going to some constitutional-sheriff events and rallies last summer,” Jessica Pishko, a New America fellow working on a book about sheriffs, told me. “There were no COVID restrictions in Arizona anymore, really, and all the audience wanted to talk about was election stuff.” Two Arizona sheriffs have become involved with True the Vote. “It’s the sheriffs, that’s who can do these investigations, that’s who we can trust,” True the Vote’s founder, Catherine Engelbrecht, said this summer.
The Arizona Republicans who have resisted the election-fraud narrative have paid a political price. In the days after the 2020 election, Rudy Giuliani apparently pressured Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers to help overturn the election results, claiming that thousands of dead people and undocumented people had voted. Bowers resisted, as he later testified before the January 6 Committee, and was censured by the state Republican Party. This year, he lost a primary race by a 2–1 margin to an election-denying opponent. Mark Brnovich, the current attorney general and a frequent Fox News guest, took another tack, hinting at electoral conspiracies while refusing to outright endorse them. He, too, lost his primary. (Brnovich’s office has since called on the federal government to investigate True the Vote, alleging financial improprieties.)
Sowing doubt about the electoral process has been so politically fruitful for so many in the state that it seems unlikely the narrative will go away anytime soon. This summer, Lake grumbled about alleged irregularities in the primary, which she won. She claimed that her supporters “outvoted the fraud.” It’s an airtight, if ominous, argument: win or lose, uncertainty and suspicion come out on top. ♦