arizona elections Adjudicators observe as ballots are tabulated inside the Maricopa County Recorders Office, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022, in Phoenix.
AP Photo/Matt York

Maricopa County remained the epicenter of election misinformation Wednesday after problems with voter tabulation machines in that Arizona county spawned conspiracy theories about vote rigging. The claims spread despite explanations from local officials — including ones from both parties — and assurances that all votes would be counted.

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It’s understandable that people would go on social media to complain about long election lines or glitchy voting machines, said University of Washington professor Kate Starbird, a leading misinformation expert and part of the Election Integrity Partnership, a nonpartisan research group.

“The problem is when their audiences pick that up with this assumed voter fraud implication,” Starbird said. “It gets picked up and reframed as voter fraud as it spreads.”

Online mentions of Pennsylvania and election fraud topped the online conversation early in the day on Election Day, according to an analysis by Zignal Labs, a media intelligence firm that tracks online content. But that content was quickly overtaken by mentions of Arizona’s Maricopa County, which began spiking early Tuesday morning just as news of the voting machine problems spread.

The US has a long history of political races that weren’t settled on Election Day, and those occasional delays have only increased in recent years, given the rising popularity of voting by mail. In key battleground states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Arizona, election officials cannot begin counting mail ballots until Election Day, guaranteeing delays.

In the weeks before Nov. 8, election officials, voting advocates, and misinformation researchers closely monitored social media content, given the role that misleading claims about voter fraud played in the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.

Misinformation about elections has also been blamed for deepening political divides and even an increased threat of political violence.

In some cases Tuesday, conspiracy theories about election fraud prompted violent threats, particularly on fringe platforms and websites popular with far-right groups. But in general, Election Day came and went with few major problems reported.

Vote counting in several key races continued in Arizona and Pennsylvania Wednesday, two battleground states that featured prominently in election conspiracy theories in 2020 and again this year.

Both states also had prominent Republican election deniers running for governor: Kari Lake of Arizona and Doug Mastriano of Pennsylvania. Mastriano lost to Democrat Josh Shapiro but has yet to concede. Lake was trailing Democrat Katie Hobbs Wednesday evening; final results aren’t expected for several days.

One of the most harmful aspects about misinformation about voting and elections is that it can erode faith in democracy itself.

That’s true whether the candidates pushing misleading claims about elections win or lose, and especially concerning when it comes to candidates for secretary of state or other offices that have power over elections, said Bret Schafer, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan organization that tracks misinformation.

“If they lose, that just reaffirms beliefs that the whole thing is rigged,” he said. “And if they win, you have people running elections who have pretty wild thoughts about how elections should be run.”

Several Republican candidates running for secretary of state positions had supported Trump’s failed efforts to overturn his 2020 loss. Results from Tuesday’s election were mixed.

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Starbird said it will take days or even weeks to begin to gauge the true impact of misinformation on Election Day and the weeks leading up to it. But early assessments suggest there was slightly less overall online engagement with viral, misleading content about elections and voting.

“Which is a little bit of a relief,” she added.

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