When Donald Trump and his supporters disputed the result of the 2020 presidential election, the complex architecture of election administration came under unprecedented scrutiny, as conspiracists jumped on every detail of the process in an attempt to cast doubt on its legitimacy.
Nowhere was this more pronounced than in Arizona, where Joe Biden’s razor-thin victory over Trump prompted some of the most extreme election fraud conspiracies among the former president’s supporters.
While in 2020 the defences around election integrity held, and Biden’s legitimate victory was certified by state officials who resisted overwhelming pressure not to do so, in 2024 the system could be less secure.
That is in part because, in midterm elections taking place next week, Trump has endorsed more than 100 Republican candidates across congressional and statewide races who believe that he, not Biden, won the 2020 election. In Arizona, three of those candidates are in tight contests with Democrats for offices that play critical roles in the administration and oversight of elections.
Arizona’s Key Candidates for Statewide Office
A former local TV news anchor, Trump-endorsed Lake has repeatedly called the 2020 presidential election “illegitimate” and has said she would not have certified it.
As the current Secretary of State of Arizona, Hobbs gained national attention in 2020 as she pushed back against election denialism around the presidential election, which she oversaw in the state.
Secretary of State (R)
A former member of the Oath Keepers militia group, Finchem advocated for the “Stop The Steal” movement and was present at the January 6 riot. Endorsed by Trump, he has said he would not have certified the 2020 election.
Secretary of State (D)
Fontes served as the Maricopa County recorder from 2017 to the 2020 presidential election, overseeing elections. He expanded ballot access during the height of the coronavirus pandemic and improved accessibility for disabled voters.
A former prosecutor in Maricopa County, Trump-endorsed Hamadeh has cited baseless voter fraud conspiracies and said he would prosecute election officials involved in the 2020 election to “secure” future elections.
An attorney, law professor and former Republican, Mayes has said she believes the 2020 election was legitimate and secure, supports vote by mail and aims to prioritise voting rights protections as AG.
According to the latest FiveThirtyEight polling average, Kari Lake has a slight lead over Katie Hobbs in the race for governor. Mark Finchem, who is running for secretary of state, and Abe Hamadeh, who is running for attorney-general, are also in very close races with Adrian Fontes and Kris Mayes, respectively.
While election administration experts believe the counting and processing of votes done by local workers is inherently secure, individuals in statewide positions of power could choose to disrupt the process.
“If you have a system where people can’t be trusted to act in good faith, then we’re in trouble, because there are a lot of places where people with bad intentions could try to interfere with the election,” said Rick Hasen, an election law expert and professor at University of California, Los Angeles.
How a vote is counted
There are about 8,000 local voting jurisdictions in the US, each with its own state-specific procedures for presidential elections. The work to process votes after they are cast is highly decentralised but transparent, with many built-in checks and balances to ensure its security.
The vast majority of election workers are local volunteers and temporary workers, not elected officials.
For the most part, votes move through the following process: an initial count; a series of audits to ensure that the count is correct; an aggregation of results across the various jurisdictions; and a series of final approvals.
In Arizona, most voters opt to mail in ballots or drop them off ahead of election day.
Processing votes in Arizona
Local election workers in each county feed paper ballots through machines called tabulators that rapidly scan positions on each sheet to count each vote. Central tabulators process early ballots and a smaller version of the tabulators process election day ballots.
The political parties in Arizona work together to hand count a small sample of ballots to compare against the tabulators’ count. Once election workers complete audits and testing, they aggregate results across precincts into a countywide canvass.
Each county sends its canvass of results to its board of supervisors, an elected group that governs the county. Supervisors must vote to certify these canvasses within 20 days of election day, and the secretary of state must sign off on the statewide canvass within 30 days.
For these early votes, the voter must sign the envelope enclosing the ballot, and workers manually verify all of these signatures before they can be tabulated, or counted, by machines.
The machines tabulating ballots are highly secure, not connected to the internet and undergo rigorous bipartisan oversight and testing. The entire tabulation process, like other steps, is livestreamed for anyone to watch.
As unofficial results from the tabulators are released on election night, an additional hand count audit begins. Bipartisan teams of workers count these ballots and then match their tally against the tabulators’.
Election workers then retest the machines, resolve any signature issues with voters and aggregate these official results across precincts in each county.
Finally, counties present their election results to their board of supervisors, who vote to certify them. These certified county results are then compiled into a statewide canvass, which the secretary of state then approves.
How the process could be disrupted in 2024
On the night of November 3 2020, as votes in the presidential election were being counted in Maricopa county — home to roughly two-thirds of all Arizonans — many election conspiracies quickly spread online. These triggered angry protests at ballot processing centres and ultimately fed the fury that led to the January 6 2021 insurrection.
One conspiracy alleged that bleed-through from Sharpie pen ink used to fill in election day ballots would invalidate them, supposedly allowing Democratic election workers to discard Trump votes. “#SharpieGate” was quickly debunked by Arizona election officials.
Lake, Finchem and Hamadeh have all endorsed and propagated baseless claims about voter fraud.
As both a state representative who spoke at the January 6 rally and a candidate for secretary of state, Finchem has frequently advocated for investigations and prosecutions of election officials relating to alleged election fraud.
Meanwhile, Hamadeh has also pushed for more aggressive prosecutions of alleged fraud from the 2020 election.
As attorney-general, Hamadeh would have oversight over the Election Integrity Unit — which was set up by current attorney-general Mark Brnovich to investigate claims of election fraud and prosecute crimes — as well as the ability to challenge existing election laws.
If Finchem wins the race for secretary of state, he will be in charge of the testing and certification of all election equipment. He would also be responsible for writing Arizona’s “Election Procedures Manual”, which guides how elections are administered across the 15 counties.
Another part of the process that has been a focus for election deniers is the early counting of votes, with many claiming the process is insecure since it involves ballots being dropped off or mailed ahead of election day, leaving time for potential interference.
In her campaign for governor, Lake has repeatedly questioned the security of mail-in ballots and drop boxes.
Lake, like her fellow Republican nominee Finchem, has pushed for the end of mail-in voting, despite the fact that about 75 per cent of Arizona voters vote by mail or by secure drop boxes.
Shifting the start of tabulation in the state so that it begins only on election day would mean election workers would have no head start, and the task of processing millions of ballots could drag on for days or even weeks.
The longer it takes for winners to be declared, especially in close races, the more likely it is that conspiracies emerge to sow doubt over the result. This happened in Pennsylvania during the 2020 election, where mail-in ballots could not be processed until election day.
The officials overseeing the count could also simply refuse to certify it.
On November 21 2020, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, made up of four Republicans and one Democrat, voted to approve the county’s canvass in the face of significant legal and political pressure from the Trump campaign and its allies to do otherwise.
“We do elections well in Arizona. The system is strong,” said Republican governor Doug Ducey as he signed off on the statewide results alongside Hobbs and Brnovich in 2020.
Finchem, however, has said that he would not have certified the 2020 election as secretary of state, citing “irredeemable” issues with the elections in Maricopa and other counties.
Lake has also repeatedly stated that she would not have certified the 2020 presidential election.
As governor, Lake would have the authority not only to sign off on the 2024 election, but also to approve any election-related laws passed by the increasingly rightwing state legislature.
Following the 2020 certification, Finchem also introduced a bill in the Arizona House of Representatives that would have allowed the legislature to appoint its own presidential electors, a move blocked by the then Arizona Republican House Speaker Rusty Bowers.
According to Derek Tisler, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, there are few legal mechanisms by which officials involved in certification can be held to account. “At the end of the day, whoever has the most votes, this state official shall declare them the winner…and at a certain point, it makes it much more difficult to talk about what checks and remedies exist.”
The courts provide the likeliest mechanism by which election administration failures could be resolved, but litigation could also cause counties to miss statewide deadlines for certification — an unprecedented scenario that election administration experts say would trigger a crisis of democracy.
“An aggressive litigator can say, I’m not going to wait for certification, I’m going to challenge the canvass … and depending on how the courts react to that, that could destabilise the deadlines and have a cascading effect,” said Ned Foley, professor and director of election law at Ohio State University.
Election integrity beyond Arizona
Arizona is just one of several states where Republicans who deny the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election are running for statewide offices. The Trump-endorsed “America First Secretary of State Coalition” of candidates includes Finchem as well as Kristina Karamo in Michigan and Jim Marchant in Nevada.
Other gubernatorial candidates who dispute the 2020 election include Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, where the governor appoints a secretary of state, and Tudor Dixon in Michigan.
As early voting for these contests is already under way in Arizona and many other states, election workers are focused on processing these ballots while communicating just how transparent the process is.
“We try to humanise it. We try to show the professionalism of it. We try to show the bipartisan nature of it,” said Stephen Richer, the Republican Maricopa County recorder, who oversees elections in the county.
But Richer, himself having been the direct target of many election conspiracies, recognises the stakes.
“I hope we don’t produce an exciting news story in the coming months, but I fear we might.”