PHOENIX, Ariz.—The Watchers tend to show up at sundown—or so I’d heard. And yesterday evening, I went looking for them. Around 7 p.m., at a ballot drop-off site next to a juvenile-detention center in Mesa, just east of Phoenix, I sat on a concrete bench and waited under the parking lot’s bright lights. A steady stream of cars drove through, and people hopped out to slip their green mail-in-ballot envelopes into the big metal box. After two hours, the Watchers arrived: three women in camp chairs, sitting far enough away in the semi-darkness to not be easily noticed. Each peered at the ballot box through a set of binoculars.
Here in Maricopa County, there have been a few reports of such citizen surveillance operations: people keeping an eye out for so-called mules, who might be stuffing stacks of illegitimate ballots into the boxes. Sometimes, these Watchers have carried guns. When I approached the women, they declined to tell me their names. They all looked to be in their early 60s—around my mom’s age, I kept thinking—and were bundled up against the chilly desert air. They sat around a folding table on which sat travel mugs and a single bag of kettle chips. The trunk of their SUV was open in order, I assume, to obscure their license plate.
“We’re just doing our due diligence,” one of them told me. I asked if they were looking out for voters dropping off multiple ballots. “Well, it’d have to be more than a couple, because people drop them off for their family,” another said, without looking away from her binoculars. So how was it going? I asked. The third woman, wearing a green visor over her curly hair, looked at me and shrugged: “It all seems like it’s on the up and up so far.”
For the past two years, Maricopa County has served as the beating heart of America’s emergent election-denial movement—ever since then-President Donald Trump lost to Joe Biden here in 2020. Back then, “Stop the Steal” groups protested for weeks to overturn the closer-than-expected results, and a noisy partisan review of the results kept national media attention on Arizona for nearly a year—until even that clown show of an inquiry concluded that Biden had, in fact, won.
By Monday night, on the eve of another election, GOP leaders in the state had spent so long fanning the flames of conspiracy theory that many voters were anticipating trickery. Election Day may once have been a moment to celebrate democracy and savor the ritual of taking part in the political process. But to visit Maricopa County today is to visit a place on high alert.
“We have enough security to invade a small country,” one county leader told me at the Tabulations and Elections Center, which attracted angry protests in 2020 and is now surrounded by heavy plastic Jersey barriers. The day before, Sheriff Paul Penzone had told the press that plainclothes police officers would be present at every voting location all Election Day—and that they would exercise a “zero tolerance” policy toward anyone threatening voters or poll workers, he said.
At that same press conference, county leaders aimed to get a head start on debunking some of the false narratives that might emerge in the coming days. Bill Gates, the chair of the county board of supervisors, and Stephen Richer, the county recorder, reiterated that a days-long vote count does not indicate any fraud; that voting machines are tested for accuracy and are not susceptible to hacking; and that ballots are reviewed and processed by a bipartisan team of election workers.
Already on Election Day, though, those careful efforts at transparency and heading off mistrust were undermined by the most unfortunate error: Early this morning, tabulation machines in roughly 20 percent of Maricopa County’s more than 200 polling sites stopped working. Voters at these centers have had to choose whether to put their ballots in a secure box to be counted later at the Tabulation Center in downtown Phoenix or to travel to a different polling location to cast a vote. (The root of the machines’ malfunctioning had been identified and begun to be resolved by late afternoon, according to the county elections department.)
Whatever voters choose, their ballots will be counted, county officials have assured. But the damage has been done. The problems have understandably frustrated voters—and, perhaps more dangerously, tossed an enormous hunk of raw meat into the ravening jaws of the election conspiracists. “They are incompetent and/or engaging in malfeasance just like in 2020,” the state GOP chair Kelli Ward tweeted this morning. She and others have suggested that the tabulators seemed to be malfunctioning only in conservative areas. Kari Lake, the Republican running for Arizona governor, told reporters that she chose to vote in a liberal area “because we wanted to make sure we had good machines.”
Trump, always eager to take advantage of an election-fraud narrative, has weighed in too. “People of Arizona, don’t get out of line until you cast your vote,” the former president posted on Truth Social. “They are trying to steal the election with bad Machines and DELAY. Don’t let it happen!”
A few hours after the tabulation news came in this morning, Gates and Richer delivered another impromptu press conference, and shared a video showing voters what a tabulation machine looks like and explaining that all valid ballots, regardless of how they’re submitted, will be counted. Shortly after 4 p.m., in a statement posted to Twitter, Richer apologized for the machine errors and reiterated his commitment to assisting voters. The statement immediately garnered hundreds of replies. A few thanked Richer for his transparency. But many just used one word, in all caps: “RESIGN.”
There was always a decent chance that Election Night in Maricopa County would culminate, once again, in angry protests outside the county recorder’s office and shrill allegations of coordinated fraud. Now, whether Republicans win big tonight or not, that outcome seems likelier than ever.