Arizona Has Become the Epicenter of Midterm Conspiracies and Possible Violence

Election officials in the swing state have reported death threats as Republican candidates at all levels continue to undermine faith in a fair election.
​Kari Lake and Blake Masters at a recent campaign event.
Kari Lake and Blake Masters at a recent campaign event. Image by VICE News.

GILBERT, ARIZONA — When Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake joined GOP Senate hopeful Blake Masters on stage for a “Lake and Blake Fiesta” in mid-October in Gilbert, Arizona, it didn’t take long for election fraud to come up. Masters recounted to the crowd a conversation he had with his father, who apparently isn’t sure his son’s race against Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly will be fair.

“He said, if you beat Mark Kelly by 30,000 votes, I fear that they’d just find 40,000 votes for Mark Kelly, right? And I said, Dad, I can't prove you wrong,” Masters told the crowd. “I think they have some capacity to move some votes, you know, ballot harvesting or whatnot. That's a problem in Arizona.” 

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The stakes for American democracy are higher than ever this election cycle, especially in crucial swing states like Arizona. Both Lake and Masters have questioned the 2020 presidential election results and have been laying the groundwork to question the results of the upcoming midterms. 

After the event, VICE News attempted to ask Masters if he thought the election would be conducted fairly in Arizona but he declined to answer as staff shuttled him into a private room. 

Lake’s team did not return requests for an interview, but the next day, she went on CNN and refused to say whether she would accept the election results, repeating twice only that, “I’m going to win the election, and I will accept that result.” 

That kind of bad-faith conspiracy peddling has produced a slate of Republican midterm candidates at all levels in the state who still deny 2020 and are already casting doubt on the upcoming ones. Election watchers across the country see hints of violence that already have law enforcement concerned, and a recent memo from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI warned of lone wolf terror attacks inspired by election conspiracies.

“Can there be violence? You can't ever rule it out,” Arizona voter Pat Kelly told VICE News at a Kari Lake canvassing event in Phoenix. “There was violence in 1776. You know, people got enough of it. They got tired of it. And you can only push some people, some people, good people the wrong way.” 

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“I truly believe that the 2020 election was stolen. I believe that President Trump is our official, unofficial president,” Kelly continued. 

None of this is surprising considering the last two years. As soon as the 2020 presidential election was called for then-candidate Joe Biden, former President Donald Trump was enraged. His supporters in Arizona, especially, went to enormous—and potentially illegal—lengths to prove he won the race, like submitting a fake slate of electors to Congress and hiring the unqualified Cyber Ninjas to conduct an audit. 

Officials that carried out the 2020 presidential election were threatened and harassed. The Department of Justice indicted a Missouri man in August for allegedly leaving a voicemail threatening to kill an election official in Arizona’s Maricopa County in May 2021.

Bill Gates, chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, has also received his fair share of election threats. The county hires around 3,000 people to help run the elections, a number that Gates says he’s been able to hit despite the increase in threats to election workers.

"They call me a traitor. We had orange jumpsuits sent here last year to my colleagues and I, because we belong in prison," he told VICE News from the county building in downtown Phoenix. "Elections workers all across the country are dealing with these death threats. And unfortunately, some have decided that it’s too much. And so they’ve left the profession. And I think that’s so tragic."

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Gates worries about the future of his state’s election if someone like Mark Finchem, a local state representative with ties to the far-right militia group the Oath Keepers, were to be elected. Finchem is the Republican candidate for secretary of state, a position that would get him broad oversight of elections and certifying future presidential races. 

Finchem previously told VICE News that he would not have certified the 2020 election results and that he wants to get rid of mail-in ballots in the state. 

“I'm concerned that if Mark Finchem is elected, that he could create significant issues with our elections. I'm concerned that he may choose not to certify the election machines,” Gates said. “And if the results in future elections are not to his liking, I'm concerned that he may choose not to certify the election.”

With Maricopa County encompassing a majority of the voters in the state, the local election administrators—and even law enforcement—are coordinating with federal officials like the Department of Justice and FBI, to keep voters, election officials, and workers safe. Gates has been swatting down election misinformation for months as he and his family have been targeted by violent threats.

One of the law enforcement leaders playing a role in securing the election is Paul Penzone, sheriff of Maricopa County. He is dedicating “more resources” to protecting this midterm election than any time in his agency’s history, but striking a balance to make sure voting sites are not overly monitored.

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“I want everyone to understand our objective is not to intimidate or make a voting space uncomfortable for someone who just wants to cast a vote and go about their business. We should not be the center of their focus. So we're very conscientious about how and when we respond so that there isn't intimidation at the polling sites, which there should never be.”

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Candidates Blake Masters and Kari Lake.

Penzone said that protecting ballot drop locations “absolutely” has fallen under their purview too.

“That's unfortunate because it draws resources away from other areas of need. And there are a lot of folks who, some well-intended, some with bad intentions, who suddenly feel empowered. You know, they'll do things as simple as just videotape a poll worker coming and going in their vehicle and get their license plate. Truth be told, there is no end game to that action that suddenly makes democracy a better place to exist.”

A few days after VICE News’ interview, armed people showed up outside of ballot drop boxes in Mesa, a town outside of Phoenix, in tactical gear. Gates issued a joint statement with the county recorder condemning the “uninformed vigilantes” as leading to voter intimidation complaints.

“Although monitoring and transparency in our elections is critical, voter intimidation is unlawful,” it read.

On Tuesday, a federal judge ruled that armed members of one right-wing “election monitoring” group need to stay at least 250 feet away from ballot drop box locations. Other groups, some connected to far-right militias, agreed to stand down their election monitoring as a result.  

And like many election officials around the country, Gates says Election Day may not be immediate satisfaction for voters or candidates. “I anticipate some of these races may be close, but we ask people to be patient because it's more important that we get it right than that we get it done fast.”

Follow Liz Landers on Twitter.