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Arizona is becoming a focal point for the next ‘big lie’

Right-wing politicians and commentators are using disinformation to manufacture scandal in the battleground state.
Image: A voter drops their ballot in a dropbox in the midterm election at the Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center.
Voters drop their ballots in a drop box at the Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center in Phoenix on Tuesday. Olivier Touron / AFP via Getty Images

In the run-up to Tuesday's elections, MAGA Republicans spread disinformation and ginned up suspicion to prime their base to believe Democrats could rig the midterm elections. When Election Day came, they immediately seized on the first opportunity to attempt what could amount to a new "big lie": malfunctioning voting machines in Arizona.

Either way, the legitimacy of American democratic institutions takes another blow.

There is no evidence that anything untoward happened in Maricopa County, where Republicans administer elections. But that's beside the point. MAGA politicians, pundits and activists are in the business of looking for any kind of irregularity to claim the opposition is engaging in foul play and trying to disenfranchise their political movement. The effect of this cynical mission to manufacture fake crises is to create a mandate for disenfranchising the voting public.

The pro-Trump right engaged in chaotic and contradictory messaging about what was happening with voting machines in Arizona and what should be done about it.

Follow our 2022 midterm elections live blog at msnbc.com/midterms for the latest results, news and expert analysis in real time.

But that was secondary to a bigger mission: creating a shroud of controversy and scandal around voting in Arizona, with the mission of claiming another rigged election. Republicans can then blame foul play for any losses or say they heroically overcame attempts at subterfuge if they win. Either way, the legitimacy of American democratic institutions takes another blow.

On Tuesday morning, reports emerged that tabulation devices at 20% to 30% of voting locations in Maricopa County were exhibiting technical problems. That was, of course, a significant problem. But it wasn't an unmanageable one.

Maricopa County's Board of Supervisors chairman, Bill Gates, explained that voters had three options: wait for their machines to come back online, place their ballots in a secure box to be counted or go to alternative polling locations. While it seems there will be delays in counting ballots in the county because of this issue, Gates — a Republican — said are no concerns about inaccurate vote counts.

Republicans immediately filed requests for "emergency relief," calling for polling stations to stay open for three extra hours because of the malfunctioning of the tabulation devices. A Maricopa County Superior Court judge rejected the request. As Lisa Rubin, the off-air legal analyst for MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show," explained, Republicans "failed to include evidence in the supporting affidavits that any voter in Maricopa County was denied the right to vote as a result of tabulation errors in Maricopa County machines," because provisional ballots were available to people who complained about malfunctioning devices.

Voting machines shouldn't be malfunctioning, and irregularities shouldn't happen, but small numbers of these things are inevitable in most elections, particularly in a country as big as this one. But what's important is that there's no evidence that the irregularities were the result of malice, nor is there evidence that they blocked large numbers of people from voting, because alternatives were available. Nonetheless, the MAGA right pounced on the opportunity.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake spread misinformation, claiming machines were malfunctioning only in Republican areas. Former President Donald Trump released a video message warning that "a lot of bad things" were afoot and claimed that "they want to delay you out of voting." Hard-right activists like Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk made up false claims about long waits across Maricopa County and an election process sabotaged by Democrats. And right-wing authoritarian media outlets had a field day floating evidence-free narratives of a nefarious conspiracy.

The Republican messaging about what Maricopa County voters should do wasn't well-coordinated — an inaccurate tweet from Lake reveals she either didn't understand or didn't want to understand what needed to be done to ensure that people with malfunctioning machines could have their votes counted.

By now we should be well-versed in this ploy — making sure Republican votes are fairly counted isn't the point when it comes to Republican claims of voter fraud. The point is to smear the very idea of functional democracy. Let's keep an eye on how this manufactured crisis is invoked as results from Arizona's closely watched races emerge.