Problems with vote tabulation machines are sparking a growing number of rumors and allegations of possible fraud or malfeasance just hours after Americans went to the polls to cast ballots in the country’s midterm elections.
Election officials in Maricopa County, Arizona, and Mercer County, New Jersey, said Tuesday that some of the machines were having trouble reading ballots.
“We’re trying to fix this problem,” Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Gates said in a video posted on social media, adding that the issue was affecting about 20% of the county’s polling places.
“We also have a redundancy in place,” he said, telling voters they can place their ballots in a secure box that is built into each machine and that the ballots would be counted later.
Mercer County officials posted a similar notice on the county’s Facebook page.
“A contingency plan is in place for all ballots cast at all locations to be scanned at the secure Board of Elections office,” the message read. “Every ballot that has been cast will be counted, no voter will be disenfranchised, and the integrity of the election is intact and secure.”
In both cases, the voting machines were made by Dominion Voting Systems, which has long been a target of disinformation campaigns.
“When you have 8,800 individual election jurisdictions, you’re going to see a few issues arise,” a senior official at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), said Tuesday, briefing reporters on the condition of anonymity under ground rules established by the agency.
“We’ve seen a few of these today as happens on every Election Day,” the official added, emphasizing, “None of this is out of the ordinary.”
Yet despite such assurance, rumors and allegations have spread quickly.
The Election Integrity Partnership, a coalition of researchers focused on election security, observed more than 40,000 tweets about the problems in Arizona in a two-hour span.
“People need to be arrested for what is happening in Maricopa County. It’s criminal,” Charlie Kirk, founder of the conservative youth activist organization Turning Point USA, tweeted.
Another tweet, retweeted by Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, alleged, “The left and the RINO Right want you to panic. They want you to go home.
We were prepared for this. We have the best lawyers & we have our boots on the ground.”
Even former President Donald Trump weighed in.
“People of Arizona: Don’t get out of line until you cast your vote,” he posted on his own social media app, Truth Social. “They are trying to steal the election with bad Machines and DELAY. Don’t let it happen!”
Maricopa County rejected some of the allegations on Twitter, saying of another tweet by Kirk, “No part of the tweet … is accurate.”
It later posted that election officials had found a solution to the problem and were working to implement the needed settings across all affected polling stations.
CISA, which serves as the lead agency for U.S. election security, said Tuesday it is in touch with Dominion Voting Systems and sought to reassure voters.
“We’ve seen no activity that should cause anyone to question the security, integrity or resilience of our election infrastructure,” the senior official said.
But the allegations on social media are playing into fears held by a substantial number of voters.
“I would say I have concerns about the system,” an Arizona voter named Fred, who declined to share his last name, told VOA. “Who’s to say that they count all the votes properly?”
A YouGov poll from July further found 32% of those surveyed had little to no confidence in the results of the midterms.
And researchers at the cybersecurity firm Recorded Future, who predicted a likely wave of disinformation surrounding voting technology starting with Election Day, told VOA that the spread of the latest allegations, spurred by Americans, are following a familiar pattern.
“It’s significant that the majority of mis- and disinformation targeting voting systems manufacturers and their technologies in the U.S. is coming from domestic actors,” the company’s Insikt Group said in an email.
“High profile individuals and companies can add a sense of legitimacy to the claims, which enables false information to more quickly spread, increasing the likelihood that individuals from the general public will accept such claims as true,” it added.
And while local officials and CISA have rejected the claims, CISA is bracing for them to be picked up by foreign adversaries such as Russia, China and Iran.
“Just given what we know about these foreign actors, it would not be surprising if many of them were taking advantage of uncertainty or these very normal issues that go on in every single election and trying to amplify them as something nefarious,” the senior CISA official said.
Another prime concern heading into the elections was the possibility for violence and intelligence assessments that angry or aggrieved individuals might consume disinformation and turn to violence.
As of midday Tuesday, however, the worst fears seem to have been avoided.
Common Cause, a nonpartisan watchdog and advocacy organization, said Tuesday it had seen some isolated instances of voter intimidation.
“Individuals, whether partisan actors or poll watchers, that were hired by campaigns or parties, [are] feeling more emboldened to be within a 100-foot line of a polling location and questioning voters as they go into polling locations,” said Katya Ehresman of Common Cause Texas.
Other instances were reported in Pennsylvania. Authorities in Louisiana said a bomb threat at a school in the city of Kenner forced the polling location there to be moved but that the threat did not appear to be election related.
Separately, Champaign County, Illinois, reported its websites have been “under constant attack” for the past month.
CISA officials said they were looking into the problem but noted that attacks designed to hinder access or take down websites do not affect the ability of voters to cast ballots or have those ballots counted.
VOA’s Masood Farivar and Chris Simkins contributed to this report.