Conspiracy didn't cause the Maricopa County election breakdown. A system failure did

I trust the integrity of the people who run elections in Maricopa County. I think County Recorder Stephen Richer is a stand-up guy and so are Bill Gates and Clint Hickman and their colleagues on the Board of Supervisors.

Many Republicans today are accusing them of rigging Tuesday’s election because tabulation machines at 30% of polling places in Greater Phoenix were not functioning correctly, leading to long lines and confusion and internet recriminations.

Charlie Kirk, leader of the conservative youth movement Turning Point USA, tweeted on Tuesday that “People need to be arrested for what is happening in Maricopa County. It’s criminal.”

Young Charlie is talented. He could be a constructive force in Republican politics. He’ll first need to stop aping Donald Trump and grow the hell up.

A Republican cabal didn’t conspire to sow chaos at 3 out of every 10 polling places in one of the biggest counties in America. Not on a day when Republicans, by design, would be voting in person in numbers greater than Democrats.

There was no conspiracy. No plot.

Tabulator issue was one massive failure

People arrive before the polls open to line up on Election Day in Gilbert, Arizona.
People arrive before the polls open to line up on Election Day in Gilbert, Arizona.

But this was badly bungled.

One of my favorite quotes in journalism comes from Ben Bradlee, the rock-jawed editor of the Washington Post during its Watergate era.

People often accuse the media of conspiracies, said Bradlee. “Sometimes they don’t give us enough credit for stupidity.”

Well, let’s give credit where credit is due in election management.

Of all elections to sweat the details, this was the one. In a year when Trump candidates across Arizona and the nation were running on the strongly held delusion that the last election was stolen, and when Democrats were counter-messaging that democracy is in the balance, this was the election to prove democracy works. To get it right.

But democracy broke down in Maricopa County like an old pack mule.

A printer setting sets off an hours-long crisis

And why? Because of a printer setting! A few hundred dots per inch!

Election officials spent virtually the first eight hours after the polls opened scrambling to calm the confusion and find its source. That was eight hours in which every MAGA conspiracy theorist declared vindication and saw new phantoms in the doorway.

None the least was Donald Trump, who went viral on video to tell Arizonans to stay in line and vote in the face of such treachery.

It turned out that poll workers had duplicated ballots on printers that were not set to reproduce them clearly enough for the tabulation machines to detect.

That’s not old tech. That’s ancient tech. That’s a problem you weed out months ahead of time because apparently printers at 30% of your polling sites were going to bungle the job.

That so many tabulators could fail to read the ballots on Election Day tells us the problem was widespread and discoverable.

The anger and uncertainty were real

Admittedly, much of the reaction has been hysterical and leans toward conspiracy. It requires a vivid imagination to believe Republicans who control county elections were undermining their own candidates.

But the aggravation and anger were real. I saw it at my own polling place in Gilbert, where machines had seemed to malfunction and lines were running out the door. One voter, who wasn’t happy, asked me if I knew who was in charge of the election.

I am certain that voters were disenfranchised on Tuesday – that they took one look at the line and decided they didn’t have time.

That’s really on the voters. There is voting by mail to solve that problem.

But what happened on Tuesday was no stumble, no sporadic malfunction.

It was a system failure that sowed suspicion and distrust in our electoral system not unlike the Republican clown show we watched unfold for a season at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the so-called “Arizona audit.”

Maricopa County is led by good people. And good people make mistakes. On Tuesday they rolled out an election that wasn’t up to standards.

They’ll only learn from it and correct it if they recognize this was a big damn deal.

Phil Boas is an editorial columnist with The Arizona Republic. Email him at phil.boas@arizonarepublic.com.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Maricopa County had to get this election right. They blew it