When Misinformation Spreads Among Arizona GOP Voters, Can A Republican Change Their Minds?

By Ben Giles
Published: Thursday, April 15, 2021 - 5:05am
Updated: Monday, July 12, 2021 - 11:43am

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Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center
Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center in Phoenix.

Part two of a three-part report on the fight over Arizona voting bills.

 Part 1: Battle Over Bills | Part 2: Misinformation Spreads | Part 3: Dems Plan To Fight

When the latest conspiracy theory about Maricopa County’s election emerged from a dumpster in March, state Sen. Kelly Townsend saw information spreading that she knew for certain was not true.

The Mesa Republican is by no means convinced the 2020 election was fair, accurate and free of fraud. But in this one specific circumstance, Townsend did what Democrats have spent the months since the November election pleading for Republicans to do — speak directly to their constituents and set the record straight. After all, polling shows a majority of Americans that doubt election results are Republicans — who better to dispel those doubts than a fellow Republican?

Staci Burk, a Pinal County woman who unsuccessfully sued to overturn Arizona’s presidential election, and two others had gone dumpster diving behind Maricopa County election headquarters and removed what they claimed were shredded ballots. In photos and video posted to Facebook, Burk also claimed ballots cast during the 2020 election were sitting unguarded inside open loading bays at the county facility.

“I was there for 10 minutes or so, and no one was around at all,” Burk wrote on Facebook. “I could have easily grabbed some boxes.”

Kelly Townsend
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Kelly Townsend

Based on past visits to Maricopa County election headquarters, Townsend knew what was — and importantly, what wasn’t — on the shelves Burk was referring to inside the bay doors. 

She knew ballots from the 2020 election aren’t kept there.

Townsend says she still has questions about the ballots Burk claimed to have found — and she won’t decide for herself if they’re real or not until she can see them, in person. Burk hasn’t turned over the ballots to any lawmakers or the attorney general.

It’s one thing to be suspicious of the ballots, Townsend said, “but if we then make a claim that there are unattended ballots just waiting to be taken on the loading dock of the county recorder’s office, then that diminishes what’s going on with the shredded ballots.”

It’s worth noting that Arizona’s elections, particularly the results from Maricopa County, have passed the scrutiny of multiple audits and withstood a wave of lawsuits seeking to have the outcome overturned — including Burk’s case, which was rejected because Burk was not a registered voter and thus did not have standing to file.

It’s also worth noting that another Republican, Stephen Richer, says there’s no reason to be suspicious of alleged shredded votes. The newly elected Maricopa County recorder issued a statement days after Burk published her claims.

“I can say with 100% certainty that the 2.1 million legally voted ballots from the November General Election are safe and accounted for in the Elections Department vault, under 24/7 surveillance,” he said.

“None of the ballots stored in the vault have been unsealed or shredded,” Richer added. “Not one.”

But if you’re a voter with deep-seated doubts about the election, perhaps you’d consider Townsend — a lawmaker with her own list of concerns — a more reliable source.

Townsend reached out to Richer, and the two agreed to meet at the loading dock. There, she began rolling on a video tour of the facility. Richer showed Townsend that shelves just inside the bay doors held, among other items, blank envelopes for mail ballots and affidavits for voter registration forms.

“These are envelopes,” Townsend said, narrating as she took video of the boxes. “He opened it up and showed me that these are just blank envelopes in there.”

Richer and Townsend also walked further into the building, where the actual 2020 ballots and voter-signed early ballot envelopes are stored behind locked doors.

“That’s under 24-hour video surveillance, and only certain people have authorization — for instance, like I just said, my key badge doesn’t even authorize me to get into the room,” Richer said.

“You should demonstrate that like you did to me, that was kinda funny,” Townsend said.

Richer waved his badge in front of an access panel. It beeped, and he attempted to turn the door handle, but couldn’t.

“I can’t even get in there, because those are the 2.1 million ballots from the general election,” Richer said.

“And I verified that,” Townsend added.

It’s a short video, roughly three and a half minutes long. But at last, it seemed, an example of what Democrats have been asking for.

“Telling people, look, this election was conducted as it should have been, this was a totally free and fair process,” said Emily Kirkland, executive director of Progress Arizona. “Our candidate for president didn’t win, and that’s OK. We’ll come back next time.”

Stephen Richer
Richer For Recorder
Stephen Richer

Townsend isn’t ready to go that far. And judging by the comments below her video on YouTube, not all the senator’s followers are convinced that Burk’s claim was false. Some acknowledged Townsend’s fact-checking effort to prove what was, and wasn’t, stored inside the bay doors. Others weren’t satisfied at all with the filmed explanations and demanded more evidence, like security tapes of the docks and dumpsters.

One commenter called the whole thing “complete B-S” — a comment about Richer’s statements, or perhaps the video at large.

Townsend said she sympathizes with those who still have doubts. Now five months after the election, she isn’t sure what can be done to resolve them, but says she’s trying  —Townsend cited her fervent support for yet another audit of Maricopa County votes, this time conducted with oversight from Republican senators.

That audit is already mired in controversy. Some have long questioned the motives of Republicans in performing the audit — before congress certified President Joe Biden’s win in Arizona, Maricopa County attorneys accused senators of seeking evidence to overturn the election. 

That process has drawn plenty of scrutiny — questioned the motives of Republicans who want to perform the audit, and multiple reports have exposed bias on the part of the Senate’s hired auditing firm. And reports have unearthed evidence that the owner of the firm hired to conduct the Senate’s audit has promoted conspiracies of election fraud.

Even so, what if that audit came up clean?

“Even if we had a perfect audit, I don’t know that anybody would believe it because of the time that’s elapsed,” Townsend said.

Five months of mistrust may have made it impossible — even for someone like Townsend, with credibility among doubting voters — to change anyone’s mind.

 Part 1: Battle Over Bills | Part 2: Misinformation Spreads | Part 3: Dems Plan To Fight