More than 100 supporters of President Donald Trump waved flags and chanted Wednesday night outside the Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center, demanding that votes be counted. Inside the center, votes from Arizona voters were, in fact, being counted.
A second protest came Thursday morning, and others were planned for Thursday night and Friday by conservatives riled by Trump’s unsubstantiated but persistent claims of widespread voter fraud that’s denying him reelection. Across the country, similar protests have erupted over the 2020 election, which saw a record number of mail-in ballots.
Outside Phoenix City Hall on Thursday morning, maskless Trump supporters decked out in Trump shirts, hats and American flags shouted and waved signs that read “Votes cast after November 3 are illegal,” despite no evidence of illegal votes being counted.
The demonstrations come as the presidential race in Arizona tightens and controversy over whether this swing state and other states that are grinding through their vote counts, including Pennsylvania and Nevada, should be called for Trump or his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, before the official tallies are completed.
The Sheriff’s Office has erected a chain-link fence outside the tabulation center in case tensions get out of hand, and Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs has become a national news media figure. Political historians in Arizona say the country has seen something like this before, just not quite in this way.
As of Thursday night, Associated Press projections have Biden with 264 electoral votes and Trump with 214, with Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina and Pennsylvania among key states still up for grabs. In Arizona, where early results led Fox News and the Associated Press to declare Biden the winner, other major media organizations have hung back. Hobbs has urged caution, with nearly 302,000 votes left to count statewide, most of those in Maricopa County, Arizona’s most populous.
Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican and familiar Trump supporter, on Thursday tweeted his frustration, saying “Not so fast. The race has narrowed in #AZ considerably.”
As of Thursday, evening, Biden’s lead narrowed to about 46,000 votes more than Trump in Arizona, but the Maricopa County Elections Department still had 200,000 uncounted ballots, according to the Secretary of State’s Office website. Only 2 percentage points separate the two.
Thursday morning, about 50 protesters marched in front of Phoenix City Hall in an event dubbed Protect the Vote, which was organized by Arizona FreedomWorks, a conservative and libertarian advocacy group.
Alan Wirth of Scottsdale, a retired firefighter, was there because he has doubts about the election process.
“We feel like the election integrity is not there,” said Wirth, who supports Trump for his anti-abortion views. “It’s amazing that a first world country like the United States could find itself in a place that would be like a banana republic, where the voting integrity is compromised.”
The political past becomes the present
Ben McJunkin, a law professor at Arizona State University, recalled a similar controversy in the 2000 presidential election, with the race too tight to call between Democrat Al Gore and President George W. Bush on election night. After protests by Republicans, Florida officials suspended a ballot recount and the issue went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But there’s a twist in the 2020 election furor, he said.
“The thing that makes this different, obviously, is we’re not talking about a recount, but a first-time count,” McJunkin said. “There are some pretty explicit claims of fraud that are being made without any sort of supporting information.”
Tammy Patrick, now senior adviser for the Democracy Fund, oversaw ballot counting at the Maricopa County Elections Department in the 2012 presidential election. Three days after that election, hundreds of thousands of provisional ballots still had not been counted.
She said protesters with bullhorns gathered outside the Tabulation and Election Center chanting “Count the vote! Count every vote!”
As for the 2020 protesters, Patrick said, “It’s hard to say whether or not people will get tired or if they’re adding oxygen to the fire and will draw more individuals to their cause.”
Law enforcement has been a presence at the demonstrations downtown. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office was present during Wednesday night’s protest outside the tabulation center. Several of the protesters were armed – Arizona gun laws allow open carry of weapons – and no one was arrested. Officers arrived in tactical gear before elections officials closed the building about 10:30 p.m., according to KTAR.
The Sheriff’s Office erected a chain-link fence around the tabulation center and marked a “Freedom of speech” zone where protesters could gather away from the entrance.
“Peaceful activities will be respected and protected. Acts of violence, threatening behaviors or criminal damage of property will not be tolerated,” Sheriff Paul Penzone said in a statement.
McJunkin said he’s not surprised that “the response has been more muted” compared with protests over police brutality that have continued since May; nearly 20 people were arrested just a few weeks ago at a protest in Phoenix.
“There’s a tension between the (social justice) protesters and police from the outset that probably didn’t exist in these protests yesterday,” McJunkin said Thursday. “The political alignment is largely that the people who are supporting Trump tend to be supportive of police officers.”
Conservative mistrust of vote counts
Jed Smith, 24, is the development coordinator for FreedomWorks, which organized Thursday’s Protect the Vote protest and distributed signs that read “Biden Got Beat.” His main concern was that swing states like Arizona were being called before all votes had been counted.
However, Smith said the “Biden Got Beat” signs were a “cheeky joke” and don’t mean his organization thinks Trump won Arizona, which has 11 electoral votes.
Trump supporter Cheryl Nestico, 62, of Scottsdale, also voiced suspicions – but not about Arizona voting. Illegal votes aren’t an issue here, she said, but they’re a big problem in Pennsylvania, which has 20 electoral votes.
In an interview with Fox News on Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany suggested that if Trump loses in Pennsylvania, the campaign will try to get ballots counted after Election Day thrown out by the Supreme Court, even if they were postmarked Nov. 3.
“We believe every vote on Election Day should be counted, but it’s those that arrive after Election Day that we are fighting,” she said.
Any mail-in ballot postmarked by Election Day is valid, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State’s website. Mail-in ballots, which accounted for 2.5 million of total ballots cast, can’t be opened until Election Day.
Arizona voters have had the right to request a mail-in ballot for more than two decades, and in this year’s primary election, nearly 9 in 10 voters voted by mail.
Hobbs, the Arizona Secretary of State, assured voters that it’s normal and legal to still count ballots several days after an election, and she encouraged those who still have doubts in the integrity of the election to watch the livestream of the ballot tabulation center. She has appeared on CNN to discuss what’s happening and to dispel misinformation that ballots marked with Sharpie markers are invalid.
Eduardo Sainz, chief executive of Mi Familia Vota, a civic engagement organization focused on the Latino community, said he isn’t worried the protests will affect election results. It is, however, an attempt to undermine the will of Arizona voters, he said.
“At this point, we must remain vigilant on the attacks to our democracy and we will continue to protect and invite our community to participate,” Sainz said.
The suspense is killing us, announce a winner already
As vote-count anxiety permeates the country, McJunkin looks back to the election of 2000 for perspective: Bush wasn’t declared the winner for more than five weeks after Election Day.
His biggest fear for the future is the amount of misinformation that’s still circulating about the validity of the election process.
“If enough people buy into misinformation or believe that things happen in ways that they don’t, it leads to this sort of erosion and distrust of the institution itself,” McJunkin said.
As of Thursday night, several news publications, including the New York Times, CNN and Reuters, had yet to declare a presidential winner in Arizona.
In an interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN Thursday afternoon, Hobbs said most Arizona counties were wrapping up their tabulation and that Maricopa County has until Tuesday to resolve any ballot disputes.
“I think that after today and tomorrow, we’ll have a really, more clear picture on what Arizona looks like,” Hobbs said.
Story by Allie Barton and Megan Marples, Cronkite News