WASHINGTON — Election officials across the United States found themselves in a pitched battle Tuesday, trying to quash domestic and largely partisan efforts to take scattered voting malfunctions and cast them as evidence of a larger conspiracy targeting the 2022 midterm elections.
Warnings about the potential for a rigged election have been circulating for weeks on websites and social media platforms favored by conservatives and supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump, many of whom continue to believe the 2020 U.S. presidential election was stolen despite a lack of evidence.
Those claims gained new life early Tuesday after officials in New Jersey and in Arizona reported problems with some of their ballot scanners.
"We're trying to fix this problem," Maricopa County, Arizona, Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Gates said in a video posted on social media, adding that even though the issue was affecting about 20% of the county's polling places, back-up measures would ensure all votes would be counted.
Despite efforts by Gates and other Maricopa County officials to communicate with voters, allegations of wrongdoing spread quickly.
"People need to be arrested for what is happening in Maricopa County. It's criminal," tweeted Charlie Kirk, founder of the conservative youth activist organization Turning Point USA.
The Election Integrity Partnership, a coalition of researchers focused on election security, said it observed more than 40,000 tweets about the problems in Arizona within two hours of the first reported malfunction.
Videos of long lines in Maricopa County and of election officials also popped up online, some showing voters voicing disgust with election workers as they tried to explain the delays.
Within hours, Trump himself was adding to the growing chorus.
"There's a lot of bad things going on," the former president said of Maricopa County in a video posted on his social media platform, Truth Social. "They want to delay you out of voting. … It's very, very unfair what's going on."
In another post, Trump urged supporters to "Protest, Protest, Protest!" after claiming there were widespread problems in Detroit, Michigan.
Election officials in Maricopa County and elsewhere were quick to hit back.
"This isn't true," Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, posted on her Twitter account. "Please don't spread lies to foment or encourage political violence in our state. Or anywhere else."
The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), charged with helping to oversee election security, also pushed back hard against the accusations, calling them "just flat out incorrect."
"To be very clear we have no indication of malfeasance or malicious activity," a senior CISA official told reporters late Tuesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules established by the agency.
"It is a technical issue [in Maricopa County]," the official said. "And they have resolved it."
CISA also said as of late Tuesday that there were no indications of any significant or credible cyberattacks by foreign adversaries on systems that could have altered vote tallies.
But the senior official lamented the ire directed at some of the election officials in Arizona and elsewhere, calling it, "really not acceptable."
"One of my concerns is, that's going to incite violence" the official said. "We all need to work together to make sure that these election officials, these public servants are able to do their jobs without being harassed or being threatened with violence."
Officials and observers said, fortunately, there were few reports of violence Tuesday.
Some watchdog groups said they had seen only isolated instances of voter intimidation by partisan actors or poll watchers, in Texas and Pennsylvania.
Officials also determined that the motive behind a bomb threat in Louisiana that shut down one polling center was not election-related.
But in the weeks and months preceding Tuesday's vote, U.S. Homeland Security officials warned domestic tensions and political grievances could make election infrastructure and election officials a target.
And officials with multiple U.S. security and law enforcement agencies cautioned that the threat of violence might grow after the election, as disinformation campaigns take aim at the results and political grievances grow.
Common Cause, a nonpartisan watchdog and advocacy organization, said it flagged about a dozen of what it described as high-profile tweets pushing disinformation, but that Twitter did little to curb their spread.
"After a delay of some hours, we've received notice that each of the tweets … was independently reviewed and most of them were found to not be violative," said Common Cause disinformation analyst Emma Steiner.
Regardless of the platform, the allegations and disinformation have continued to spread.
According to the Election Integrity Partnership, Trump's posts about Arizona and Michigan migrated quickly to other platforms, translated into Spanish, French, Portuguese and Mandarin.
The cybersecurity firm Recorded Future, which predicted a likely wave of disinformation surrounding voting technology starting with Election Day, said it is significant that much of the mis- and dis-information is coming from domestic actors.
"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," the company's Insikt Group told VOA in an email.
"It's very likely that we'll observe increases in false claims of election fraud on November 8 and in the days and weeks that follow the election," the Insikt Group added. "And it's very likely that the narrative will continue in the lead up to and during the 2024 U.S. election."
Already, the claims of fraud 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 last week. "Who's to say that they count all the votes properly?"
Dwight Wingo told VOA at a Sunday rally in Georgia for Republican Senate Candidate Herschel Walker that he was still concerned about the results of the 2020 election.
"How did five key states all at the same time, almost stop, stop vote counting and where Trump was ahead, and then suddenly, he's behind? You know five of them did that," he said. "I just think it needs to be looked at more closely."
Others, though, have brushed aside such concerns.
"I've voted in Georgia since 2006. I've never had a problem," said Emmett Shead, a former Democrat who told VOA he now votes Republican. "I think it's a lot of hype, a lot of fear mongering, especially in the black community to make it seem as if there's some voter suppression going on."
However, if Tuesday is any indication, the doubts about the reliability of U.S. elections, prevalent among nearly one-third (32%) of Americans according to a YouGov poll from July, are not going to be easily swept away, and are likely to create an opening for U.S. 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.
VOA's Anita Powell, Kathryn Gypson, Masood Farivar and Chris Simkins contributed to this report.