CLAIM: Images show black bags full of ballots being deposited at a computer center in Arizona’s Maricopa County to manipulate vote totals.
AP’S RATING: Incorrect. These black bags are used to carry counted ballots, but the image does not show that they have been used fraudulently. The bags are taken to the table center during audits to confirm that the initial vote totals accurately reflect the number of votes cast. These audits are a normal part of the Maricopa County vote-counting process, a county spokesman and former county election official confirmed, and do not suggest an attempt to inflate one candidate’s vote.
THE FACTS: In the days since Democrat Katie Hobbs triumphed over Republican Kari Lake in Arizona’s closely watched gubernatorial contest, online research has increasingly focused on densely populated Maricopa County, home to Phoenix and its sprawling suburbs.
Social media users have suggested that officials are trying to manipulate the vote totals, pointing to images of polling station workers carrying the bags. The images are similar in size and camera angle to the live streamed webcam feeds of the Maricopa County Tabulation Center.
“In Maricopa County, black bags are everywhere. I bet most of those black bags contain ballots in favor of Katie Hobbs,” one Twitter user noted Monday.
“Nothing to see here, just Democrats stealing another election with the help of the media and the GOP establishment,” one user wrote on Instagram on Tuesday.
But the images do not show anything unpleasant. Rather, they show that the province is applying an extra level of scrutiny to some party ballots.
The black bags in the images are used to carry a specific cohort of ballots: only those cast in person at one of the state’s polling stations on Election Day, according to Tammy Patrick, a former federal compliance officer for the Maricopa County Elections Department. These ballots are counted through a tabulation machine at the voting center, then sealed in the black bags and sent to storage, she explained.
Early ballots, whether personal or absent, are sent directly to a larger table center to be counted and thus do not go into the black bags.
While the black bags usually remain in storage after the election, the image shared online shows them being taken to the table center as part of a process called a reconciliation audit. This audit tests the number of voters who have registered to cast a vote at a polling place against the actual number of ballots in the pockets.
Reconciliation audits take place in every election, Patrick said. Most polling stations are auditing quickly, with no need to remove ballots from storage, but some locations experienced difficulties during the 2022 midterms.
At two centersfor example, uncounted ballots that had been rejected by tabulation machines because of a printing error were mixed with some already counted ballots. Such a situation would “definitely” warrant double-checking those polling station totals using the ballots in the black bags, Patrick said.
The Maricopa County Election Department tweeted a photo last week of workers pulling out black bags during one such audit.
Megan Gilbertson, spokesman for the provincial election department, echoed Patrick’s explanation. “It’s a normal process to reconcile the Election Day (voting center) check-ins with the ballots,” she said. Gilbertson specified that the bags will only be unsealed for the purposes of partisan observers and live-streamed webcams, and that a chain of custody is documented throughout.
The province explained the process in an ironic way Twitter thread on Friday, describing pollsters “CAPTURED ON THE TRADE BY LAW.” The thread noted that the bags “have a tamper evident seal for security, are registered on a chain of custody form” and are returned to the county by two pollsters “from different parties.”
Maricopa County officials battled false allegations of fraud and conspiracy theories during the electionas the AP has previously detailed. Arizona is count slower are votes than some other states, but experts say it is no cause for alarm.
Associated Press writer Bob Christie in Phoenix contributed to this report.
This is part of AP’s efforts to address widespread disinformation, including working with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content circulating online. Read more about fact-checking at AP.