Apr 10, 2023 - Politics

Equipment failure caused Maricopa ballot problems, report concludes

Illustration collage of a ballot torn in half, which each piece overlapping to form an "X"

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Changes to the length of ballots and the weight of the paper they were printed on caused widespread problems at Maricopa County voting centers during the 2022 general election, according to a report out Monday commissioned by the county Board of Supervisors.

  • Equipment failure, rather than human error or procedural shortcomings, were to blame, it said.

Catch up quick: Tabulators at about 60 voting centers were unable to read ballots because they were printed with ink that was too light to read.

  • This caused frustration and long waits while election workers repeatedly attempted to feed ballots into tabulators that rejected them.
  • Those ballots were placed into a separate box to be transported to the county's central election center, where more advanced printers could read them without issue.
  • 16,724 ballots were affected.

State of play: The report found two changes primarily caused the problems with the OKI B432 printers, one of two printer models used by the county in last year's elections.

  • Maricopa County switched from the 19-inch ballots used in the primary to 20-inch ballots in the general to accommodate the number of contests and other language.
  • The county used 100-pound paper in 2022 instead of the 80-pound paper from 2020.

Zoom in: Due to the heavier paper and wider area of the ballots, the fusers in some printers were unable to maintain a high enough heat level to fuse toner to the ballots, the investigation found.

  • That caused the printers to "perform at the extreme edge of their capability, a level that could not be reliably sustained" by some printers, wrote former Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Ruth McGregor, whom the supervisors chose to oversee the investigation.
  • Most of the OKI printers didn't experience those problems, and it wasn't clear in the report why some printers had issues, though the investigation concluded some printers "did not initially reach the optimum temperature or did not maintain sufficient, consistent heat."
  • Testing found printers produced more faulty ballots when there were intervals in which the fuser heated up and cooled down.

Between the lines: The county switched to heavier paper in response to "Sharpiegate," the uproar following the 2020 election over concerns that Sharpie pens provided to voters bled through ballots.

  • The two sides of the ballots were offset so bleed-through couldn't inadvertently fill bubbles on the other side, but some voters and politicians continued raising concerns.
  • The attorney general's office found no evidence that Sharpies affected any votes.

Of note: The report said the printers performed well during the primary with the heavier paper and during pre-general election testing with the 100-pound paper and longer ballots.

  • Nothing experienced by the county or its vendor, Runbeck, indicated such testing was needed, McGregor wrote.

The intrigue: Defeated Republican candidates like Kari Lake and Abraham Hamadeh have blamed the printer issues, among other things, for their November losses.

What's next: McGregor recommended several potential actions, including replacing the OKI printers, returning to 80-pound paper, ending on-site tabulation and performing more robust pre-election stress testing for the printers.

  • In a press statement, Board of Supervisors chair Clint Hickman said, "Now that we have a better idea of the factors involved, we'll make changes to best serve voters, starting with replacing some equipment.”

Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Phoenix.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Phoenix stories

No stories could be found


Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Phoenix.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more