US armed guards Arizona midterm elections
Armed "poll watchers" stand guard in a suburban parking lot in Arizona, convinced they are doing their bit to prevent the supposed ballot stuffing they fear could cost the Republicans victory in the US midterm elections. Image Credit: AFP

As early voting gets started in some US states, Republicans are focusing their closing argument on the economy, American voters’ biggest concern. The Democrats’ closing argument, meanwhile, features abortion, the stripping away of women’s right to choose.

But a recent New York Times-Siena College poll shows economic concerns driving a significant shift of independent voters — including women — toward Republicans.

Democratic campaign operatives make a sensible argument for featuring the GOP assault on abortion. In our era of bitter partisan division, midterm elections tend to be determined by turnout.

With President Biden unpopular and much of his programme blocked by Senate Republicans — along with two Democrats — Democratic demoralisation was widespread even before the right-wing majority on the Supreme Court peremptorily struck down the right to abortion.

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Mesa, Arizona, United States: Armed "poll watchers" stand guard in a suburban parking lot in Arizona, convinced they are doing their bit to prevent the supposed ballot stuffing they fear could cost the Republicans victory in the US midterm elections.

"It's a deterrent," 78-year-old retiree Gabor Zolna tells AFP, gesturing to the cameras that he and his fellow unofficial observers are wearing as they wait near early-voting drop-off boxes.

A holstered weapon protrudes from his down jacket.

"We're really here to deter people who want to go and stuff ballots in the boxes," says Nicole, who wears a mask and says only that she is a 52-year-old retiree.

Along with a woman who gives her name as Lynnette and says she works for the local government, the trio are here to "save the Republic," insists Nicole.

Ground Zero for election conspiraty theories

All three believe that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump. They are not alone - around 70 percent of registered Republicans in the United States believe the same, multiple polls have shown.

President Joe Biden won deeply divided Arizona by a mere 10,000 votes, overturning decades of Republican victories in a state that has become Ground Zero for election conspiracy theories.

Multiple investigations, including a partisan "audit" of Maricopa County by Cyber Ninjas, a company hired by Republicans, found no widespread fraud in the 2020 vote.

But for the three ballot watchers AFP encountered this week, that does not matter.

As well as an unshakeable belief that they were robbed at the ballot box, all three also expressed views that diverge considerably from mainstream thinking; Zolna insisted astronauts have not visited the Moon, and Lynnette believes the Earth is flat.

- Lawsuit -

Over the last few days, tensions have risen around the drop-off box in front of Mesa's juvenile court.

On Friday the local sheriff intervened to remove two armed men in paramilitary-style clothing.

On Monday the Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans and national group Voto Latino filed a federal lawsuit demanding a restraining order against armed and sometimes masked supporters of Clean Elections USA, a self-proclaimed "grassroots organization committed to election integrity."

There is now an increased police presence around the drop boxes, and the Maricopa County Elections Department has urged concerned citizens to step back.

"Although monitoring and transparency in our elections is critical, voter intimidation is unlawful. For those who want to be involved in election integrity, become a poll worker or an official observer with your political party," it said in a statement.

With just weeks to go until the November 8 midterm elections that will decide control of Congress, as well as a raft of key state positions, the atmosphere of distrust and suspicion is growing.

In the parking lot, Kevin Smith sat in his pick-up truck with his large dog on the front seat.

"I want to watch the watchers, and see how they feel about being intimidated," the 52-year-old said, gesturing to the animal.

It was not possible to tell if the presence of the armed poll watchers affected turnout, but one voter who dropped off her ballot said it was off-putting.

"It's weird," said Kristin Wilde. "I've already filled out my ballot, so I'm not going to change who I voted for. But yeah, if I was aware of guns, I might not have come down here."

- Narrow victory -

Midterm elections are when Americans vote for a third of the Senate, all of the House, and myriad local posts from state governor to school board members.

But even though the stakes are high, it has traditionally been hard to get voters interested.

Not so this time.

"The intensity and the tension around this election is unprecedented," says Gina Woodall, a political scientist at Arizona State University.

In Arizona, the Republican Party establishment has embraced conspiracy theories since Biden's narrow victory.

Its candidates for governor, senator and secretary of state are all vehement supporters of the discredited theory that the 2020 vote was invalid.

The heightened atmosphere is worrying election officials in Maricopa county, where they began counting absentee ballots on Monday.

"We have seen an increased amount of threats against election workers," said Megan Gilbertson, Maricopa County Elections Department's communications director.

But, she insists, the elections will be secure.

At the downtown Phoenix building, which was besieged by dozens of protesters in 2020, the 16 machines that read the ballots are filmed 24 hours a day.

All hand-written ballots are checked by a pair of observers, one Democrat and one Republican.

This year, many of them are newcomers. And while most attest that operations are going well, some remain unconvinced.

"I only see one part of the voting process," one Republican volunteer who declines to give his name tells AFP.

"I know nothing about what happens before or after that part."