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Maricopa County election worker arrested in theft of security keys as primary nears

The county says it now must reprogram and retest all of its security keys and machines before the July 30 election.

The inside of the Maricopa County election center with tables and machines filling the room with people standing in the background.
Workers test ballot tabulators inside Maricopa County's tabulation center prior to the March 2024 presidential preference election. A temporary elections worker was arrested on June 21, 2024 after allegedly stealing keys to the county's ballot tabulators. (Jen Fifield / Votebeat)

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A temporary election worker in Maricopa County was arrested Friday after allegedly stealing keys and a security fob that can be used to gain access to the county’s ballot tabulation machines.

With just a week to go before mail ballots go out, Maricopa County detectives charged Walter Ringfield Jr., a 27-year-old Phoenix resident, with one count of theft and one count of criminal damage, after they say he took a lanyard with the fob and keys attached while working in the Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center. He is in custody and won’t be released unless a court order allows, according to court documents.

Ringfield told detectives during his arrest that he took the fob for 20 minutes the day before and then gave it back. But detectives located the fob in his house after obtaining a search warrant. His motive for taking it was unclear, but he suggested to detectives that it may have been a mistake.

“Walter said the job was temporary and he was trying to make it permanent, so he wanted to clean up,” the report states, providing no further explanation.

Ringfield could not immediately be reached for comment. His father, Walter Ringfield Sr., said in a phone interview that he “will wait to pass judgment until all of the facts come out.”

“I love my son,” he said, adding that he hoped his son would call him soon.

Walter Ringfield Sr. said that his son recently graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in political science.

Ringfield started on June 3 as a temporary election worker for the tabulation center. He had previously been charged with theft after an incident in July 2023, but he entered a diversion program and was not convicted, according to county court records. Maricopa County spokesperson Jennifer Liewer said that the county conducted a background check on him before hiring him, and that no convictions were found.

Maricopa County is hiring more than 530 temporary election workers in preparation for the state’s July 30 primary, in addition to more than 2,200 poll workers. The county has advertised openings on its website and social media accounts.

Mail ballots go out on July 3, and the county had already programmed and tested its voting machines. The security breach means that the county must now reprogram its machines and security fobs at a cost of $19,000, according to the detectives’ report. County officials will also redo the preelection logic and accuracy testing “to ensure the integrity of Maricopa County Elections,” according to a statement from the county’s elections department. The logic and accuracy testing is designed to ensure the machines count ballots accurately.

The alleged theft comes as election workers across Arizona and the country attempt to secure elections, and amid rising concerns over potential insider threats. The Arizona Secretary of State’s Office said in a statement that “while this event is unwelcome, it speaks [to] the effectiveness of the security protocols built into Arizona’s election systems.”

“The swift actions of the Maricopa County elections staff, including the re-conducting of logic and accuracy tests, builds in extra layers of protection of all affected equipment,” the statement said. “This quick response will prevent any potential impact on the upcoming elections.”

County staff noticed on Friday morning that the lanyard was missing, according to the county’s statement. The lanyard had a plastic key on it as well as the security fob, which workers use to gain access to the machines to program them. The workers hold the fob to the tabulators, and then enter a password before getting access.

County workers watched surveillance video from Thursday evening and saw Ringfield put the red wrist lanyard containing the key and fob into the right pocket of his shorts while he was working in the tabulation center, according to the detectives’ report from his arrest.

County workers confronted Ringfield about the theft, and he told them that he did not take the item, but that if he did mistakenly take it, “it may be inside his car,” according to the report. He allowed the county workers and security to look inside his car, and they saw a red plastic lanyard on the center console and a plastic tag that matched the missing keys, but not the security fob.

Detectives went to Ringfield’s home on Friday, and he told them he was fired because his employer thought he stole something, but he said he gave the fob back.

Detectives spotted the lanyard in his car at his house and then, after executing a search warrant, found the security fob on top of a dresser in the master bedroom.

County workers told the detectives that the secure operation of the elections facility “is greatly impeded until the reprogramming is complete,” according to the report.

Jen Fifield is a reporter for Votebeat based in Arizona. Contact Jen at jfifield@votebeat.org.

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