Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer took to Twitter on May 15, 2021, to state his exasperation with what he described as "unhinged" lies about the November 2020 election, namely a false claim by former U.S. President Donald Trump that an elections database in that Arizona county had been "DELETED!" by county officials.
After his tweet went viral Richer made appearances on CNN in which he denounced conspiracy theories that continue to circulate a half-year after the presidential election, driven by a recount underway in Arizona. The controversial recount is being performed by Cyber Ninjas, a private firm hired by the Republican-led Arizona Senate, led by a proponent of Trump's election disinformation campaign alleging a massive-scale vote fraud conspiracy that supposedly cost Trump the election.
What Is the Conspiracy Theory About the Chickens?
During an appearance on May 18, 2021, on the CNN primetime show "Don Lemon Tonight," Richer stated the following when asked what the craziest conspiracy theory about the Arizona recount that he has heard:
No, the craziest conspiracy theory by far is that one of the board of supervisors who happens to own a very large chicken farm took ballots from the 2020 election, fed them to 165,000 chickens and then had them incinerated. Now, what actually happened is that this poor man had a serious fire at one of his barns and 165,000 chickens did die.
But the idea that they had ballots inside of them -- I mean, you know, and legitimate people indulge this. A prominent member of the state legislature indulged this in a conversation. And it is just, you know, what is going on here? That's facially laughable.
Where Did This Conspiracy Theory Originate?
The chicken-ballot narrative appears to have originated with a false claim published by the pro-Trump conspiracy site Gateway Pundit, which on March 6, 2021, reported that, "Dumpsters full of shredded ballots were located today in Maricopa County Arizona."
The Gateway Pundit story appears to have been lifted from a Facebook post from Pinal County resident Staci Burk, a pro-Trump "Stop the Steal" activist, who had filed a failed lawsuit challenging the 2020 presidential election results. Burk's post stated that dumpster divers had recovered shredded ballots from behind the Maricopa County ballot tabulation center, and alleged that was evidence of election malfeasance.
Richer's office debunked that claim at that time. Maricopa County Elections Department spokesperson Megan Gilbertson told the Arizona Mirror in a story published March 9, 2021, that the shredded ballots weren't from the 2020 election. State law, she said, requires election officials to keep ballots for 24 months after an election is canvassed.
Gilbertson noted that the county sends out sample ballots, which are printed on the same paper as the ballots used in the election, and that such ballots are also available online. And there are many voters who received ballots in the mail but didn’t return them, she said.
“The ballot shown in the picture could be any one of those things. What it is not is an official voted ballot from the November General Election. The 2.1 million voted ballots from the November General Election are safe and accounted for in a vault, under 24/7 surveillance,” Gilbertson said.
Chance would have it that on March 6, tragedy struck the family business of Maricopa County District 4 Supervisor Clint Hickman, and the "shredded ballots" conspiracy theory metastasized.
A fire broke out at the farm and destroyed two barns at the Hickman's Family Farms location roughly 50 miles west of Phoenix. In that fire, 166,000 egg-laying hens perished.
The Gateway Pundit seized on this fire, with a headline that same day that read, "After Finding Shredded Ballots in the Dumpster Earlier Today – A Mysterious Fire Breaks Out at Maricopa County Official’s Farm."
The Gateway Pundit story further reported, "Individuals in the county found shredded ballots at this location today (Saturday, March 6th). And now tonight two barns on the farm of one of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors caught on fire," adding later, "There better be a good investigation into these fires. Did any shred catch fire in the chicken coops?"
A flurry of conspiratorial social media posts connecting the chicken fire to the false claims about shredded ballots followed. Here is an example of one:
Is There Evidence of Ballot Destruction in the Fire?
We reached out to the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, which is the agency investigating the cause of the fire, and the Buckeye Valley Fire District, the firefighters who responded to extinguish the blaze. Both told us there was no evidence of wrongdoing, and no evidence found that ballots were destroyed at the site.
According to a fire report provided to Snopes by Buckeye Valley Fire District upon a public records request, emergency crews responded to a structure fire on Salome Highway in the city of Tonopah just after 1 p.m. A second structure also caught fire as crews battled the blaze. One person was transported to the hospital in stable condition.
Maricopa Sheriffs told us in an email that, "The investigation revealed there was no evidence of a crimes. The cause of the fire was listed as unknown. The Arson investigation revealed no election ballots."