Did Joe Arpaio ‘Investigate’ Barack Obama’s Birth Certificate?

As he sought a higher national profile in 2012, far-right conspiracist Joe Arpaio hitched his wagon to the “birther” conspiracy theory targeting then-United States President Barack Obama, a tactic to which he would cling for years after it was repeatedly debunked.

On March 1 2012, Arpaio — who was sheriff for Maricopa County, Arizona at the time — claimed that he and a “posse” had unearthed evidence that Obama’s longform birth certificate, released by the White House a year earlier, was a “computer generated forgery.”

Just three months earlier, the Department of Justice had determined that under his leadership, Arpaio’s department had engaged in a “culture of bias” against Latinx residents, including “retaliatory detentions and arrests without cause, unfounded civil lawsuits, and other baseless complaints.” But as The Guardian reported at the time:

“This has nothing to do with politics!” he bellowed at the press conference. “If we could find evidence that the president was born in this country, I would be very happy.”

(Odd that he said that. He looked so very, very happy to be announcing in front of the nation’s TV cameras that they had uncovered the exact opposite.)

Arpaio’s claim hinged on the allegation that the use of the numeric code “9” for a portion of the 1961 certificate indicated that it was a “forgery.” But as the Phoenix New Times reported in July 2012, this claim had already been debunked online:

The coding for the number nine in the race meant “unknown or not stated” in the guide for 1968. In 1961, it meant “other nonwhite.”

On top of that, Arpaio’s birther pals conveniently cropped the area of the 1968 guide to omit the fact that they were referring to a section called “race of child,” not “race of father.”

Like so many other conspiracy theorists, Arpaio — having lost a bid for re-election after 24 years as sheriff — regurgitated the bogus claims years later, specifically as he announced his intention to run for a U.S. Senate seat in January 2018.

“No doubt about it, we have the evidence,” Arpaio said of Obama’s birth certificate in a CNN interview. “I’m not going to go into all the details, yeah, it’s a phony document.”

Arpaio would go on to lose the race for the Republican nomination that year to Rep. Martha McSally. He also failed both to win back his old position as Maricopa County Sheriff in 2020, as well as the mayoralty of the town of Forest Hills, Arizona.

Much like Arpaio’s political aspirations, the “birther” smear against Obama might still persist online, but to diminishing returns.

Update 8/26/2022, 2:21 p.m.: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here. — ag