explainer

Why the Arizona Election-Audit Circus Just Won’t End

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images

Former President Donald Trump railed against the news media last month for dismissing the “massive number of voter irregularities and fraud” that ostensibly took place during the 2020 election in Arizona. He was responding to an AP report that found fewer than 200 cases of potential voter fraud out of 3 million ballots cast in the state. As the outlet notes, this “align[s] with previous studies showing voter fraud is rare.”

But Trump and his allies in Arizona have not been dissuaded by such independent findings, or their own failure to turn up any convincing evidence that Joe Biden only won the state through nefarious means. Since April, private parties answering to a faction of Republicans in the state Senate have been conducting an “audit” of Maricopa County’s 2020 election results. The effort has been derided as incompetent and unwarranted by outside experts, the Justice Department, and even other local Republicans — yet the audit chugs on in self-induced darkness. While the tabulation of votes is supposedly complete, in late July top Republicans in the Arizona Senate issued subpoenas demanding even more election materials from the county. And now the release of a report on the audit’s findings has been further delayed because Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan and two other members of the firm hired to run the operation have COVID-19.

Here’s a guide to how Arizona’s circus-like recount got started, why it’s dragging on, and what audit proponents are really after.

Is there any evidence of serious “irregularities and fraud” in Arizona during the 2020 election?

No. Prior to 2020, Arizona had a reputation for competent election administration and a history of robust voting by mail, unlike some states that had to quickly adopt new voting procedures due to the pandemic. Indeed, Arizona pretty much had a business-as-usual election in November. The presidential contest was very close, but that was no surprise. Arizona was one of the biggest battleground states in the election; Trump carried it by a margin of only 3.6 percent in 2016, and with Democrats making gains there in recent years, it was a huge target for the party in 2020.

Arizona was famously called for Biden by Fox News, shortly before midnight on November 3, and then by the Associated Press the next day. The New York Times, CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC followed suit on November 12.

Pursuant to Arizona law, 10 of 15 counties conducted an immediate hand count of a sample of ballots tabulated by voting machines, with no significant discrepancies found. This included Maricopa County, which encompasses Phoenix and is Arizona’s largest county by far; the county accounted for 2 million of the state’s roughly 3.3 million presidential votes. The final official results showed Biden winning the state by 10,457 votes, his narrowest win in the country (in absolute terms; in percentage terms Georgia’s results were a bit closer). Biden won Maricopa by just over 45,000 votes.

So what sparked this audit business?

Arizona’s election results were certified by Republican governor Doug Ducey and Democratic secretary of state Katie Hobbs on November 30. But by that point, there were already signs that a faction of Arizona Republicans were coordinating their activities with the Trump campaign’s Keystone Kops legal team, featuring Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell. After Team Trump’s maneuvers were universally rejected in state and federal courts across the country, Arizona’s 11 electoral votes were formally cast for Biden on December 14.

The next day, Arizona Senate president Karen Fann directed the Senate’s Judiciary Committee to issue two subpoenas to Maricopa County election officials. She said in a statement:

One subpoena calls for a scanned ballot audit, to collect an electronic ballot image cast for all mail-in ballots counted in the November 2020 general election in Maricopa County, Arizona. The second subpoena calls for a full forensic audit of ballot tabulation equipment, the software for that equipment and the election management system used in the 2020 general election.

The idea, as these sweeping subpoenas suggested, was to review the vast majority of Maricopa County ballots and all of its election software and hardware, despite no real evidence of wrongdoing. The county, which has a majority-Republican board of supervisors, resisted the fishing expedition, and the two sides went to court.

While the legal wrangling was going on, Maricopa County ordered a “forensic audit” by two independent firms. Both concluded in a report released on February 23 that the election machinery was sound and uncompromised, and that there were no signs of significant errors.

Nevertheless, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled three days later that the state Senate had the power to issue and enforce the subpoenas, so their audit proceeded.

What is the rationale for the audit?

Republicans’ complaints about Arizona’s election results varied over time, and many random election conspiracy theories were at some point cited as grounds for further investigation. But the main issues seemed to be:

  1. A general hostility to mail ballots, spurred by the national Trump campaign.
  2. Suspicions that turnout generally, or the number of mail ballots specifically, was unaccountably high in 2020.
  3. Simple incredulity that a state and a county that had been so reliably Republican in the past could have flipped in 2020.

These suspicions were all pretty obviously spurious.

First, there’s no evidence to back up Trump’s suggestion that mail ballots are inherently fraudulent. This is particularly true in Arizona, where heavy levels of voting by mail had been customary for years.

Second, turnout in Arizona rose from 74 percent of registered voters in 2016 to 80 percent in 2020, which reflects higher turnout nationally; the relevant number was 77 percent in both 2004 and 2008. Similarly, Maricopa hit the statewide average of 80 percent of registered voters participating in 2020. Yes, statewide turnout as a percentage of the eligible voting-age population jumped from 55 percent in 2016 to 66 percent in 2020, but a voter registration boom benefiting both parties explains much of that.

Finally, the idea that Arizona is a Republican state that couldn’t go for Biden without skullduggery is totally unpersuasive. Heading into 2020, Republicans could take comfort in the fact that they had won the state in 13 of the last 14 presidential elections. But last summer, FiveThirtyEight noted that the state had become intensely competitive:

Since March, Biden has held a small but consistent lead over Trump in polls there. Most recently, a poll by Siena College/The New York Times Upshot — one of the best pollsters in the business — gave him a 7-point lead among registered voters (although this will probably shrink among likely voters). But for now, it looks like the Democratic Party’s newfound suburban strength, combined with the gradual growth of Arizona’s Latino population, is finally putting the Grand Canyon State in play.

Given Biden’s 4.4 percent popular vote margin nationally, his 0.3 margin in Arizona (as indicated by the state’s official results) is highly plausible; it means Arizona was over 4 percent more Republican than the country as a whole.

Who are the players behind the audit?

Those conducting the Arizona audit are not your usual dispassionate techies and wonks. The Arizona Senate hired an outside firm, Florida-based Cyber Ninjas, to run the operation, which formally began on April 22. It had no discernible experience in election audits, as its performance would soon show. It was apparently selected because its CEO, Doug Logan, was an avid fan of right-wing conspiracy theories generally, and of Trump’s election lies specifically.

Soon thereafter former Arizona Republican secretary of state Ken Bennett emerged as “liaison” between the state senators and the audit team. Bennett was best known nationally for refusing to place Barack Obama on the 2012 general-election ballot until he was supplied with proof that the president was born in the United States. Bennett recently suggested that even he’d had enough, announcing on July 28 that he would be resigning after being banned from the audit site for passing data to outside election experts. But rather than releasing his promised resignation statement, hours later he said he’d reached an agreement to stay on.

Another interesting participant: One America News Network on-air talent Christina Bobb (a former Trump administration official and Trump campaign lawyer), who variously covered the audit for OANN (which was given exclusive live-stream access to the public side of the proceedings), ferried “information” from Giuliani and his associates to Fann and the auditors, and helped raise money for the effort.

At the ground level, the audit has been heavily staffed with volunteers who were required to sign nondisclosure agreements. While allegedly nonpartisan, you’d guess passionate Trump supporters would be especially attracted to the chore.

Who is funding the audit?

It’s long been clear that the audit cost vastly more than the $150,000 ponied up by the state Senate, but for months Cyber Ninjas would not disclose the exact price tag or who was paying. But on July 28, CEO Doug Logan revealed that the firm has collected more than $5.7 million in private donations from Trump-aligned groups to fund the audit. Per the AP:

Among those leading the fundraising groups are Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor; Sydney Powell, his attorney who filed a number of baseless lawsuits challenging election results; Patrick Byrne, a former chief executive of Overstock.com; and correspondents from the pro-Trump One America News Network.

As the Washington Post notes, this means that “more than 97 percent of the audit’s costs have so far been shouldered by donations from five organizations led by people who have promoted the false claim that the election was stolen.”

How is the audit being conducted?

Maricopa County declined to provide facilities for an audit that it considered unnecessary, so the auditors set up shop in the Veterans Memorial Coliseum on the state fairgrounds with the ballots and voting machinery that had been secured by subpoena. Most of the initial audit activity involved volunteers hand counting the 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa, though the secrecy surrounding these activities made examination of their exact nature difficult.

The audit’s tight security appeared to be focused more on stopping media and public scrutiny than on protecting the integrity of the process. Observers from the secretary of state’s office (who were often hassled and obstructed by security staff) reported near-constant screwups and questionable practices. Some seem related to conspiracy theories, such as examination of ballots for bamboo fibers in conjunction with a wild rumor that 40,000 illegal mail ballots had been flown in from Asia. Others involved logistics: A Cyber Ninjas subcontractor took voting data to his personal residence in Montana for undisclosed procedures. On July 1, the ballots and machinery under examination were moved to an exhibit hall in another part of the fairgrounds because the Veterans Memorial Coliseum was booked for a gun show.

In early May, the U.S. Justice Department threatened to step in and investigate the audit for sloppy handling of election data (violating federal laws requiring strict chain-of-custody protocols), and for plans to canvass voters to verify mail-ballot legitimacy (a clear-cut example of illegal voter intimidation). On July 28, DOJ issued memo saying it is “concerned” that some jurisdictions conducting election audits “may be using, or proposing to use, procedures that risk violating the Civil Rights Act.” While the memo did not specifically name Arizona, it was seen as warning that DOJ is watching its activities closely, and other states shouldn’t get any ideas about pursuing their own sloppy election audits.

Has the audit actually found anything fishy yet?

Though most of the audit has proceeded under a cloak of secrecy, Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan did issue an interim report to his state Senate overseers in early July. But he only managed to impeach his own performance even more, as Slate’s Jeremy Stahl explained:

Logan claimed, for instance, that “we have 74,243 mail-in ballots where there is no clear record of them being sent” to people in the mail. As local ABC News politics and data analyst Garrett Archer almost immediately reported, the number Logan cited to make this allegation was actually a combination of mail ballots and in-person early ballots, which of course would not have been sent to anyone in the mail. This basic conflation was the most eye-popping claim of the hearing and led to Trump’s allegation that “hundreds of thousands of votes” were in dispute.

Logan also reported a sinister-sounding discrepancy between the number of voters on the Election Day rolls and those on a final report filed in December, apparently not taking into account either voters whose ballots were received on Election Day and counted later or those casting provisional ballots.

Will the audit ever end?

The audit was originally supposed to take 60 days, but it has been extended repeatedly, for five months. Arizona Senate president Karen Fann issued a new batch of subpoenas and public-records requests in late July, calling for the “production of everything from the routers used to direct traffic on the county’s computer network to passwords for tallying equipment and either the originals or copies of envelopes that contained early ballots,” per KAWC. The interest in routers had a particularly unsavory provenance:

Maricopa County officials rejected the subpeonas as illegal and likely to put “sensitive, confidential data belonging to Maricopa County citizens — including Social Security numbers and protected health information — at risk.”

Incompetence is one factor, but it’s hard to avoid the impression that Cyber Ninjas and their Senate overseers want to keep it going until they find something to retroactively justify their efforts. It’s increasingly clear that if the audit doesn’t produce anything significant soon, its sponsors will claim it is “incomplete” because of alleged gaps in the data supplied by Maricopa County, leaving plenty of room for Team Trump to claim a symbolic victory and for conspiracy theorists to continue to spin tales.

Arizona’s hard-core Trump backers also have been hoping the extended proceedings will enable allies to set up their own audits in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — four other states with Republican legislatures where Trump never conceded defeat, and fraud claims rejected by the courts are kept alive by Big Lie enthusiasts.

The auditors were scheduled to finally release a report on their ultimate findings on Monday, August 23. But it was again delayed because three of the five auditors – including Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan – had come down with COVID-19, and were “quite sick,” as Fann told incredulous journalists.

It’s unclear whether the stricken auditors were vaccinated, and how long this latest delay will last. But the aborted findings came on the heels of another official blast at the proceedings, as MSNBC reported:

Last week, [Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs], a Democrat, dropped a 45-page report criticizing the many, many oddities, inconsistencies and outright snafus that have marred the recount and the subsequent audit. “There are numerous examples of failures that all but guarantee inaccurate results, which would also be impossible to replicate,” the report reads. “Any one of these issues would deem an audit completely unreliable, but the combination of these failures renders this review meritless.”

What’s the real objective here?

While in theory, audit proponents recognize their schemes will have no effect on a completely settled 2020 presidential outcome, millions of Trump voters have become convinced by viral misinformation that the audits will enable him to return to power as early as August. They will presumably have an enhanced sense of grievance against the “rigged election” when that doesn’t happen.

The ultimate objective of all this chicanery is to keep the “stolen election” lie alive long enough to make it a rationale for Trump’s next adventures, including a 2024 comeback bid if he decides that’s what he wants to do. The terrible damage he’s inflicted on the democratic institutions whose integrity he claims to cherish doesn’t seem to concern him.

This post has been updated throughout.

Why the Arizona Election-Audit Circus Just Won’t End