Why Trump’s Election-Audit Circus Just Won’t End

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images

For much of 2021, Arizona was ground zero for former president Donald Trump’s efforts to undermine confidence in the 2020 election results by encouraging “forensic audits” and other probes based on conspiracy theories and vague fraud allegations rather than any actual evidence.

Back in April, a faction of Republicans in the Arizona Senate commissioned the cybersecurity firm Cyber Ninjas to conduct an “audit” of 2020 election results in Maricopa County even though the small Florida-based firm had no experience with election audits. The effort was derided as incompetent and unwarranted by outside experts, the Justice Department, and even other local Republicans — yet it chugged along in self-induced darkness until September 24. Cyber Ninjas’ “final report” confirmed Biden’s win in key respects while continuing to raise unsupported suspicions of possible fraud.

Now other states are launching similar efforts as Trump continues to claim that a landslide victory was stolen from him. Here, a guide to how Arizona’s circuslike recount got started, why it dragged on so long, and what audit proponents across the country are really after.

Were there ever any serious concerns about 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, ten 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 was coordinating its 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 the 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 skulduggery is totally unpersuasive. Heading into 2020, Republicans could take comfort in the fact that they had won the state in 13 of the past 14 presidential elections. But last summer, FiveThirtyEight noted 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 percent 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 were the players behind the Arizona audit?

Those conducting the Arizona audit were not your usual dispassionate techies and wonks. The Cyber Ninjas firm 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.

Former Arizona Republican secretary of state Ken Bennett emerged as the “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. On July 28, Bennett suggested that even he’d had enough, announcing he would be resigning after being banned from the audit site for passing data to outside election experts. 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 OAN (which was given exclusive livestream 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 was 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 funded the audit?

It’s long been clear that the audit would 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. Then on July 28, Logan revealed that the firm had 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 [sic] 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 noted, this means “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 was the audit conducted?

Maricopa County declined to provide facilities for an audit that it considered unnecessary, so the auditors set up shop in the Arizona 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 this activity made examination of its 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 seemed 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 Arizona 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, the DOJ issued a memo saying it was “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 a warning that the DOJ is watching its activities closely and that other states shouldn’t get any ideas about pursuing their own sloppy election audits.

Did the audit actually find anything fishy?

The final report the auditors filed on September 24 didn’t do much to legitimize the exercise. The hand-count of Maricopa ballots produced a slightly higher margin for Joe Biden than the original count. But Trump hailed the findings as a vindication of his claims thanks to a list of alleged anomalies in the report. This section was actually a hodgepodge of questions mostly reflecting the auditors’ ignorance of how elections — and particularly mail ballots — are normally handled (for example, the auditors drew attention to mail ballots cast by voters with different addresses without taking account of normal levels of mobility, particularly among college students, military members, and those who own vacation homes). The suspicions aired in the report also systematically relied on notoriously unreliable commercial databases for verifying voter addresses.

Which other states are following Arizona’s lead?

The auditing baton has been handed off to other states where Republican politicians have subscribed to Trump’s evidence-free claims that a “massive number of voter irregularities and fraud” cost him reelection. GOP legislators in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are pushing for their own semi-official “forensic audits” of results, with similarly nonobjective auditors (e.g., in Wisconsin, a conservative retired state Supreme Court justice has been granted subpoena power over state and local election officials by the hyperpartisan Speaker of the Wisconsin House). And in Texas, where no one is questioning Trump’s comfortable 2020 margin of victory, Republican governor Greg Abbott (who is running for reelection in 2022 and may have presidential ambitions) instantly complied with Trump’s demand for an audit focused on four urban counties (Republican legislators are pushing for a broader investigation).

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 has inflicted on the democratic institutions whose integrity he claims to cherish doesn’t seem to concern him.

This post has been updated throughout.

Why Trump’s Election-Audit Circus Just Won’t End