The day after the November 2020 election, the chairs of the Republican, Democratic, and Libertarian parties of Maricopa County, Arizona, initiated a routine but important process to safeguard our democracy: a post-election audit.
Per state law, after almost every countywide election in Arizona,3 a multiparty audit board must conduct a hand count of ballots from a sample of randomly selected voting precincts and compare them with the results from voting machines. The hand counts in Arizona’s most populous county, home to Phoenix, started the Saturday after the election and wrapped up two days later. Not a single discrepancy was found.
Six-plus months later, Maricopa County’s ballots are still being counted — but by another group entirely. For the past five weeks, workers from Cyber Ninjas, a small private cybersecurity company based in Sarasota, Florida, have gathered in an arena to re-recount all the ballots — nearly 2.1 million — at the behest of the state’s Republican senators. Auditors have reportedly scanned ballots with UV lights to look for secret watermarks that conspiracy theorists believe then-President Donald Trump’s Department of Homeland Security placed on legitimate ballots to differentiate them from fraudulent ones; they’ve also inspected ballots for traces of bamboo to determine if they were imported from Asia. The process was supposed to be completed by May 14, but workers were unable to finish the count in time, so the state Senate has extended its lease at the arena through the end of June.
Audits and recounts are an essential part of our voting system, but what’s happening in Arizona isn’t. The state Senate that ordered the process is calling it an audit, and all the ballots are being recounted, but it’s not really an audit or a recount — it’s a partisan inquisition. Conducted by a company founded by an election-fraud conspiracy theorist and Trump supporter, the process is funded mostly by Trump loyalists and fails to meet any of the standards required for official recounts or audits by state law. The process indulges the fantasies of the most extreme political fringe while ignoring the fact that there is zero evidence of any election fraud to warrant such intense scrutiny. The result will almost certainly not be the greater transparency Republican state senators claim they seek. The review — and others like it — may instead further erode trust in our elections.
“This is not motivated by any kind of serious worry that something went wrong,” said Michael Kang, a law professor at Northwestern University and an expert in election law. “It seems to be prompted by political motivations because the earlier counts and checks didn’t produce the outcome that the legislators wanted.”
The GOP state senators who ordered the review have been battling local election officials since November over the results. Even after the majority-Republican Maricopa County Board of Supervisors hired two separate, independent firms to perform a forensic audit of the voting equipment used — an audit which found no irregularities — the state Senate was unsatisfied. Using its subpoena powers to seize the ballots from the local board, the state Senate hired Cyber Ninjas to conduct the “audit.” Notably, the firm has never performed any kind of election audit, and its founder and CEO, Doug Logan, has publicly supported Trump and shared election-fraud conspiracy posts. FiveThirtyEight reached out to a spokesperson for Cyber Ninjas, but he did not respond to our questions.
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The overlap with Trump’s cause doesn’t end there. The audit is being funded through partisan sponsors including MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell and a nonprofit set up by a reporter for One America News Network, which has been given exclusive access to livestream from the audit site.
The mechanics of the Maricopa County assessment have little in common with traditional attempts to ensure the accuracy of a vote. There is very little transparency or public access to the count, and workers are looking into wild conspiracy theories.
Traditional audits do not proceed like this. State laws stipulate that vote audits must be transparent and include more than one political party. They must also be conducted under the supervision of election officials, and the results must be made public. Forensic audits — where the systems and machines used for recording and tabulating votes are checked to make sure they’re operating properly — include even more guardrails. A handful of U.S. firms are certified by the independent, bipartisan Election Assistance Commission to do these kinds of checks, a process that requires the firms themselves to be audited every two years by the EAC, according to Jack Cobb, the laboratory director and co-founder of Pro V&V, an EAC-accredited firm that tests voting systems. Cobb personally performed Maricopa County’s forensic audit in February, which involved running a known deck of test ballots through machines to ensure they were tabulated accurately and combing through operating system logs to ensure the machines were never connected to the internet.
What’s happening in Arizona is also a kind of recount, but it doesn’t reflect a traditional one of those either. In most states and Washington, D.C., a recount can be requested by a candidate or triggered automatically if the results are exceptionally close. Just how close the results have to be to trigger a recount varies by state. In Arizona, for an election in which more than 25,000 ballots are cast, such as the presidential election, the margin of victory must be 200 or fewer votes. In Maricopa County, Joe Biden won the presidency by more than 45,000 votes.
The traditional approaches work. In a 2012 municipal election in Palm Beach County, Florida, a post-election audit revealed a software error in the voting equipment in one city that mixed up the results between races, causing the wrong candidates to be declared winners. A recount was performed, and the rightful winners were elected.
Likewise, recounts can ferret out inaccuracies. From 2000 to 2019, there were only 31 statewide recounts out of 5,778 statewide general elections, according to a survey by FairVote, a nonpartisan group that advocates for election reforms. Of those 31 recounts, just three reversed the outcome.4 In each of those races, the margin of victory before the recount was fewer than 300 votes and less than 0.06 percent of the votes cast. The margin of victory in Arizona (and other close states where Biden won) were nowhere near that tight. He won the state by more than 10,000 votes, or 0.31 percent.
“To my knowledge, we have never had a race with a margin of more than 1,000 votes overturned as a result of an audit or recount,” said David Becker, the executive director of the nonpartisan nonprofit Center for Election Innovation & Research. “In the recount and audit space, 1,000 votes is, for all intents and purposes, a landslide. A margin of 10,000 votes is an off-the-charts landslide.”
This boondoggle not only fails to meet the standards we’ve set in place to make audits and recounts a valuable tool for cultivating confidence in our elections but also subverts them to the opposite result. Cobb, the 18-year election-audit veteran, said he was particularly concerned by the lack of a clear and enforced chain of custody, which ensures ballots and equipment are always accounted for. This means the county’s voting equipment is now compromised. And it’s being performed months after the election, after votes have been certified, after the winners of said election have been sworn into office. Becker pointed out that the state senators who have ordered this audit were elected in November — they were granted power to subpoena these ballots by the very ballots themselves.
“There is no outcome that actually strengthens voter confidence,” Becker said. “Whether the audit gets stopped, or they find no problems, or if they purport to find major problems, all of those will reduce voter confidence. They will not lead to actual facts and scrutiny.”
Perhaps all this could be discounted as just an unusual Republican indulgence in a single county in Arizona except that what’s happening in Maricopa County is already inspiring Republicans in other states to follow suit. In Georgia this month, a judge ruled that 145,000 absentee ballots from Fulton County should be released for an audit paid for by plaintiffs — nine voters — in a lawsuit against the county alleging fraud. Talk of similar exercises is being discussed in Michigan and New Hampshire, too. At a hearing this month, Arizona senate president Karen Fann said she’s been contacted by legislators in other states who told her that “this is what’s going to lay the groundwork as to what is the future of how we audit our elections.”
Arizona is drafting a dangerous blueprint. Because the normal requirements of an audit or a recount aren’t being followed, the results can’t be trusted. Repeating this kind of action in other states opens the door to a new era where our most important democratic process is undermined because there are two results in an election: the actual results, and the results of the partisan inquisition conducted by the losers.
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