Explaining the audit of the presidential election in Maricopa County, Ariz.

·Senior Writer
·10-min read

The ongoing audit of the 2020 presidential election results in Maricopa County, Ariz., has become a flashpoint in the battle over former President Donald Trump’s discredited claims that he lost to Joe Biden due to widespread fraud.

Following partial recounts of the ballots in the county that showed Trump had indeed lost to Biden, Arizona’s Republican-controlled Senate went to court, successfully suing for the right to conduct another audit of the results. After a lengthy legal battle, the process of recounting 2.1 million ballots and examining 400 voting machines used in Maricopa County began on April 23 at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix. Conducted by the Florida cybersecurity firm Cyber Ninjas, the audit was supposed to be completed by May 14, but the company missed that deadline because the building had to be vacated for high school graduation ceremonies.

Maricopa is the fourth most populous county in the United States, and Biden's 45,000-vote victory there in November helped secure his 11,000-vote victory in Arizona in the 2020 election. It was the first time a Democratic presidential nominee had won the state since 1996, but the audit has raised multiple questions about how state officials have handled the process.

Was there any evidence of fraud?

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signs election documents to certify the election results for federal, statewide, and legislative offices and statewide ballot measures at the official canvass at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix on Nov. 30, 2020. (Ross D. Franklin/Pool via AP)
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signs election documents to certify the election results for federal, statewide, and legislative offices and statewide ballot measures at the official canvass at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix on Nov. 30, 2020. (Ross D. Franklin/Pool via AP)

No. In the weeks following the election, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, which is controlled by Republicans, validated that the machine count was accurate. Courts in the state, meanwhile, dismissed a lawsuit calling the election results into question.

On Nov. 30, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, certified the results of the presidential election after receiving approval from county officials and Attorney General Mark Brnovich, also a Republican. During that event, Ducey received a call from Trump, who had been urging him not to sign off on the results confirming that Biden had won.

“The president has got an inquisitive mind,” Ducey said of his conversation with Trump. “And when he calls he’s always got a lot of questions, and I give him honest answers, direct feedback and my opinion when it’s necessary. And that’s all I’m going to say about it.”

In January, the county supervisors authorized an audit of the election equipment. No irregularities were found, but Republican officials continue to point to the belief of some Americans that the election was stolen as justification to push forward with the audit.

Can the latest audit’s findings overturn the election results?

Protestors in support of former President Donald Trump gather outside Veterans Memorial Coliseum where Ballots from the 2020 general election wait to be audited on May 1, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Courtney Pedroza for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Protestors in support of former President Donald Trump gather outside Veterans Memorial Coliseum where Ballots from the 2020 general election wait to be audited on May 1, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Courtney Pedroza for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

No. Regardless of whatever ballot count is announced or conclusions Cyber Ninjas reaches in regard to the voting machines, the official results of the election and the allocation of the state’s 11 electoral votes will not change. The concern among opponents of the audit is that if it produces an inaccurate count alleging fraud, it will be trumpeted in conservative media and by Trump to further undermine confidence in the election system shared by millions.

“Our state has become a laughingstock,” the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors wrote in a letter last week to state Senate President Karen Fann. “Worse, this ‘audit’ is encouraging our citizens to distrust elections, which weakens our democratic republic.”

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released Monday found that 53 percent of Republicans believed Trump was the “true president.” That is in line with a number of other surveys that have found that a majority of Republicans don’t believe the election results to be accurate, including a March poll from Monmouth that found that 65 percent of Republicans believed Biden had won due to voter fraud.

Who is the company overseeing the recount?

A contractor working for Cyber Ninjas, who was hired by the Arizona State Senate transports ballots from the 2020 general election at Veterans Memorial Coliseum on May 1, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona.(Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images)
A contractor working for Cyber Ninjas, who was hired by the Arizona State Senate transports ballots from the 2020 general election at Veterans Memorial Coliseum on May 1, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona.(Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images)

To conduct the audit, Arizona Senate Republicans brought in a private Florida-based company, Cyber Ninjas, whose founder and CEO, Doug Logan, has pushed false claims of fraud in the 2020 election. According to reporting by Politico, Cyber Ninjas was unknown even among seasoned Florida GOP operatives, and has had no prior experience conducting election audits.

County Recorder Stephen Richer, a Republican who was elected in November, told ABC News that “the frustrating bit is that some professional, legitimate companies did make bids to the Arizona Senate to do this work, and we would have welcomed that.”

“Just as you might say ‘I’m OK with somebody looking at my taxes,’ you wouldn’t want a company that has no experience, a company that believes in conspiracy theories and a company that has already said they believed that you committed tax fraud, you wouldn’t want them doing an audit, that’s not a legitimate audit,” Richer added.

The state Senate paid $150,000 to the firm to run the weeks-long undertaking, but it’s unclear who is providing the rest of the audit funding, although the pro-Trump One America News Network and former Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne have been fundraising for the operation.

How is the recount going?

Maricopa County ballots cast in the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors working for Florida-based company, Cyber Ninjas, Thursday, May 6, 2021 at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix. (Matt York/Pool via AP)
Maricopa County ballots cast in the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors working for Florida-based company, Cyber Ninjas, Thursday, May 6, 2021 at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix. (Matt York/Pool via AP)

There have been issues. Due to the potential for ballot tampering, state law prohibits pens with blue ink in the room where the recount is taking place, but the company distributed blue pens to its contractors as the audit began, according to Arizona Republic reporter Jen Fifield, who was in the room as an observer. Logan, the company CEO, said he thought blue ink was allowed, but eventually replaced the pens with green ones.

Contractors are scanning the ballots with ultraviolet lights, but no one — including the CEO of the company that prints the ballots — knows exactly what they’re hoping to find. They’re also inspecting the ballots for traces of bamboo, which supporters of the audit say would prove they were smuggled in from China.

“There’s accusations that 40,000 ballots were flown in to Arizona and it was stuffed into the box, OK?” said John Brakey, who is helping oversee the audit, in an interview with a local CBS affiliate. “And it came from the southeast part of the world, Asia, OK? And what they’re doing is to find out if there’s bamboo in the paper.”

Cyber Ninjas told the state Senate it would “identify any ballots that are suspicious and potentially counterfeit.”

“This is an audit like none that has ever been performed,” said Byrne. “This audit is an audit check for all forms of mischief.”

The actual counting process has also drawn scrutiny. Jennifer Morrell, a former Colorado election official and partner at the Elections Group, observed the contractors and discussed her experience in a Washington Post op-ed, writing, “I figured it would be unconventional. But it was so much worse than that. In more than a decade working on elections, audits and recounts across the country, I’ve never seen one this mismanaged.”

Morrell detailed how the counters had only seconds to record each ballot as they sped past on a spinning conveyor wheel, and then a lack of a system to catch mistakes. She concluded, “This is not an audit, and I don’t see how this can have a good outcome.”

In a May 12 letter relaying a Cyber Ninjas claim, Fann, a Republican, accused the county of deleting a database that contained election information, sparking a firestorm in right-wing media. Trump called the letter “devastating” and referred to “voting irregularities, and probably fraud” in the county.

Days later, after continued pushback by Richer and other county officials, the Cyber Ninjas employees doing the audit reversed course, stating that the data was intact and they had just not understood how to read it correctly.

Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, has also expressed concern with the process, saying in a May 5 letter that “the procedures governing this audit” are not ensuring “accuracy, security and transparency” and to “either do it right, or don’t do it at all.”

What are local leaders saying about the recount?

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs addresses the members of Arizona's Electoral College prior to them casting their votes in Phoenix, Arizona on December 14, 2020. (Ross D. Franklin/Pool via Reuters)
Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs addresses the members of Arizona's Electoral College prior to them casting their votes in Phoenix, Arizona on December 14, 2020. (Ross D. Franklin/Pool via Reuters)

County officials are furious and have threatened a defamation lawsuit over the claim that they had deleted voter information to cover up improprieties. Earlier this month, the county sent a blistering 14-page letter to Fann blasting the entire process.

After initially declining to grant interviews on the audit, Richer has been giving increasingly exasperated explanations of what’s going on in the county he serves.

“The truth is that there is no solid evidence of significant fraud in Maricopa County’s November 3 election,” Richer wrote in a CNN op-ed. “There is no solid evidence that the election in Maricopa County was stolen from former President Trump. That is why all eight cases brought in Arizona state and federal courts alleging widespread fraud, inaccuracies, or irregularities lost spectacularly.”

Richer also responded directly to Trump’s claims that files had been deleted, writing on Twitter, “I’m literally looking at our voter registration database on my other screen. Right now. We can’t indulge these insane lies any longer. As a party. As a state. As a country.”

Last week, Hobbs informed the county that it may be forced to replace its voting machines due to the potential that they were tampered with after being turned over to the state Senate and Cyber Ninjas.

Hobbs said she consulted with the Department of Homeland Security, which said that “no comprehensive methods exist to fully rehabilitate the compromised equipment or provide adequate assurance that they remain safe to use.” County officials had warned that the expensive and complex voting machines might have to be decertified when they were fighting the subpoenas in court last December.

Maricopa County ballots cast in the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors working for Florida-based company, Cyber Ninjas, Thursday, May 6, 2021 at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix. (Matt York/AP)
Maricopa County ballots cast in the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors working for Florida-based company, Cyber Ninjas, Thursday, May 6, 2021 at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix. (Matt York/AP)

“Were the secretary of state to de-certify Maricopa County’s election equipment, the ability of Maricopa County to conduct a free and fair, safe and secure election would be substantially undermined if not compromised altogether and thus the County will suffer irreparable harm,” the county said in a court filing at the time.

Ducey has ordered protection for Hobbs and her family after she received death threats tied to the ballot counting.

What comes next?

Because Cyber Ninjas failed to meet its initial 16-day estimate for finishing the audit, the state Senate was forced to extend its lease at the fairgrounds through the end of June. Trump has continued to insist there was fraud in Maricopa County, saying in a statement Tuesday that “early public reports are indicating a disaster, far greater than anyone had thought possible, for Arizona voters.” The former president’s allies have continued to push for additional audits elsewhere in the country, while Republican-controlled legislatures have passed new laws making voting more difficult. Their reasoning is that they need to restore faith in systems they’ve (baselessly) questioned since November.

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