An ongoing “audit” of the 2020 presidential election in Maricopa County, Arizona, is taking its cues straight from a man intimately tied to the QAnon conspiracy theory.
President Joe Biden won Arizona—and Maricopa County—in the 2020 election, a victory that was upheld by multiple bipartisan reviews. But last week, a Republican-led coalition launched its own recount of Maricopa County’s votes, a process helmed by a conspiracy-tweeting tech CEO and funded by an unknown slate of donors.
The counting has just begun, but already the audit has become almost inextricable from the far-right internet. There, audit-watchers share tips and concerns about security offered by Ron Watkins, a man suspected of helping birth the QAnon craze.
The audit, it should be noted, is nonbinding. Arizona’s Republican governor, secretary of state, and state Supreme Court chief justice all previously certified Biden’s victory. Nevertheless, the recount has been embraced by a conspiratorial set seeking to cast doubt on the 2020 election, including former President Donald Trump himself.
Watkins is a former administrator of 8kun, the forum that hosted the QAnon conspiracy theory, which falsely accuses Trump’s foes of Satanic pedophilia and cannibalism. A new HBO documentary argues that Watkins is one of the authors behind the conspiracy theory. Watkins, who did not return a request for comment, denies that he is the anonymous “Q.”
That hasn’t stopped him from imbuing an outlandish process with an extra dose of paranoia.
Even before the audit kicked off, Watkins suggested that it might be attacked by rioters. “Will Maricopa county deploy police to protect the auditors from rioters?” he posted on his Telegram channel in mid-April. “Will the police end up standing down? You cannot have information security without physical security.”
He wasn’t the only QAnon-adjacent person stoking those fears. Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn claimed, without evidence, that anti-fascists and Black Lives Matter activists would attack the audit. “I’m telling you now, I’ll say it today, because we have intel that they may be bringing people down from Portland and Seattle to disrupt,” Flynn said during a speech this month. “I mean to disrupt finding the truth, discovering the truth?“
Watkins has continued to imply the left was traveling to protest the audit—a process virtually no one outside of the far right has taken seriously. “If you have proof, chat logs, or information regarding BLM or antifa booking rooms in Arizona to protest the audits, please email me,” he wrote several days later.
So far, any threat has yet to materialize. Outside the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, where the audit is being held, much of the ire appears reserved for Maricopa County’s Republican-majority board of supervisors, who previously certified the vote that gave Joe Biden the state’s electoral votes. “Board of supervisors are enemies of the nation,” read one flag, photographed by the Arizona Republic.
But after months of “Stop the Steal” memes about phantom voter fraud, the security theater has been steadily escalating—with some semi-official help.
The event is currently receiving security from the Arizona Rangers, a civilian law enforcement auxiliary that has raised more than $130,000 on GoFundMe since it began patrolling outside the audit. On Monday evening, the two most recent donations (each for $100) read, “Because I want the truth out once and for all, plus I want the right President back in Office, and that is Trump” and “THEY CANT STOP WHATS COMING! WWG1WGA!” (“WWG1WGA” is a QAnon slogan.)
Observers on the right aren’t satisfied. They want even more heightened security, with Trump calling on Gov. Doug Ducey to hire more guards….