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, 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.
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“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.
The overlap with Trump’s cause doesn’t end there. The audit is being funded through partisan sponsors including MyPillow CEO Mike…