Sitting in the press booth at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, several rows above where some two dozen tables of counters were retallying the 2020 presidential votes of the citizens of Maricopa County, Bennie Smith acknowledged something that has become readily apparent to most outside observers of the process that has come to be known as the “Arizona audit.”
“They’re not trying to capture an accurate count,” said Smith, a Democratic Tennessee election official who had traveled to Phoenix to advise the auditors. In fact, Smith said he expects the end result to be “wildly different from the count.”
Smith said he was advising the audit—a process specially ordered by the Arizona Senate and which began last month outside the county’s ordinary recount system—because he hopes to see a standardization of independent machine ballot audits of most U.S. elections. What’s going on in the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, former home to the Phoenix Suns and commonly used these days for gun shows and high school graduations, is not that. Nor is it a hand recount done in accordance with the Arizona election procedures.
Here’s how Arizona recounts are supposed to normally work: Two counters, under the eye of a supervisor, tally ballots in batches of 10 at a time. Their results must agree, and any discrepancies in each batch must be resolved by a bipartisan board before they are added to the count. Here’s what Smith had been watching inside the audit: batches of 50 ballots, swinging around on a Lazy Susan, as three people speed-read votes in the presidential race and the U.S. Senate race, which were won by Democrats Joe Biden and Mark Kelly.
“Everybody’s got about three and a half seconds to watch two races,” Smith said. For many tables, it appeared to be less time than that. If he were on the floor trying to count ballots himself, Smith said, he believed he would be making mistakes under those conditions. “That table is rolling,” Smith says pointing at a particularly fast-counting group. “Me standing there for five hours, I would not say that it would be ideal.”
To the uninitiated observer, this might seem alarming. But Smith assured me it was nothing to worry about—because, he said, “they’re not recounting the election.”
What were the people busily counting election ballots doing, then? Over the course of three days in Phoenix, talking to participants and critics and watching the event unfold, I couldn’t get a coherent answer. The Arizona audit is a new kind of political ritual, whose purpose exists beyond reason or consensus or fact. More than six months after Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election was certified by Republican officials in Maricopa, Arizona’s largest and one of the largest in the country, this audit is what the Arizona Senate has decided is necessary to resolve continued accusations by the former president and his supporters that the 2020 election was stolen.
Acceptance of error—of alternative facts, as it were—is built into the process: If two counters have the same total, but the third counter disagrees by one or two votes, then the two matching counts become the official tally, overruling the discrepancy. According to observers of the audit, this happens often.
Around the audit site, the political fault lines are multiplying—not merely between Trump supporters and Biden supporters, but between the local Republican officials, who are responsible for election results being verifiable and making sense, and the state Republicans, who are chasing a myth. The irregularities in the numbers are the least of it.
“They destroyed the election,” former County Recorder Adrian Fontes said of the Senate auditors. “And I think that they did it on purpose.”
The statement might sound like partisan hyperbole from a former elected official with an ax to grind. But in the past week, similarly damning calls were issued by every major Republican elected official in Maricopa County. In a meeting on Tuesday, Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jack Sellers said plainly, “It’s time to be done with this craziness,” as he and the county’s other top elected officials, who had previously tried to work with the Republican state senators, signed a letter calling for an end of the audit. On Thursday, the Democratic secretary of state said that Maricopa County could no longer safely use the voting equipment that had been handed over to the audit.
The Republican-controlled county board went along with the audit plan initially because the Senate, Fontes said, “had given these guys guarantees it wasn’t going to be a shit show.” Instead, the state Senate ended up handing nearly 2.1 million Maricopa County ballots to a previously unknown company called “Cyber Ninjas,” whose CEO has claimed the election may have been manipulated by a firm with ties to the former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez (who is dead).
“We’ve changed course,” Stephen Richer, the current county recorder who unseated Fontes in the last election, told me of the local Republican response.
That course correction appears to have come too late. Up close in Arizona, it’s clear that the Cyber Ninjas are doing exactly what their CEO, Doug Logan, has accused election officials of doing: miscounting the 2020 election. If and when that new and inaccurate result is made public as part of an official audit report, local leaders believe the consequences will be grave.
“I think a small mushroom cloud will go up over Maricopa County if the Cyber Ninjas report that Donald Trump really was the winner of the election,” Richer says.
The joke about Adrian Fontes in the Phoenix-Tempe area is that when he rigged the 2020 election in Maricopa County, he forgot to fix his own race. Those who have accused him of treason don’t think it’s so funny.
Just outside the audit site was a small tent of supporters holding signs in favor of the audit. One was a banner depicting the swing states in the 2020 election as a series of dominoes, with the header “May Arizona be the first Domino to Fall.” Another declared that the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors “are enemies of the nation.”
I broached the joke about Fontes with some of the audit supporters around the tent. “It’s a team effort,” said Joe Medina, a middle-aged Mexican American Trump supporter and self-described Christian, who wore a T-shirt with a Grand Canyon emblem. “He could be one of the fall guys.”
Medina and others at the audit site were convinced the audit is likely to prove corruption that they are certain occurred during the 2020 election. At that point, “justice” will demand somebody serve a prison sentence.
“Treason is a pretty bad crime,” Medina said.
Kelly Johnson, who traveled from Orange County, California, to attend the audit and carries a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum in a holster as he walks around between the Coliseum parking lot and the tent encampment to guard against antifa, says that Joe Biden belongs in Guantánamo Bay.*
It’s been treated in the national press corps almost like distant history, but it was only five months ago that a group of similarly minded Trump supporters stormed the Capitol of the United States assaulting police officers and hunting for public officials.
“What’s going on right here is dangerous,” said Kirk Vandermiller, a counterprotester standing across from the audit supporters with his own signs.
At about midday and in 99-degree heat, Vandermiller set up on the opposite side of the street from the pro-audit tent with a two-sided replica road construction sign, one side reading “ELECTION FRAUD IN PROGRESS” and the other “SORE LOSER ZONE.”
After Vandermiller put out his signs, one of the women in the pro-audit tent put out a new sign that looked freshly spray painted, which read “Winner Zone.”
“They’re living in a fantasy,” Vandermiller said. “Adults live in reality, children live in fantasy, and this is a movement of people with childlike minds.”
As I began to head for the audit site, someone from the pro-audit side shouted at Vandermiller: “What are you afraid of?”
This is a major talking point of the pro-audit side: If election officials and Democrats had nothing to hide, they wouldn’t oppose the process. What’s going on in the actual audit site, though, leaves plenty to worry about.
First, the public has no idea who is paying for the audit. The Arizona Senate put up $150,000 in funding, but the cost for the audit is reported to run into the millions of dollars. The Cyber Ninjas are raising that money from anonymous third parties.
What little we do know about the auditors themselves does not bode well for an impartial count. The counters have been drawn mainly from the ranks of the grassroots Republican Party, and the few who have been identified publicly are self-described partisans. One of the workers who spoke with CNN, Elouise Flagg, was straightforward about her perspective. “I think Donald Trump won the election—firm believer,” Flagg told the network. “I hope we come to a point where we’re happy with the results and truth is told.”
Another auditor was a former Republican state legislator named Anthony Kern who participated in “Stop the Steal” events, was photographed on the steps of the Capitol during the Jan. 6 riot, and had been fired from a law enforcement job for lying to a supervisor and placed on an official misconduct list. Kern’s name was also on the ballot as an official elector for Donald Trump—under normal Arizona audit procedures, it is illegal to count a vote when your name is on the ballot. Kern was ultimately removed as a counter because of “optics,” Senate liaison Ken Bennett told reporters in the press pool when I was at the coliseum.
And then there are those hasty counting procedures, which seem almost designed to create errors. Despite Smith’s insistence that this recount was not a recount, the audit supporters and the rest of the Republican base seem ready to view it as exactly that. Bennett, the former Arizona secretary of state who is now the leader of the audit, said this count—and he called it a “count”—is being conducted to look for “more than acceptable variance” from the official tally.
“More than acceptable variance” is 0.3 percent, or Joe Biden’s margin of victory in the state, Bennett told me. In Maricopa County, that would be a change of 6,268 ballots, or approximately one error toward President Donald Trump every third batch count. Again, the count allows up to two discrepancies per batch between the two official counters and a third “off” counter.
“This has been designed in a way to create this doubt and to be able to put out misinformation and not be honest with the public about what they found,” Arizona’s Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs told me. “A really key piece of any audit is that you can replicate your results, and they’re creating results that are not going to be replicable by anyone else who wanted to do the same thing again.”
Adrian Fontes agrees. “I can guarantee you right now they will not find the same numbers because they’re not performing the same acts,” he says. “Worse yet, spinning these Lazy Susans around and only giving these folks three seconds per ballot and then discounting one of the three folks, and those numbers, means that they’re going to get wildly different numbers that are going to be wholly unverifiable.”
“We didn’t do so bad,” said deputy audit liaison John Brakey in the press booth, on one of the final days before the audit suspended its operations so that Veterans Memorial Coliseum could host a week of high school graduations. “We didn’t qualify for Bizarro Watch, so that’s a win!”
Brakey was discussing his and Ken Bennett’s appearance on The Daily Show the night before. “All Chinese ballots are on bamboo? Is it because soy sauce would be too obviously racist?” Daily Show correspondent Jordan Klepper asked Brakey and Bennett on national television.
“I consider it a victory because we survived it,” Brakey said.
The bamboo question had been trailing Brakey ever since he first reported to a local member of the Arizona press that the audit was indeed looking through high-resolution digital cameras for traces of bamboo in the ballots. “They shot the messenger,” Brakey muttered at one point. “The rest of my life they’re going to talk about this.”
Down below, cameras were snapping photos of ballot after ballot, still looking for bamboo. But it was never Brakey’s idea, he wanted the press to know. It was another member of the audit team, Jovan Pulitzer, who came up with the notion that you could prove or disprove Chinese influence in the election by hunting for bamboo traces on potentially smuggled ballots. Brakey spoke at length about Pulitzer, describing him as a charlatan. He also shared with reporters an email dossier that describes Pulitzer as a “con artist who is a master of hoaxes and fraud” and a “failed treasure hunter.”
Back in December, Pulitzer said that he could use forensics to try to detect bamboo in suspected Chinese ballots; in March, he declared that “my technology and intellectual property is assisting one of the most impressive and qualified audit teams ever assembled.” Bennett subsequently confirmed Pulitzer would be involved in the audit.
The bamboo hunt, though, had become such a national embarrassment that Pulitzer himself tried to disown it during a conversation with me. “I don’t lend any credence to that story,” Pulitzer said of the claim that China had flown in tens of thousands of ballots to Maricopa County via a South Korean airplane to swing the election for Biden. Pulitzer told me that he’s a scientist merely trying to help “to tell whether that story is true or made up bullshit.” Like Brakey, he says, “Don’t shoot the messenger.”
As for the South Korean jetliner story, “if that’s found to be fraud, then I’m all for taking a piece of bamboo and whipping the shit out of that person for making up that bullshit story, because that is just un-freaking-forgivable,” Pulitzer said. “But right now, nobody knows. And, so, one way to tell is by looking at the fibers of the paper.”
No matter how deeply you go into the audit, it’s always supposedly being done on someone else’s behalf—someone sincerely (if unverifiably) concerned about whether the generally accepted facts of the election are really facts. The messengers are just conveying the message, even if they do it over and over again. As recently as April, Pulitzer published a 30-minute video on his YouTube page endorsing separate theories that China had smuggled ballots into a different state, titled “The China Connection With Georgia Elections? Is There One? PROVE IT!” (Of the Georgia smuggled ballot claim he endorses and the Arizona smuggled ballot claim he disowns, Pulitzer said, “They have nothing to do with each other.”)
Pulitzer, for his part, refused to answer questions about how, specifically, his “technology and intellectual property” were being used in Arizona, what consulting he did with Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan, and whether or not he’s going to be responsible for conducting the bamboo paper analysis, citing a nondisclosure agreement. He also wouldn’t discuss what compensation he is getting from the Arizona audit or who might be paying him.
He has, however, been pushing for government-backed audits across the country through crowdfunding efforts. “Being an auditor myself, Jovan’s price is insane, like insane, it’s so small,” said one New Hampshire resident who’s been supporting a local audit effort, offering an endorsement of Pulitzer’s services.
Indeed, Pulitzer has become somewhat of a folk hero among those who see the 2020 election as having been stolen from Donald Trump. He even has his own anthem. It is titled “Warrior” and the opening lyrics go like this:
You fight for free and fair elections/ invented scan the ballots of kinematic artifact detection/ you love to read aloud, travel, and explore/ you’re a fearless braveheart patriot, who’s opened doors/ you’re our courage, you’re our voice, Jovan we thank you for what you’re fighting for/ you’re our warrior.
One of the architects behind the audit push in Arizona, Liz Harris, spent one day earlier this month running the song on loop over footage of the audit site on her YouTube channel.
Back in the audit site, it was very hard to tell how the paper analysis techniques supposedly invented by Jovan Pulitzer were being used. What you could see at the site were a handful of crews set up at tables with high-definition cameras. One person would hand a ballot to the cameraperson, who would snap a photo of one side, then flip the ballot and snap the other side, and then hand it to a third person who reviewed it and put it in a new stack.
Observers for the secretary of state’s office said that these crews were looking for what they considered anomalies in ballots and elevating those “suspicious” ballots for secondary “examination.” Such anomalies, according to these observers, include Election Day ballots that may have been folded in half by a voter, or the appearance of food stains a voter might have left on his or her ballot from Cheeto fingers. (Pulitzer described the notion of stained ballots being flagged as “standard operating procedure,” though the official Arizona elections manual states “if a ballot is slightly defaced or soiled, the board must include this ballot in the hand count.”)
Above the audit site, when I asked Senate liaison Ken Bennett about the paper analysis area, he insisted what’s happening is simply evidence collection, and there was no actual labeling of suspicious ballots taking place. “I don’t see any of that happening,” Bennett told me. “This is data collection, data analysis.”
Bennett then pointed down at the floor at a camera setup. “I don’t think there’s any decision-making,” Bennett said. “You see the person, she flips it twice, hands it to the next, guy, he takes one picture, bang, it’s in the box, man.”
After this conversation, I followed up with two of the current secretary of state’s observers, and they said definitively, contrary to Bennett’s account, that labeling of ballots has been happening on that floor. In fact, Cyber Ninjas’ attorney, Bryan Blehm, gave the observers access to the physical key being used by the photography team to categorize ballots. According to secretary of state observers Ryan Macias and Jennifer Morrell, the camera teams were applying color-coded Post-it flags to the ballots to demarcate “suspicious” ones that needed to be elevated to “paper examination two.”
“Bryan Blehm, the attorney for Cyber Ninjas, told me that I could take a copy of the key and write down all of the categories,” Macias told me. “A blue flag equaled ‘folded or unfolded’—I wrote down verbatim the words that were there—yellow was ‘missing security feature.’ Orange was ‘presidential selection mark.’ Pink was ‘weight and texture.’ Green was ‘other.’ And they couldn’t describe to me what ‘other’ meant.” Macias saw these keys at photography tables throughout the arena. Morrell observed audit team members applying these categories in some strange ways.
“I heard them sort of mention, ‘Oh this has a stain on it, is it a normal stain? This doesn’t seem right,’ ” she told me. “I heard discussion a few times where they flagged ballots as being suspicious that they thought shouldn’t have been folded and were folded.”
These are obviously merely “human idiosyncrasies,” Morrell said. “I think if you ask any election official, they’ll tell you voters will fold ballots however they want,” she said.
When I asked Bennett—who is, again, the former top election official in the state of Arizona—about all this in a follow-up phone call, he again simply denied knowledge of what was happening in his own audit site.
“I was not unaware of any categorization or raising of a level happening at those tables. I have to confirm with Mr. Logan, but I was not aware of what the SOS observers are claiming to have been told by Mr. Blehm,” he said. “That’s news to me.”
I asked Bennett if he thinks that Election Day ballots that may have been folded deserve to be labeled as suspicious. “To me it’s not necessarily suspicious,” he said. For his part, Jovan Pulitzer told me that flagging a ballot with “some funky origami shape to it” would be “standard operating procedure in any inspection.”
Ultimately, this paper analysis process adds another way for auditors to ultimately claim the official election count was incorrect and that Trump may have won. Even if the recount itself isn’t wildly off, at the end of the day there will be a pile of suspicious Cheetos-stained and folded ballots that could match or exceed the very slim margin of Biden’s victory.
“Right, yep, that’s exactly right,” Morrell told me when I broached this possibility with her. “That’s the big unknown, but I think we all know that’s what the outcome will—that’s exactly what it will look like.”
“There’s no positive outcome for this,” Morrell said of the audit after her time observing.
That perspective is spreading. After the official Arizona audit Twitter account accused Republican County Recorder Stephen Richer and his staff of illegally deleting an elections database—and Donald Trump repeated the claim—Richer started to finally push back against what he called “unhinged” accusations and “insane lies.”
“This is not what we had hoped,” Richer told me of how the audit has been going. “I don’t know how this ends positively.”
Richer told me he wanted to “see if we can get some more Republicans in Arizona to join the bandwagon because otherwise this is just going to linger into 2022 if we don’t get a critical mass of people to say enough.”
I asked him if, outside of Maricopa County, he expected to see any support from other members of the Republican Party. Richer fell silent for eight seconds. When he finally spoke, he said haltingly, “I don’t know. I’m not sure. I … 50-50.
“The path of least resistance is to just sort of either ignore it or to say, ‘Well, I don’t know what happened there but we should continue looking at these things,’ ” Richer acknowledged. “If enough of us just came out and said flat ‘no’ then I think that would be nipped in the bud.”
With the Senate president holding a hearing during the audit’s off week once again endorsing the work of Doug Logan, and with the audit set to resume on Monday, it seems unlikely that Trump’s claim the election was stolen in Arizona and across the country will “be nipped in the bud.” Fontes points to Liz Cheney losing her leadership post in Congress for her refusal to indulge Trump’s election fantasies and sees all this as predictable.
“You know, once you get on that Trump train, if you get off, it ain’t stopping for you,” Fontes told me. “If you get off, it’s gonna be because somebody shoved you.”
And if the recount looks like a circus to the people who have to deal with it directly, it looks more like a model to Republicans elsewhere seeking a way to keep the election in doubt. As national Republicans have purged dissenters and rejected a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection, Trump and his supporters have called for similar audits of the elections in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire. A Republican candidate for governor in Georgia has promised to initiate an Arizona-style audit if he wins office next year, while crowdfunders continue to push local officials to do a Pulitzer audit in New Hampshire. Even if some of these states don’t ultimately go through with these audits, the continued challenges to the 2020 election results are giving cover for Republican legislatures across the country, including in Arizona, to pass laws actively suppressing the vote. As things stand in Arizona now, though, the next domino should be easier to topple.
Correction, May 24, 2021: This article originally misidentified Kelly Johnson as Kelly Smith.