Politics

Everything That Could Go Wrong With the Arizona “Recount”

A man in a surgical mask carries a cardboard box.
A contractor working for Cyber Ninjas transports ballots from the 2020 general election at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum on May 1 in Phoenix. Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images

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Andrew Oxford is a political reporter at the Arizona Republic, so it’s his job to find words for political catfights. But it’s been hard to find words for what he’s seeing now: a very public effort by the Arizona’s state senate to reexamine the results of the 2020 presidential election, six months after the fact. Some people have called it an investigation. Others use that word audit. Its critics have even called it a fraudit.

The president is Joe Biden. Elections officials around the country have affirmed this. They’ve also affirmed there was no widespread fraud on Election Day 2020. Here is what’s happening in an aging sports arena in Phoenix, anyway: All 2.1 million votes cast in Maricopa County are being tallied up one more time—not by elections officials but by independent contractors. On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, Oxford gave us a look inside Arizona’s push to triple-check the presidential election. Republican politicians say they’re “Just asking questions,” but at what cost? Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: How did the focus come to be on Maricopa County? 

Andrew Oxford: Right after the election, the state Senate Judiciary Committee had a hearing on the election process. Results were being certified by bipartisan officials at the county level, at the state level. There were audits. Nothing was turning up that showed that there was some sort of problem with the election.

But the state Senate went ahead anyway and issued subpoenas last year to get Maricopa County’s ballots, to get election equipment, to get machinery, to get documents. And this ended up playing out in court for a while. The county government, which is run by Republicans also, fought this. They weren’t even sure that they could legally do this. The Senate doesn’t usually do this kind of thing and the county doesn’t usually move around these ballots.

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So this played out in court for quite some time. And then it took the Senate nearly voting to put the county board of supervisors in jail. The Senate eventually won in court. And now here we are with almost a dog that caught the car situation. Only now are they getting the ballots. Only now are they getting what they were looking for.

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There have already been audits of what happened in November in Arizona. Why the continued push?

Yeah, there’s an audit as part of the normal process. After the election, county officials go back with representatives of the parties, and they take a sampling of ballots, and they go through them. And they did that here. And it was a perfect match. The results that they got were the results they got on Election Day.

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So why wasn’t that enough?

You’ve had a lot of political leaders who’ve continued to tell their supporters that this isn’t enough. There are a lot of Republican state senators who really don’t have any interest in doing this whole process. They don’t see a need to do it. They don’t really want to do it, but they’re not going to say that. You haven’t had people standing up and saying that. One state senator who’s a Republican voted against putting the county board of supervisors in jail, basically. And he got a lot of flak for it. The backlash was really swift.

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He talked about how he was getting texts with death threats.

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I ran into him in person a few days later, and I had to get this new phone number. He had to switch his phone number. That was a pretty good indication to all of his colleagues of what the attitude is about taking that line. He wasn’t even rushing to Joe Biden’s defense or anything. He was just saying, “Look, the county board of supervisors, some of these guys are my friends. I just don’t think that we should be going down this road with them.”

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Something I don’t understand about this audit that’s going on now is that the president of the Arizona Senate, who’s a Republican and has been known as a moderate, said that the audit would not change the settled election results in Arizona, which just made me wonder what is going on here? Why are we recounting 2.1 million votes if the point is not that something might change?

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Go and listen to, say, Steve Bannon, who talks about this on his podcast a lot and you get a different message, which is: This is going to be the first domino that falls. This is going to be the turning point.

The election audit started on April 23 at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum on the state fairgrounds in Phoenix.

The lease on the facility only runs through May 14. And then after that, Phoenix Union High School District has booked their high school graduations in the same facility. So the state fair has got to get the Senate out of there and get these kids with caps and gowns in. It’s an almost comically parochial concern amid all of this.

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Are they going to be done by then?

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I don’t think so. The last I heard at the end of last week was they were about 10 percent of the way through. I’m not exactly sure what they’re going to do when they hit this deadline.

That gets to the question of security. When I went to the Maricopa County Board of Elections website, I noticed they literally have cameras trained anywhere there’s a ballot all the time. And so you have to account for every ballot when you’re moving them around. It seems like it’s just another opportunity for error to enter.

Security’s been a question from the start when the ballots were first moved to the Coliseum. There were reports on a local TV station about “How secure is your ballot?” They were able to wander into the Coliseum on numerous occasions, without anybody stopping them or questioning them. The Senate has maintained that they’ve really improved security.

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As to what happens to these ballots next, that is the big question. You can’t just put them anywhere. They need to be secure. They need to be in a place where you know what’s going on and nothing’s going to happen to them.

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And that’s especially important because the people that the Senate has contracted with to do this work, they don’t seem like they’re impartial observers. It’s not like they are elections officials. They’re this Florida-based firm called the Cyber Ninjas. What do we know about them?

The Senate hired several firms. Cyber Ninjas is the lead on the project. From what I’ve looked at, it doesn’t seem to have a lot of experience, or any maybe, in the election space. There was at least one company that works in elections and put in an offer to work on this project with the Senate and was passed over for these companies that don’t really have experience doing anything of this scale. The choice of these companies has raise questions from the start, not only for that reason, but when Cyber Ninjas was first announced, it really didn’t take much Googling to find the now-deleted Twitter account of its CEO, Doug Logan, where he seemed to be promoting conspiracy theories about the election results and was promoting tweets by very prominent supporters of President Trump. And that raised a lot of questions about whether the guy had already made up his mind about what he was looking for. And he’s never really denied that those were his views or that those were his tweets and has instead just insisted that what matters is the process here. And at the one press conference we’ve had with him, asking about his tweets was off-limits.

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You also found that one of the people who seems to be counting ballots is a guy who himself was on the ballot, a state representative who was actually in D.C. on Jan. 6 during the riot, which also seems like a real process problem.

This is Anthony Kern. He was a state representative who ran for reelection last year. He was also part of the presidential electors slate that the Republican Party put forward. The thing that raised eyebrows about his choice to work on this process was not just that he was on the ballot, but also the Cyber Ninjas had said that they had been screening people and their social media posts to make sure that they didn’t have strong leanings one way or another about the election results and had been doing background checks. And Rep. Kern was at the Capitol on Jan 6. He was also on a Brady list. He was fired from being a code enforcement officer for dishonesty.

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He was fired for dishonesty? 

Yeah, he was fired for lying on the job.

And he’s counting ballots?

Yes, he was. At least, I think. It’s been a while since he’s been spotted there. His selection had raised some eyebrows. And there’s been no guarantee that even the people who are counting the ballots are going to be working in bipartisan groups, say, one Democrat and one Republican in every team. The process of who’s involved has been murky or in this instance has raised a lot of concerns itself.

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You’ve written that the process that the Senate’s contractors, including Cyber Ninjas, are using to count ballots differs significantly from practices that are detailed in Arizona’s election procedures manual. Can you tell me a little bit about how it’s supposed to work and then how it’s working here?

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When counting ballots by hand, there’s this tedious process where a team of people, working in threes, takes 25 or 50, and then they go by candidate. So they say, OK, Donald Trump, and they sort that batch of ballots into two stacks. One stack is votes for him, and then one stack is votes for someone else. And then they count those stacks. Then they go to the next candidate. Say, Joe Biden, and they do the same thing. One stack of votes for him, one stack of votes for someone else. Then they count those stacks. They go through the races like that. That really is designed to minimize human error. It’s supposed to be really deliberate and really focused.

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The process that you’re seeing here in what the Senate is doing: Basically they have people working around a table, and they’ll put a ballot on a Lazy Susan, and they will spin it around to each person. And they look at the ballot, they look at the presidential race and the Senate race, and they mark how the ballot was voted. And then they keep spinning it around so that everybody can see it, and then they do the next one and repeat that process.

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Elections officials I’ve talked to have said they’ve never really seen that kind of setup before. It could really be prone to error. It could be prone to someone getting distracted, making a mistake. I was talking to one woman who used to help run the Maricopa County Elections Department, and she said that you’d be surprised at how bad people are at staying focused on something like this for hours on end or at counting to 10 a ton of times.

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Is it worth talking a little bit about the money here, because you’ve written about how the Senate has set aside $150,000 for this effort to audit these 2.1 million votes, which seems like a low number to me. How is this being paid for?

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We don’t really know. We’re not even really clear how much this is all going to cost when it’s said and done. The Senate is only paying $150,000, but I have not spoken to anyone who runs elections who thinks that this would actually cost that amount of money. The Senate’s own point person for this was very clear with me that it’s going to cost more than that. Everybody’s been very opaque, though, about where is the rest of this money coming from.

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Isn’t it just obvious that it opens the process up to bad actors to come in.

A lot of groups have popped up to raise money for this, many of them tied to Trump officials or supporters. This has turned into a fundraising opportunity for those groups. But I would add that these are organizations don’t have to disclose their donors. So if they are funding this effort, we’ll never really know where that money is coming from.

You’ve said a couple of times that elections officials from around the country are worried about what happens in Arizona affecting trust in elections more generally. And I think it’s worth saying that there’s nothing wrong with questioning the results of an election and reviewing them extensively, because, of course, it’s one of the most important democratic processes we have in this country. We want to make sure it’s accurate. So can you clarify a little bit why they’re saying this particular investigation could be so damaging?

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It’s the opportunity for error in the way that this is set up. That’s the thing I hear again and again and again. When you’re using a process that not only differs so sharply from the process that was used in November, but also differs from really any kind of process that’s contemplated in Arizona’s policies, it’s highly likely that you’re going to have mistakes, you’re going to have errors. You add to that that observers have reported again and again seeing people changing policies on the fly, seeing confusion among people working on the process of how this is supposed to work. The concern I hear again and again is not that this is a review of the election but rather that there’s just so much opportunity for error here. That’s the concern I hear is that this is what’s going to really diminish people’s confidence in the electoral process, that that’s what’s going to fuel conspiracy theories. It’s what’s going to feed misinformation.

The elections officials that I talked to, the thing they’re most concerned about is that no matter what the results are, this has really just dented voter confidence. If you look at the process and the mistakes that they expect there will be in a process like this, there’s no way it’s going to match what you got in November. And then you put the seal of the state of Arizona on that. You put that out there and say, “Aha, look, the results changed. What’s the deal?” The concern I hear from Republicans and Democrats who oversee elections is that that’s just going to fuel conspiracy theories. That’s just going to further undermine confidence in the democratic process.

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