Jurisprudence

The Arizona Audit Is Getting Very Close to Being Hauled in Front of Congress

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Jamie Raskin listens to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez during a hearing before the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties of House Committee on Oversight and Reform at Rayburn House Office Building July 29, 2021 in Washington, D.C.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The fight over Arizona’s Trump-inspired audit of the 2020 presidential election in Maricopa County escalated again this week, with the Republican-led County Board of Supervisors calling it an “adventure in never-never land” and rejecting the Arizona Senate’s demands that more materials be handed over to Cyber Ninjas, the conspiracy-theory promoting audit firm leading the effort.

With ongoing legal challenges, the internal state battle will continue over whether the audit will go on indefinitely for months after it was supposed to end. There was, however, the first glimmer of possibility that the auditors—who have already spread easily debunked lies claiming the existence of tens of thousands of potentially fraudulent votes—will face serious public scrutiny.

First, on Tuesday an Arizona judge ruled that Cyber Ninjas needed to turn over audit-related materials to a watchdog group that had filed a public records request. The audit firm has promised to appeal that ruling, but on Wednesday I learned that the Cyber Ninjas are now facing even greater scrutiny from a body that has the power to move faster than the courts: the House Oversight Committee.

Cyber Ninjas, I’ve been told, missed last week’s deadline to produce all materials surrounding the audit, as requested by the committee in a letter last month. The Cyber Ninjas have, according to an Oversight Committee staff member involved in the inquiry, requested through counsel more time to meet the letter’s demands. But the Oversight Committee is already preparing for what happens if the firm doesn’t cooperate. “Our expectation is that the company will comply in full with our requests in short order,” according to the staff member. “If they do not, then the Chairwoman will take steps to ensure we get the answers from them that we need.”

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Indeed, Oversight Committee chairwoman Carolyn Maloney confirmed that the committee would escalate the matter if Cyber Ninjas does not comply with its records request, which would likely mean congressional subpoenas into every aspect of the Arizona audit.

“Partisan audits funded by dark money groups undermine Americans’ confidence in elections,” Maloney said in a statement sent to me on Wednesday, referring to the handful of Trump-linked 501(c)(3) entities that have poured more than $5.7 million into the audit effort. “Cyber Ninjas must provide complete transparency over its questionable activities and sources of funding, and answer Congress’s questions without further delay. If it does not, we will use all tools available to ensure we get the answers we need to protect the integrity of federal elections.”

The Oversight Committee has requested any and all documentation about every minute detail of the Maricopa County audit, including information on its bizarre vote-counting procedures, complete data about its funders, training materials, any documented complaints about the audit, details around the audit’s hunt for bamboo-laced paper, and any communications auditors had with former President Donald Trump or anyone in his orbit, including Rudy Giuliani, Michael Flynn, or former Trump administration officials.

On Tuesday, I spoke with Rep. Jamie Raskin, the chairman of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties that is spearheading the audit inquiry and a member of the House Select Committee that is investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection. Raskin explained why Congress is investigating the audit and described how he views the efforts to cast doubt on the election in Arizona as the natural progression of the mob assault on the Capitol of Jan. 6 and as an attempt to set the stage for Trump’s comeback as a political candidate. The following conversation has been condensed for length and clarity.

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Jeremy Stahl: When I read the letter that your committee and sub-committee sent to Cyber Ninjas, I thought it was the first thing that I’ve seen that could work to create some transparency around this very, very secretive process.

Jamie Raskin: It appears to be an utterly fraudulent outsourcing of what’s a public function. If we need election audits, they should be conducted by public actors, but there’s no grounds to think that any further election auditing was needed because these results have already been confirmed in Arizona.

As the Committee on Oversight and Reform, we have the authority to investigate anything that would implicate the integrity of government and the rights of the people. This kind outsourced corporate ambush of a public election is a very dangerous trend that Donald Trump wants to take us down and everybody can see how this development is a logical implication of the big lie. This is just the big lie filtering down to the state and county level and corrupting and undermining genuine public process.

There has been this sort of attitude, particularly it seems to me on the Republican side, around these challenges to democracy that goes if you just let these sorts of efforts play themselves out it’ll just burn itself out without actually having to confront anything. Does that resonate with you at all?

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The Republican establishment keeps appeasing Trump’s insatiable appetite for lies, corruption, and violence. They keep hoping that someone else will put an end to it. It doesn’t work like that. They’ve helped to create a monster and that’s why we owe it to … Liz Cheney, the Lincoln Project, and the Republicans who are willing to stand up to say that the destruction of the rule of law in this way is the road to fascism.

How was this specific audit and the issues around it brought to the oversight committee’s attention?

I chair the oversight subcommittee on civil rights and civil liberties. Obviously, I’m passionate about the right of the people to vote. … Maricopa County has been much on my mind because Donald Trump keeps talking about and seems to believe that somehow the fix is in such that he will be able to stage his political comeback based on whatever conclusions they concoct in this private corporate so-called investigation. …

He continually invokes Arizona and Maricopa County as the beginning of his political resurrection. So, whatever they have planned in Maricopa County is obviously going to be an important part of Trump’s argument to his movement about why he needs to be restored to office. That’s extremely dangerous rhetoric. As somebody who lived through Jan. 6 with my staff and my family, I take all of Donald Trump’s extremist rhetoric seriously. Some more people could be killed if he decides to whip up his violent mass movement. …

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What can a congressional inquiry reasonably be expected to learn about the funders of this audit, many of whom are 501(c)(3) organizations whose donors are secret?

They owe us answers to everything, to all of the questions we’ve posed. Everybody owes Congress honest and truthful answers.

The committee’s letter said: “The Committee is particularly concerned that your company’s actions could undermine the integrity of federal elections and interfere with Americans’ constitutional right to cast their ballot freely and to have their votes counted without partisan interference.” What does that specific danger look like to you?

It’s hard to think of a more quintessentially public function than the counting of ballots, the reporting of election results, and the auditing of elections, but what we’ve seen from Donald Trump is an effort to undermine and second-guess election authorities. The country saw dramatically in Georgia where he called up Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state, and demanded that he find him 11,779 votes [Biden’s margin of victory in the state]. This was an audio record of an attempt to commit election fraud. …

Similarly, he tried to get state legislatures to overthrow popular election results in the presidential contest and just replace them with slates of Trump electors. … We have a definitive record by more than 60 federal and state courts that there was no fraud and there was no corruption. So having failed at every turn, including in Congress, to overthrow the election through public process, he turned to violence. And now he’s turning to private corporate outsourcing of the public function of conducting an election audit. And the point there obviously is to obtain the result he is seeking by shielding this private corporate election Ninja process from real public transparency and scrutiny. So that’s the role of the oversight committee and my sub-committee. We have at least the opportunity to try to bring some public sunlight back to a process that Donald Trump is determined to corrupt.

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This audit is halfway across the country from D.C. and your district in Maryland. How focused can you be on the specifics and intricacies of this?

We’re very focused on following it however we can. I’ve been fascinated by the coverage and it’s obviously unsettling already to find out how much motivated right-wing political money has gone into this outfit. I don’t know why the public should be asked to have any confidence at all in what these people are doing. Essentially, they’re asking the people of Arizona to distrust and abandon the public election authorities who are Republican, Democrats, Independents—but professionals committed to electoral integrity—and place their faith into a pro-Trump ideological outfit created for this purpose.

Even the Arizona Senate’s liaison to this audit who was nominally in charge of the thing, former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, has raised serious doubts about the audit, saying he was intentionally denied access to vote tabulation procedures and that he was concerned that the auditors might try to “force balance” its results after-the-fact to appear to meet a more accurate count. Is there a potential for more compulsory action to try to get either documents or witnesses like Ken Bennett to actually reveal what’s been going on there?

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It’s alarming but highly unsurprising that Ken Bennett would be raising so many skeptical concerns about what has been taking place. It’s clear that the whole deployment of the Cyber Ninjas has been meant to vindicate Trump’s most outlandish claims. We regard what’s happening in Arizona with a lot of seriousness and we will get to the bottom of it. We are not going to allow federal election processes to be corrupted and drained of all their integrity by these indefensible ambushes after the fact.

It is parallel in some sense to what was attempted on Jan. 6. It was clear that Joe Biden had beaten Donald Trump by more than seven million votes. It was clear that he had beaten him in the Electoral College by 306 to 232 and then the Trump forces, combining both violent and non-violent means, attempted to coerce Vice President Pence and Congress to reject the Electoral College votes of Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania in order to deny Biden a majority in the Electoral College. …

In the big picture, what they did was try to transform a completely ministerial and pro forma function by the vice president into a moment for political decision-making and this is essentially what they’re doing in Arizona. The election is over, it’s settled, the results were certified, and validated and confirmed, and with this rearguard ambush Trump’s forces are trying to nullify a bona fide and certified public election. They’re using their control over one legislative body to manipulate and overthrow the electoral process.

When I spoke with people who had some knowledge of how both activists and the Department of Justice might push back against this in terms of legal action, what I was struck by was the explanation that there was limited to no legal tools to combat this. Which again is why I was struck by you all doing this work.

We have a constitutional responsibility under the Republican guarantee clause and under the 14th Amendment, equal protection, to guarantee to the people of the states a representative and democratic form of government and the right to vote. So we cannot allow state legislatures to pull a fast one against legitimate political electoral processes in order to gerrymander particular results in an election. Congress has a critical role to play in guaranteeing that public elections are transparent and fair and public election results have integrity and are protected.


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