A dubious hand recount of roughly 2.1 million ballots cast for the 2020 presidential and U.S. Senate elections is underway in Maricopa, Arizona’s largest county. In November, President Joe Biden won the county with 50.3 percent of the vote, as did Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly with 51.9 percent of the vote. Now, six months after the election, Arizona’s Republican-controlled state Legislature has ordered a highly unusual audit. The effort is fueled by unsubstantiated accusations of fraud and irregularities in the 2020 vote count from former President Donald Trump and other conservative figures. Trump has reportedly become obsessed with the Arizona recount, bringing it up constantly in private conversations and speeches.
In an even more bizarre move, the Arizona Legislature has hired a Florida-based cybersecurity company called Cyber Ninjas to lead the recount for $150,000. The company has no experience in elections, and its CEO helped to spread “Stop the Steal” conspiracy theories in the run-up to the Capitol riot; it is now in possession of Maricopa’s ballots and voting equipment. Guessing you have some questions!
What is Cyber Ninjas?
Cyber Ninjas is a cybersecurity company based in Sarasota, Florida, that was founded in 2013 by tech entrepreneur Doug Logan. The company’s focus is app security; it offers training, consulting, and assessments of an app’s vulnerabilities. One of Cyber Ninjas’ specialties is what it calls “ethical hacking,” which involves a professional attempting to penetrate an application in order to reveal its security weaknesses. Its website features images of katanas and people clad in ninja costumes, but virtually no references to elections or voting. Politico reported last month that no one in Florida Republican elections or politics seems to know of Cyber Ninjas or Logan.
Though it guards its client list closely, Cyber Ninjas claims to provide services to “the federal government in Washington, D.C.” The company has been involved in the U.S. Cyber Challenge, or USCC, a program supported by the Department of Homeland Security that identifies and trains cybersecurity talent. Logan characterized Cyber Ninjas’ participation in the USCC and its overall mission as being Christian in nature. “As a Christian company, we also believe we have a responsibility to serve, as Christ served. Helping the USCC is a great way to be a blessing to others, while helping combat evil hackers,” he said in 2014.
So the CEO of the company auditing this election believes it was stolen?
Yes. Logan was a little-known figure until Cyber Ninjas took charge of the Arizona recount. It then came to light that he’s had a history of authoring and amplifying debunked conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. Through his now-deleted Twitter account, Logan extensively retweeted and posted false allegations of widespread voter fraud. “The parallels between the statistical analysis of Venezuela and this year’s election are astonishing,” he tweeted in December. “I’m ashamed about how few republicans are talking about it.” Advocates of the “Stop the Steal” movement baselessly hold that voting systems used in the 2020 race were actually created years earlier in Venezuela to rig elections in favor of the now-deceased Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez. Logan also retweeted election misinformation from prominent figures in the QAnon movement like former 8chan administrator Ron Watkins and former national security adviser Michael Flynn. A tweet he shared from Watkins maintained that there were 200,000 pro-Trump votes from Maricopa that weren’t counted.
Logan’s “Stop the Steal” antics extend beyond social media. He is listed as an expert witness in a lawsuit alleging voter fraud in Michigan. Logan was also the author of a document called “Election Fraud Facts & Details” that Sidney Powell, the conservative attorney who is now embroiled in a defamation lawsuit concerning her election conspiracy theories, shared on her website. In the document, he props up the Venezuela narrative and a similarly absurd and debunked theory regarding Chinese investment in the voting machine manufacturer Dominion. Dominion has been the target of outlandish and unsubstantiated claims of rigging machines against Trump. A GitHub account under Logan’s name currently features a repository of government documents that discuss Dominion. Cyber Ninjas’ audit will notably include an examination of the Dominion ballot tabulation machines in Maricopa County.
In an attempt to assuage criticisms of bias, Logan has promised that he “won’t touch a single ballot.” He said on another occasion, “It’s also the most skeptical person who makes the best auditors; not the person who thinks it is impossible to find anything.” The Arizona GOP is also standing by Logan. “We’re not here to audit Mr. Logan’s opinions about anything,” Republican audit liaison Ken Bennett told reporters.*
Sooooo maybe not the company you’d trust to conduct a fair and accurate recount! Is Cyber Ninjas somehow overcoming those self-imposed hurdles and exceeding expectations?
Nope. Election experts noted that the company has already made rookie mistakes. For instance, Arizona Republic reporter Jen Fifield spotted auditors using blue pens, which is not best practice since there is a risk of altering the vote on a ballot. The state’s own election process manual prohibits anything but red pens from being used. When Fifield brought the issue up with Logan, she says he was unaware that the blue ink could be a problem and seemed unsure overall about the correct procedure. A judge later ordered the removal of all black and blue pens from the facility where the recount is taking place. The Brennan Center for Justice, a legal think tank associated with New York University, also sent a letter to the Department of Justice last week alleging that Cyber Ninjas has not been following basic security practices like locking doors to the facility holding the ballots and preventing unauthorized individuals from entering.
Logan and his company also seem to be implementing some suspect methods to check the ballots. Auditors have inexplicably taken to using UV lights to scan ballots for evidence of fraud. The company that prints ballots for Maricopa said it has no idea what running the ballots under UV lights would achieve and experts at the Brennan Center say it could actually cause the paper to deteriorate. Conspiracy theorists who follow QAnon and Stop the Steal, however, believe that UV light will reveal that the ballots contain secret watermarks and other markings that will separate the authentic from the fake. Logan is further receiving help from Jovan Pulitzer, a celebrity among election fraud conspiracy theorists and inventor of the widely reviled CueCat bar code scanner. Pulitzer, who does not seem to have any experience with election audits, claims to have invented technology that can examine a ballot’s ink and folds for signs that they have been forged. The state’s Republican Legislature has not independently verified that this technology actually works.
Logan has made a big deal about the recount being transparent, but it’s been anything but. Lawyers for Cyber Ninjas requested that a Maricopa County judge keep its recount procedure under wraps due to supposed concerns around trade secrets and security. They also asked that journalists and the public be excluded from hearings in a lawsuit that the county supervisor and the Arizona Democratic Party brought against the state Legislature. The judge did not grant their request. Cyber Ninjas has also been restricting access to audit observers, in one case turning people away because of an apparent problem with the sign-up sheet.
How did Arizona get to this point? Weren’t there already some recounts?
The current recount is part of an ongoing effort to undermine confidence in the 2020 election and overturn the results. (Republican officials in Arizona claim that their recount is simply intended to find and fix flaws in the county’s voting process.) Trump and his allies have yet to accept that Biden won the race and continue to spin wild theories about practically impossible schemes to rig the voting system. In the immediate aftermath of the election, the Trump campaign sued Arizona election officials and claimed that poll workers in Maricopa County, which the former president won in 2016, had “incorrectly rejected” in-person votes. The suit was later dismissed. In February, county supervisors hired two firms with actual experience in testing election systems to conduct an audit, which found that the voting machines had not been hacked nor connected to the internet and that their counting was accurate. The Arizona Senate wasn’t satisfied with the results and wanted to do its own audit. Which is why we’re here.
Does anyone really still believe the 2020 election could be overturned?
No one with any credibility. Trump suggested in an address at Mar-a-Lago on Thursday that the Arizona recount would turn up “thousands and thousands and thousands” of votes in his favor, and that the same thing would happen in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire. The recount ultimately won’t affect the official results or who’s president, but election experts and officials are concerned that this could cause partisan vote counts to become the norm in the future. And if Arizona legislators believe the recount shows that Trump ballots were undercounted and Biden ballots were overcounted, they may try to radically alter voting procedures in the state.
OK, so when will we know the results of the recount?
The recount was initially expected to wrap up by May 14, but it could go on for even longer and there’s no deadline, leaving a potentially infinite number of ways this story could become more surreal.
Correction, May 4, 2021: This piece originally misspelled Ken Bennett’s last name.