Arizona’s Bonkers Recount

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S1: What do you call what’s happening in Arizona right now, like a recount, an audit, a mess?

S2: It depends who you ask, Ray.

S1: Andrew Oxford is a political reporter at the Arizona Republic, so it’s his job to find words for political cat fights, but finding the words for what he’s seeing right now, a very public effort by Arizona state Senate to reexamine the 20 20 presidential election six months after the fact. Finding the words for that is hard. Some people have called what’s happening in investigation. Others use that word audit. I read one liberal website, they’re calling this the fraud it.

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S2: Yeah, it’s a it’s never been done before, that’s for sure. So, you know, figuring out what to call it is just the first step.

S1: Let’s start by saying out loud, 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. But here’s what’s happening in an aging sports arena in Phoenix anyway. All two point one million votes cast in Maricopa County are being tallied up one more time, not by elections officials, but by independent contractors.

S2: I think what’s interesting here is that, you know, some of this seems to be in response to a number of conspiracy theories that are kind of been swirling around Phoenix politics, Maricopa County politics since Election Day and, you know, have been out there for months. I don’t know if you saw the video of one of the observers explaining about looking for Bambu in the ballots or something. The other day at the press conference, you were talking about Bambu.

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S3: What was that about? Well, is that there’s accusations of 40000 ballots were flown in to Arizona, into Arizona, and it was stuffed into the box, OK? And it came from the southeast part of the world, Asia. OK, and and what they’re doing is to find out if there’s bamboo in the paper

S2: that, you know, that kind of goes back to this theory that this local Republican activist had in November about how, oh, you know, South Korea, somebody from South Korea flew in ballots to Maricopa County and we got to check that out, actually took it to court, got thrown out of court repeatedly. But the fact that you’re seeing these things examined in this process, I think goes to show that those theories, they’re getting the attention of your prominent people in Arizona politics, legislators, lawmakers, you know, people who make policy in R, R and have their hands on this process.

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S1: To me, it’s like Arizona proves that the nonsense has real weight at this point.

S2: Yeah, there’s a there’s an attitude that you’re the Internet’s not real life. And I think we miss a lot of the point when we were that dismissive about it. You know,

S1: today on the show, inside Arizona’s push to triple check the presidential election, Republican politicians say they’re just asking questions, but at what cost? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. For Andrew Oxford, covering politics in Arizona over the last six months, it’s been a bit like being in a time warp.

S2: It never really felt like the last election would end. There were a flurry of lawsuits. I mean, really, as soon as the election was over, trying to challenge the results or undermine the results or or something, you know, coming from Donald Trump’s campaign, coming from the Republican Party, coming from others. And, you know, for a long time, it just felt like the election was never going to end. And, you know, sure enough, here we still are. It’s it’s May and we’re we’re still talking about it.

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S1: This election audit he’s covering now, it isn’t statewide. It’s laser focused on Maricopa County, the state’s most populous county. It’s been a Republican stronghold for decades. But last November, it went for Biden by about two points. And that gives some Republicans pause.

S2: Right after the election, the state Senate Judiciary Committee had a hearing on the election process. The 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. We perform our own logic and accuracy, testing one hundred percent of the equipment, our tabulation staff for every election and after every election. But the state Senate went ahead anyway and issued subpoenas last year to get Maricopa County 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 is run by Republicans, also fought this. So the

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S1: Maricopa County Board of Supervisors refusing to turn over equipment and

S2: ballots and 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. So, you know, 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.

S1: The Arizona Senate nearly holding the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors in contempt of the legislature, something that’s never happened before and would authorize their arrest.

S2: But but the Senate eventually won in court. And you’re now kind of here we are with a almost like a dog that caught the car situation. Only now are they getting the ballots. Only now are they kind of getting what they were looking for.

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S1: There have already been audits of what happened in November in Arizona. Why the continued push?

S2: Yeah, I mean, there’s an audit as part of just the normal process. I mean, you know, after 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 there was it was a perfect match. The results that they got were the results they got on Election Day.

S1: So why wasn’t that enough?

S2: Obviously, a big part of it is you’ve had a lot of political leaders who’ve continued to tell their supporters that this isn’t enough. You know, one thing that’s kind of telling here is I think that 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 know, I mean, you haven’t had people really standing up and saying that you did have one state senator who’s a Republican who voted against putting the county board of supervisors in jail, basically. And he got a lot of flack for it. He the backlash was really

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S1: he talked about how he was getting texts with death threats. As he said, I’m not in support of this.

S2: Yeah, I ran into him in person a few days later and like, I had to get this new phone number because I remember he switched his phone numbers. I mean, you know, it was I think that that was a pretty good indication to all of his colleagues of kind of what the attitude is about taking that line and his you know, he wasn’t rushing to Joe Biden’s defense or anything. He was just saying, like, 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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S1: Something I don’t understand about this audit that’s going on now is that the president of Arizona Senate, who’s a Republican and has been known as a moderate, she said that the audit would not change the settled election results in Arizona, which just made me wonder, like what is going on here? Like why are we recounting two point one million votes if the point is not that something might change?

S2: Go and listen to say, you know, Steve Bannon, who talks about this on his podcast a lot and has the legislators to talk about it on his podcast a lot, you get a different message, which is this is going. The first domino that falls, this is going to be the turning point

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S3: away, and this is what it’s all come down in Arizona. And folks, this is just the opening salvo now of this face. They jumped into court today,

S1: this election audit. It started April. Twenty third. It’s happening in the Phoenix Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which in a previous life served as an NBA arena and played host to roller derby.

S2: The lease on the facility only runs through May 14th. And then after that, Phoenix Union High School District has booked their high school graduations in the same facility. So, you know, the state fair, as you know, has got to get the Senate out of there and get these kids with caps and gowns in. It’s almost like a comically parochial sort of concern. And the I mean, all of this.

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S1: Are they going to be done by them?

S2: You know, I don’t think so. Two point one million ballots. The last I’d 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.

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S1: And the I want to get to the question of security. I mean, when I went to the Maricopa County Board of Elections website, I noticed they literally have cameras trained like 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.

S2: Yeah, I mean, security’s been a question from the start when the ballots were first moved to the Coliseum. You know, there were reports, I know a local TV station basically to story about how secure is your ballot. Know they were able to wander into the Coliseum on numerous occasions without anybody stopping them, anybody questioning them. The Senate has maintained that they’ve really improved security. They’ve got more security there. But, yeah, I mean, when you as to what happens to these ballots next, I mean, that is kind of 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.

S1: 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’re elections officials. They’re this Florida based firm called the Cyber Ninjas. What do we know about them?

S2: Is the Senate hired several firms. Cyber Ninja’s is the lead on the project company based out of Florida. Doesn’t really, from what I’ve looked at and a lot of people I’ve talked to doesn’t seem to have a lot of experience or any maybe in the election space. There were actually some you know, there was at least like 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. Certainly the choice of these companies is raised questions from the start, not only for that reason, but, you know, when Cyber Ninja’s was first announced, it really didn’t take much Googling to find the now deleted Twitter account of its CEO, Doug Logan, where, you know, he seemed to be promoting conspiracy theories about the election results, was promoting tweets by very prominent supporters of President Trump. And, you know, 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 or things that he shared and instead just insisted that, well, he’s you know, what matters is the process here. And the one press conference we’ve had with him asking about his tweets was like off limits. We weren’t. So it’s been

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S1: like you wouldn’t answer questions about it.

S2: Right? Right.

S3: I know you guys want to paint me as some bad guy in here. I’m involved in this and putting everything on the line with my company. And because I care about our country, if we go through here and we don’t find any fraud, I’m ecstatic. Yeah, OK. I’m going to love that.

S1: 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 January 6th during the riot, which also seems like a real process problem.

S2: Yeah. So this is a Anthony Kurn. He was a state representative who ran for re-election last year. He was also part of the presidential electors slate that the Republican Party put forward. So he was actually on the ballot as a state representative. But also, as you know, we print the names of our Electoral College electors on the ballot underneath the presidential candidates names. So his name was there to 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, you know, they had been screening people, social media posts to make sure that they didn’t have. Wrong leanings one way or another about the election results and had been doing background checks and, you know, Representative Kern was at the Capitol on January 6th. He was also on a Brady list. He was fired from being a code enforcement officer for dishonesty.

S1: He was fired for dishonesty.

S2: Yeah. Yeah. He was fired for lying on the job.

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S1: And he he’s counting ballots.

S2: Yes, he was. At least I think it’s been a while since he’s been spotted there. I think that his selection had raised some, like I said, raised some eyebrows. But yeah, I mean, that’s been the thing is there’s been a lot of pushback from cyber ninja’s on saying, you know, who they’re bringing into the process, who’s involved. And there’s been no guarantee that even the people who are counting the ballots are going to be working in bipartisan groups that are going to have, say, one Democrat and one Republican in every team. So, yeah, just the process of who’s involved has been murky or in this instance, you’ve raised a lot of concerns in itself.

S1: 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?

S2: Yeah, so when counting ballots by hand here, there’s this really kind of tedious process where you take a team of people, I think working in threes, take 25 or 50 ballots 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. You said Joe Biden, 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 race like that. The idea is that that really is designed to minimize human error. It’s supposed to be really deliberate and really focused on the process that you’re seeing here and what the Senate’s doing. They’re basically they have, you know, 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 will look at the presidential race and the Senate race, and they mark how it’s they have a tally sheet in front of them and they mark, you know, how the how the ballot was voted. And then they can’t keep spinning it around so that everybody can see it and then they do the next one and kind of repeat that process. Election officials I’ve talked to have said that that seems they’ve never really seen that kind of set up 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 run or helped 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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S1: Is it worth talking a little bit about the money here? Because you’ve written about how the Senate has set aside one hundred fifty thousand dollars for this effort to audit these two point one million votes, which seems like a low number to me. If you’re renting out a coliseum and bringing in contractors, how is this being paid for?

S2: 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. You know, the Senate is only paying one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. But I have not spoken to anyone who runs elections who thinks that this would actually cost that amount of money. I mean, the Senate’s own point person for this was very clear with me as soon as he was assigned to the job that it’s going to cost more than that. Everybody’s been very opaque, though, about, well, where is the rest of this money coming from?

S1: Isn’t it just obvious that it opens the process up to bad actors to come in?

S2: Well, in a lot of groups have popped up to raise money for this, many of them tied to Trump officials or supporters. This is kind of turned into a fundraising opportunity for those groups. But I would add that these are organizations that don’t have to disclose their donors. So we’ll never really know if if they are funding this effort, we’ll never really know where that money is coming from.

S1: So just to piece it together, the person who runs the lead group in charge of this effort, he’s already on the record from his Twitter, you know, as kind of a stop the steel person putting out conspiracy theories. Plus, it’s highly likely that his firm will be paid in part by people affiliated with former President Trump and his interests.

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S2: That is the concern, definitely.

S1: When we come back, why Arizona Democrats stopped fighting this election on it. You’ve said a couple of times elections officials from around the country are worried about what happens in Arizona impacting trust in elections more generally. And I think it’s worth seeing that there’s nothing wrong with questioning the results of an election and reviewing them extensively, because, of course, it’s that 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 this particular investigation could be so damaging?

S2: It’s the opportunity for error in the way that this is set up. I mean, that’s the thing I hear again and again and again is 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 your observers have reported again and again seeing people changing policies on the fly, of 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. And when you’re asking people to take that seriously, that’s the concern I hear, is that that is what’s going to really diminish people’s confidence in the in the electoral process, that that’s what’s going to fuel conspiracy theories. It’s what’s going to just feed your misinformation.

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S1: I want to talk about the Democrats, too, because they did sue over this audit. They ended up settling, I believe, as opposed to trying to stop it altogether. The secretary of state in Arizona is a Democrat and she’s very opposed to what’s happening here. She’s the chief elections officer in the state. And it just makes me wonder, like, how does the chief elections officer. How is she not in control of what’s happening with the ballots in her own state?

S2: Yeah, I mean, part of this gets back to the really kind of unprecedented nature of the state Senate wielding its subpoena power in this way. You know, this is the Senate certainly are not election officials. They don’t usually handle ballots. So for them to kind of use their power in this way is really unusual. But, yeah, the state Democratic Party tried to get a restraining order and succeeded in getting a restraining order on some things. I should say early on, they even had a judge say that he would stop the audit temporarily. I mean, this is on the first day of counting so that you would stop the audit temporarily, but the party would have to post a one million dollar bond to cover the potential cost of doing that. The party decided not to put up the money and the audit has continued. But the party says that the lawsuit was worth it because they were able to get in writing things about access for the secretary of state’s office, to have observers for the press to be able to report for. I mean, just a big part of this battle was getting the policies and procedures that the Senate’s contractors are using out to the public. That lawsuit did bring that out in the court. And so, you know, there were some things that came out of it. But obviously the audit itself continues.

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S1: Yeah, it feels a little bit like settling for crumbs, but I get it. And I wonder, too, if Democrats are caught up a bit here, because even if they’re right, the resistance to this audit can be painted by people on, say, one America news network, which is covering this audit extensively. It can be portrayed as Democrats having something to hide. And I wonder a little bit if Democrats are trying to figure out how much of that they can, whether

S2: I’ll tell you, you know, I’ve gotten a ton of emails from readers about this. And I think probably the two biggest buckets that they fall into are people saying exactly that of, well, what are you know, what are the Democrats afraid of? Why don’t they want to show how they beat Donald Trump, how they beat the Republicans? Isn’t this good for them? In a way? The other batch I get, though, is. A lot of people kind of not even really mentioning the politics of it, but mentioning the. What is happening to my ballot kind of question of, you know, they mailed their ballot to Maricopa County, they didn’t mail it to some company from Florida that they’ve never heard of. Yeah. And so, you know, that’s the other big concern I get is just, you know, what is happening here and why is this being allowed to happen when, you know, nobody voted for, you know, the Senate president or for cyber ninjas to be the county recorder.

S1: So how does this end? I mean, you’ve laid out how it’s probably going to take a while to go through this process. There might be a delay because of high school graduations. So does it end with a report submitted to the Senate? Do we even know

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S2: there is supposed to be a report? It was supposed to be 60 days after the you know, within 60 days, basically

S1: within 60 days of starting the process.

S2: Yeah, within 60 days. So it’s kind of unclear if that deadline is still going to be on track. But you look, the election officials that I talked to, the thing they’re most concerned about is that no matter what the results are, no matter what the report says, that this is really just dinted voter confidence and that if you look at the process and there are the mistakes that they expect that there will be in a process like this, that 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 you know, 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. And so whatever the results are, I think that’s the one big outcome that certainly election administrators already foresee.

S1: Andrew Oxford, thank you so much for joining me. You bet. Andrew Oxford is a reporter with the Arizona Republic, and that is our show. What Next is produced by Daniel Hewitt, Elena Schwartz, Davis Land, Kamal Dilshad and Mary Wilson. We are led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. You can find me on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk. And in the meantime, I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.