PHOENIX - A Republican-backed review of the 2020 presidential election in Arizona’s largest county ended Friday without producing proof to support former President Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election.
After six months of searching for evidence of fraud, the firm hired by Republican lawmakers issued a report that experts described as riddled with errors, bias and flawed methodology. Still, even that partisan review came up with a vote tally that would not have altered the outcome, finding that Biden won by 360 more votes than the official results certified last year.
The finding was an embarrassing end to a widely criticized, and at times bizarre, quest to prove allegations that election officials and courts have rejected. It has no bearing on the final, certified results. Previous reviews by nonpartisan professionals that followed state law have found no significant problem with the vote count in Maricopa County, home to Phoenix.
Still, for many critics, the conclusions reached by the firm Cyber Ninjas and presented at a hearing Friday, underscored the dangerous futility of the exercise, which has helped fuel skepticism about the validity of the 2020 election and spawned copycat audits nationwide.
"We haven’t learned anything new," said Matt Masterson, a top U.S. election security official in the Trump administration. "What we have learned from all this is that the Ninjas were paid millions of dollars, politicians raised millions of dollars and Americans’ trust in democracy is lower."
Other critics said the true purpose of the audit may have already succeeded. It spread complex allegations about ballot irregularities and software issues, fueling doubts about elections, said Adrian Fontes, a Democrat who oversaw the Maricopa County election office last year.
"They are trying to scare people into doubting the system is actually working," he said. "That is their motive. They want to destroy public confidence in our systems."
The review was authorized by the Republican-controlled state Senate, which subpoenaed the election records from Maricopa County and selected the inexperienced, pro-Trump auditors. On Friday, Senate President Karen Fann sent a letter to Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich, urging him to investigate issues the report flagged. However, she noted the review found the official count matched the ballots.
"This is the most important and encouraging finding of the audit," Fann wrote.
Trump issued statements Friday falsely claiming the results demonstrated "fraud."
Despite being widely pilloried, the Arizona review has become a model that Trump supporters are pushing to replicate in other swing states where Biden won. Pennsylvania’s Democratic attorney general sued Thursday to block a GOP-issued subpoena for a wide array of election materials. In Wisconsin, a retired conservative state Supreme Court justice is leading a Republican-ordered investigation into the 2020 election, and this week threatened to subpoena election officials who don’t comply.
None of the reviews can change Biden’s victory, which was certified by officials in each of the swing states he won and by Congress on Jan. 6 — after Trump’s supporters, fueled by the same false charges that generated the audits, stormed the U.S. Capitol to try to prevent certification of his loss.
The Arizona report claims a number of shortcomings in election procedures and suggested the final tally still could not be relied upon. Several were challenged by election experts, while members of the Republican-led county Board of Supervisors, which oversees elections, disputed claims on Twitter.
"Unfortunately, the report is also littered with errors & faulty conclusions about how Maricopa County conducted the 2020 General Election," county officials tweeted.
Election officials say that’s because the review team is biased, ignored the detailed vote-counting procedures in Arizona law and had no experience in the complex field of election audits.
Two of the report’s recommendations stood out because they showed its authors misunderstood election procedures — that there should be paper ballot backups and that voting machines should not be connected to the internet. All Maricopa ballots are already paper, with machines only used to tabulate the votes, and those tabulators are not connected to the internet.
The review also checked the names of voters against a commercial database, finding 23,344 reported moving before ballots went out in October. While the review suggests something improper, election officials note that voters like college students, those who own vacation homes or military members can move to temporary locations while still legally voting at the address where they are registered.
"A competent reviewer of an election would not make a claim like that," said Trey Grayson, a former Republican secretary of state in Kentucky.
The election review was run by Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan, whose firm has never conducted an election audit before. Logan previously worked with attorneys and Trump supporters trying to overturn the 2020 election and appeared in a film questioning the results of the contest while the ballot review was ongoing.
Logan and others involved with the review presented their findings to two Arizona senators Friday. It kicked off with Shiva Ayyadurai, a COVID-19 vaccine skeptic who claims to have invented email, presenting an analysis relying on "pattern recognition" that flagged purported anomalies in the way mail ballots were processed at the end of the election.
Maricopa County tweeted that the pattern was simply the election office following state law.
"‘Anomaly’ seems to be another way of saying the Senate’s contractors don’t understand election processes," the county posted during the testimony.
Logan followed up by acknowledging "the ballots that were provided for us to count ... very accurately correlated with the official canvass." He then continued to flag statistical discrepancies — including the voters who moved — that he said merited further investigation.
The review has a history of exploring outlandish conspiracy theories, dedicating time to checking for bamboo fibers on ballots to see if they were secretly shipped in from Asia. It’s also served as a content-generation machine for Trump’s effort to sow skepticism about his loss, pumping out misleading and out-of-context information that the former president circulates long after it’s been debunked.
In July, for example, Logan laid out a series of claims stemming from his misunderstanding of the election data he was analyzing, including that 74,000 mail ballots were recorded as received but not sent. Trump repeatedly amplified the claims. Logan had compared two databases that track different things.
Arizona’s Senate agreed to spend $150,000 on the review, plus security and facility costs. That pales in comparison to the nearly $5.7 million contributed as of late July by Trump allies.
Maricopa County’s official vote count was conducted in front of bipartisan observers, as were legally required audits meant to ensure voting machines work properly. A partial hand-count spot check found a perfect match.
Two extra post-election reviews by federally certified election experts also found no evidence that voting machines switched votes or were connected to the internet. The county Board of Supervisors commissioned the extraordinary reviews in an effort to prove to Trump backers that there were no problems.
Maricopa County officials criticize audit
The draft report's purported confirmation of a Biden victory goes against Trump’s narrative that widespread election fraud cost him the election. It also undercuts claims by some of this closest allies that vote-counting machines from Dominion Voting Systems, which were used in Maricopa County, changed votes.
"Unfortunately, the report is also littered with errors & faulty conclusions about how Maricopa County conducted the 2020 General Election," Maricopa County officials said on Twitter.
The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, controlled 4-1 by Republicans, has vehemently defended the vote count. Republican Chairman Jack Sellers has called the review "a grift disguised as an audit." GOP Supervisor Bill Gates said Thursday that the review’s reliance on funding from out-of-state Trump allies means the findings won’t be believable.
"The people who are funding this audit, the people who have called for this audit, we all know what they want it to find," Gates said. "They want it to find that Donald Trump won Maricopa County."
Arizona court allows release of audit records
The Arizona Court of Appeals upheld the ruling on the contractors’ records last month in a decision allowed to stand Tuesday by the Arizona Supreme Court.
The Senate has already turned over a raft of records after losing the lawsuit filed by the watchdog group American Oversight. But so far, Cyber Ninjas and other contractors that conducted the recount have not turned over any documents.
Langhofer told Kemp on Thursday that he expects the companies to give the records to the Senate, which will review them and release any that are not subject to being withheld due to legislative or attorney-client privilege. He also said several thousand Senate records withheld on privilege grounds continue to be a matter of dispute between the Senate and the watchdog group, and Kemp may ultimately need to review them and decide if they should be made public.
Senate President Karen Fann told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Cyber Ninjas and the contractor had not yet handed over the completed audit, which was launched amid unfounded claims by former President Donald Trump that he lost in Arizona and other battleground states because of fraud.
"I haven’t even seen the whole report," Fann said "I’ve been able to see some bits and pieces and mostly that was just in conversations."
When pressed by the judge to say whether the Senate has received the draft report, Langhofer said "not yet."
"I believe the Senate is in possession of, or its agents are in possession of, a draft report, but not from Cyber Ninjas," he said. "There were some ancillary reports, but the main one the Senate does not have yet."
Fann has repeatedly said that Senate Republicans plan to review the report and may make changes before it is released.
But American Oversight attorney Keith Beauchamp said that he wants the draft report released immediately.
"Your honor, our view is we ought to receive that today if it’s in their possession and it’s a public document," Beauchamp said.
Langhofer disagreed, arguing that a draft report is not public, and the two sides agreed to take that issue up later.
"Multiple courts have now confirmed that these records belong to the public, not to Cyber Ninjas, and they must be released," American Oversight Executive Director Austin Evers said in a statement after the hearing ended. "With the Senate apparently releasing its ‘audit’ report next Friday, it’s more urgent than ever for the public to get the full story about how this process was conducted."
Senate Republicans issued subpoenas to Maricopa County for all 2020 ballots, the machines that counted them and other data in the state’s most populated county early this year.
The materials were given to contractors with little to no election experience for what Fann calls a "forensic audit." Election experts say the 2020 election was secure and well-run, and the contractors are using bizarre and unreliable procedures. Maricopa County has refused further participation.
Allegations over election procedures under scrutiny
Nearly every allegation made by the review team so far has crumbled under scrutiny. Election officials in Arizona and around the country expect more of the same Friday from the review team they say is biased, incompetent and chasing absurd or disproven conspiracy theories.
"Every time Trump and his supporters have been given a forum to prove this case, they have swung and missed," said Ben Ginsberg, a longtime Republican election attorney and vocal critic of Trump’s push to overturn the election.
Two extra post-election reviews by federally certified election experts also found no evidence that voting machines switched votes or were connected to the internet. The Board of Supervisors commissioned the extraordinary reviews in an effort to prove to Trump backers that there were no problems, but Fann and others backing her partisan review were unpersuaded.
Election experts predict the report could misinterpret normal election procedures to claim something nefarious or elevate minor mistakes into major allegations of wrongdoing.
"They’re minor procedural issues, and to try and amplify them to the point where they cast doubt on the election is nothing more than sore loserism," said David Becker, a former lawyer in the U.S. Department of Justice voting section who founded the Center for Election Innovation and Research.
Biden won Maricopa County by 45,109 votes and Arizona by 10,457 votes. Minor procedural issues wouldn’t affect a margin that large, Becker said.
In July, Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan laid out a series of claims stemming from his misunderstanding of the election data he was analyzing, including that 74,000 mail ballots that were recorded as received but not sent. Trump repeatedly amplified the claims. But they had innocuous explanations.
Fann, the Republican Senate president, says the review is not intended to overturn the 2020 election but will find ways the Legislature can improve election laws.
Not all Republicans, even in the Senate, trust whatever results will come out of the review.
"They’re going to have to justify their existence, so they’re going to have to come up with something," GOP Sen. Paul Boyer said Thursday. "And God knows what that is."
What comes next
Even after the report is released, the Senate plans to do additional probes of the county’s election systems. The Senate issued additional subpoenas in late July seeking access to the county’s computer routers, but the Board of Supervisors refused to hand them over, saying elections equipment was never hooked into the county’s system and handing over the routers would compromise law enforcement, health and other sensitive records.
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich issued a decision late in August that said the county must comply. He said an earlier judicial ruling said Senate subpoenas were valid, and the county would be penalized under a state law that withholds shared revenues to local governments if they don’t hand over the routers. He gave the county until Sept. 27 to comply.
The Republican-dominated Board of Supervisors has discussed the decision in closed session several times without taking action. But on Thursday it posted an agenda for an special Friday afternoon meeting where it said it may decide how to proceed. Brnovich had suggested a negotiated settlement.
The audit that began in April was originally set to take about 60 days, but there have been repeated delays. Most recently, Cyber Ninjas canceled plans to submit its report last month saying several of its team members contracted COVID-19 and had serious symptoms.
Fann, Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan, volunteers who worked on the audit and several Republican senators who have vocally backed the review gathered Wednesday night for a celebratory "reunion," according to numerous social media posts. GOP state Sen. Wendy Rogers in one post called the volunteers "Patriots, everyone of them - real people who did the Lord’s work."
Other Republican-controlled battleground states are also considering or starting reviews of Biden’s 2020 election wins. On Wednesday, Pennsylvania GOP senators pressed ahead with conducting their own "forensic investigation" of the election.
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