Draft of Republican-led election audit confirms Trump's defeat in Arizona's Maricopa County

ByEric Bradner and Anna-Maja Rappard, CNN, CNNWire
Friday, September 24, 2021
Republican recount confirms Biden's Arizona win
A draft copy of the Republican-led election audit confirms Trump's defeat in Arizona.

PHOENIX -- The partisan review of Maricopa County's 2.1 million ballots cast in the 2020 election found a vote count nearly identical to what the county had previously reported, a draft report detailing its findings shows.

The state Senate Republicans who seized on former President Donald Trump's lies about widespread election fraud and ordered up the report and Cyber Ninjas, the inexperienced company hired to conduct it, are set to detail their findings in a public presentation Friday.

The draft report emerged Thursday night, and audit spokesman Randy Pullen confirmed its validity to KJZZ Phoenix. "It's not the final report, but it's close," he said.

The draft report shows that the hand recount found that President Joe Biden received 99 more votes than Maricopa County had reported after November's election, while former President Donald Trump received 261 fewer votes than the county reported.

Maricopa County's Republican-led board of supervisors pointed to the draft Thursday night, saying that it underscores the reality that the county ran an accurate election.

"You don't have to dig deep into the draft copy of the Arizona Senate/Cyber Ninja audit report to confirm what I already knew -- the candidates certified by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, Governor, Secretary of State and Attorney General -- did, in fact, win," board chairman Jack Sellers, a Republican, said in a statement.

"This means the tabulation equipment counted the ballots as they were designed to do, and the results reflect the will of the voters," he said. "That should be the end of the story. Everything else is just noise."

The review of millions of votes cast in Arizona's biggest county is on hold for high school graduations being held in the same building.

Elections experts in both parties, looking at the manner and the methods of the so-called "audit," have said for months that its results will not be credible. It was conducted by the Florida-based company Cyber Ninjas, which had no experience auditing election results and is led by a man who has repeated wild conspiracy theories about election fraud. The company and its volunteers and subcontractors did not follow standard auditing procedures, and observers from Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs' office repeatedly noted instances in which those conducting the review broke their own rules.

No matter the outcome of Cyber Ninjas' examination, the reality that Biden is president and won Arizona's 11 electoral votes last year will not change.

Still, former President Donald Trump and those who have propped up his lies about widespread election fraud have pointed to the Arizona review as crucial in their continuing effort to challenge the 2020 election results.

Here's what you need to know ahead of the Senate's release of the sham report:

How we got here

The Republican push to undo Maricopa County's election results began as soon as President Joe Biden won the state by 10,457 votes -- finishing a narrow 0.4 percentage points ahead of Trump, thanks in part to a more than 45,000-vote advantage in Maricopa, the home of Phoenix and Arizona's most populous county.

Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, visited Arizona weeks after the election there and made calls to Maricopa County Republicans. He left a voicemail on Christmas Eve for Maricopa County Supervisor Bill Gates, a Republican, saying that "maybe we can get this thing fixed up."

In early 2021, the county's board of supervisors had hired two firms certified by the US Elections Assistance Commission to audit its elections equipment and software. Those audits found no problems.

But it wasn't enough for Arizona state Senate Republicans, who were under pressure from conservatives in the state to undo the 2020 election's outcome, no matter the facts. Senate President Karen Fann, in a December email to a constituent obtained through an open records request by the watchdog group American Oversight, said she'd been communicating with Giuliani and had spoken on the phone with Trump.

Senate Republicans issued subpoenas for Maricopa County's ballots and other materials. After a judge ruled that Maricopa County must comply with the subpoenas in February, the Senate hired Cyber Ninjas, a firm with no experience auditing elections, to conduct a "forensic audit" on March 31, paying the firm $150,000 while controversially allowing it to raise outside money.

Fann signed a lease for the Arizona State Fairgrounds' Veterans Coliseum beginning on April 19, giving Cyber Ninjas a place to conduct what would become a bizarre, months-long review of Maricopa County's ballots.

What auditors did

On April 23, ballot counting at the coliseum began, with volunteers streaming in to participate in a process many hoped would show Trump had won Arizona last year. Crazy Times Carnival opened in the parking lot outside of where the review was taking place.

The process was haphazard from the outset. Observers from the Democratic secretary of state's office documented a host of cybersecurity and data-entry concerns, as well as ballots themselves being mishandled and auditors failing to follow their own security protocols.

At one point, workers were using UV lights - which a spokesman for the review said was to check for fake ballots and bamboo fibers in ballots, part of a conspiracy theory that Chinese ballots had been injected into Arizona's election.

Behind schedule, the ballot review had to be halted on May 14 because the coliseum had been reserved for high school graduations. Ballots were moved by tractor trailer into the Wesley Bolin Building, which the State Fair had rated as not recommended for use between May and September because of heat.

The review resumed on May 24 and concluded, with ballots going back into the Bolin building for storage, on July 9. Fann, meanwhile, ordered a separate machine count to take place in that building.

Throughout the audit, Trump-aligned legislators from other states visited and toured the coliseum. Several have sought to launch Arizona-style "audits" in their own states.

On July 29, the ballots were returned to the Maricopa County treasurer's office, and they are now locked inside a permanent vault there, where federal law requires that they be preserved for two years. The results of the Cyber Ninjas' process haven't yet been detailed - and at one point in August, the completion of the firm's report on its so-called audit was delayed because several people involved, including Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan, had Covid-19.

What they're presenting

The Arizona Senate will receive a report detailing the results of the "audit" at a 1 p.m. PT presentation Friday on the Senate floor.

Fann has said it will cover Cyber Ninjas' hand count of the 2020 results for president and one US Senate seat in Maricopa County, as well as a machine count that Fann ordered to check the Cyber Ninjas' count's accuracy in July, and a review of mail-in ballot envelopes for missing signatures.

The speakers at Friday's presentation include Fann, Senate Judiciary Chairman Warren Petersen, Logan, his tech subcontractor Ben Cotton, conspiracy theorist and anti-vaccine activist Shiva Ayyadurai, who reviewed mail-in ballot envelopes, as well as Ken Bennett and Randy Pullen, who the Senate tapped as liaisons for the process.

In past meetings, the same roster of participants has made unfounded claims that were quickly debunked by Maricopa County officials and others.

One critical example that illustrates how the sham audit has given birth to conspiracy theories that have taken hold on the right: In an earlier meeting, Logan, the Cyber Ninjas CEO, said that Maricopa County had received and counted more than 74,000 mail-in ballots "where there is no clear record of them being sent" to voters, and said the discrepancy merited a massive door-knocking campaign to check the veracity of the votes.

That claim was false. In fact, those 74,000 ballots were early votes cast in-person. Election experts explained that Logan had failed to understand the purpose of the early voting data Maricopa County had collected -- a mistake an experienced auditor would have been unlikely to make. Still, Logan had provided fodder for Trump, who publicly repeated the claim about 74,000 ballots at his Phoenix rally just 10 days later, even though it had already been immediately and widely proven as false.

More allegations of discrepancies coming

The draft report shows that Cyber Ninjas and their subcontractors are still seeking ways to cast doubt on the election.

It points to tens of thousands of ballots that Cyber Ninjas says it could not fully vet, saying there were inconsistencies when Maricopa County's voter registrations were compared to a commercial data company's records. It includes heavy caveats around those doubts, noting that they do not necessarily mean votes were improperly cast, and says the Arizona attorney general should follow up with Maricopa County officials -- who stopped cooperating with the Cyber Ninjas' review -- to get answers. Throughout the months-long review, county officials repeatedly batted down similar claims from Cyber Ninjas and its subcontractors.

"While many areas of concern were specifically identified, our full audit results validating the 2020 General Election are necessarily inconclusive," the draft report's executive summary says.

Maricopa County officials, who had seen the draft report, responded Thursday night by pointing to the results -- which weren't substantially different than the county's final tally -- and dismissing the areas where Cyber Ninjas raises concerns in the draft report.

"The #azaudit draft report from Cyber Ninjas confirms the county's canvass of the 2020 General Election was accurate and the candidates certified as the winners did, in fact, win," the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors said on its Twitter feed.

"Unfortunately, the report is also littered with errors & faulty conclusions about how Maricopa County conducted the 2020 General Election," the board said. "Board members & election officials will pay close attention to what is said at Friday's scheduled Senate hearing & share facts as needed."

Why experts say the results won't be credible

The way Cyber Ninjas and its volunteers and subcontractors conducted the partisan review has led Republican and Democratic elections officials in Arizona, including GOP officials in Maricopa County, to warn that it should not be taken seriously.

Hobbs, the Arizona secretary of state and a 2022 Democratic candidate for governor, issued a 46-page report pre-butting the audit's results. The report calls the Senate-run recount "secretive and disorganized." It reiterates most of the issues Hobbs has cited for months; lack of security, shifting processes for screening and counting ballots, chain of custody and transparency problems. Over and over, the report notes there were no consistent procedures in reading ballots, tallying ballots and storing the ballots. One person working to examine the paper in the ballots complained that the process changed "every day, every day!"

"It is clear that any 'outcomes' or 'conclusions' that are reported from the Senate's review, by the Cyber Ninjas or any of their subcontractors or partners, are unreliable," Hobbs' report says.

Stephen Richer, the Maricopa County recorder -- a Republican whose 2020 victory was one of the GOP's few gains in the state, as they lost the presidential race and a Senate seat -- released a 38-page letter titled "Dear Arizona Republicans" in August. In the letter, he said he would still be willing to conduct a review of the 2020 election to ease Republicans' worries, and would do so with Fann and GOP lawmakers -- if they ditched Cyber Ninjas.

"What I'm not willing to do is further indulge the biased, inexperienced, incompetent, conspiracy-theory-driven, unscrupulous, partisan Cyber Ninjas," Richer said.

Jennifer Morrell, a national expert on election audits who observed the Arizona process, wrote in The Washington Post: "In more than a decade working on elections, audits and recounts across the country, I've never seen one this mismanaged."

Then there's the reality that the review has proven profitable for those conducting and broadcasting it, raising the potential for serious conflicts of interest: Cyber Ninjas has privately raised at least $5.7 million for the ballot review. The pro-Trump, far-right propaganda network OAN was granted extensive access -- and its correspondent was simultaneously fundraising during its broadcasts for election audits.

What about the routers?

A part of the process Cyber Ninjas and its subcontractors attempted to conduct might not yet have concluded.

Maricopa County turned over ballots, voting machines and more after Senate subpoenas, but repeatedly denied the Cyber Ninjas' request for access to the county's network routers -- which Maricopa County officials said would be a security risk.

The Senate and Maricopa County officials reached a settlement last week in which former US Rep. John Shadegg and tech experts he hires will have access to the routers and logs showing internet activity and will answer any questions the Senate has.

The county has said its voting machines were not connected to the internet during the election. Trump and his supporters have still placed the routers at the center of conspiracy theories about his Arizona loss, though. At a July rally in Arizona, Trump said: "They don't want to give them. They are fighting like hell. Why are these commissioners fighting not to give the routers?"

What's next in Arizona?

Republicans who control the state legislature will likely seek to turn their findings into legislation to address anything they spotlight -- rightly or wrongly -- as a problem with how elections are conducted in the state.

The results Friday are also likely to provoke a strong reaction from the base of ardent Trump supporters who have bought into his lies about election fraud. Some, such as Republican state Sen. Wendy Rogers and state Rep. Mark Finchem, who is running for secretary of state, have said the state should decertify its 2020 election results, even though there is no process in place to do so.

Exporting Arizona's "audit" to other states

Ultimately, the risk to democracy posed by the partisan theatre that Arizona Senate Republicans have conducted in recent months is that Trump and his supporters are seizing on the misinformation it has produced and attempting to use it to influence future elections.

Trump's allies have already tried to export Arizona's sham "audit" to other states. In Wisconsin, the GOP state Assembly speaker has tapped a former state Supreme Court justice to investigate the 2020 election. In Pennsylvania, Senate Republicans are launching an Arizona-style review that they are calling a "forensic investigation" of the 2020 election.

And several Republican-led states, including Texas, Florida and Georgia, this year enacted restrictive new voting laws targeting processes such as mail-in voting in the wake of Trump's lies about fraudulent ballots.

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