No end in sight for Maricopa election audit, or for feuding over it

Boxes of mail-in ballots – 1.5 million of them with just days to go before the 2020 election in Maricopa – waiting to be counted last year. Private companies performing a state Senate-ordered audit of the county’s elections said Thursday they have finished reviewing more than 2 million ballots, but are not able to complete their report after six months of work. (File photo courtesy Maricopa County Elections Department)

WASHINGTON – The private firms auditing Maricopa County elections told senators Thursday they have finished reviewing the more than 2 million ballots, but will not be able to deliver a complete report without cooperation from county officials.

That led Arizona Senate President Karen Fann to threaten to take the county “back to court” to force compliance – one day after a judge said Fann and the auditors need to comply with county requests for public records in what critics call a “sham audit.”

The comments came during an update of the audit, now six months old, in which no questions or comments were taken and auditors spent much of the time defending their actions and criticizing opponents.

Senate Democrats did not attend the session on the audit, which one said “is clearly an attempt to sow distrust in our election system.”

“At the end of the day, this is Sen. Fann and one other Republican bringing in essentially their clients, their paid clients, to have this back-and-forth conversation, and quite honestly, perpetuate a lot of the conspiracy theories that they’ve been throwing out,” said Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios.

Rios said Democrats only learned of the meeting 17 hours before it started.

“This is not a hearing,” Rios said. “If it were a true hearing, we would have had to have been noticed 24 hours in advance, and it would have had to have been held in front of a committee which would include Democrats and Republicans.”

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But Fann, a Prescott Republican, and Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, were the only two lawmakers at the more than two-hour event, in which former Secretary of State Ken Bennett, Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan and CyFIR CEO Ben Cotton laid out progress of the audit.

Fann said repeatedly that “at no time have we ever implied that there were any intentional misdoings” by county election officials, and that the only goal of the audit is to make sure Arizonans have trust in the elections and feel confident casting a ballot in the future.

But the auditors spent much of the meeting laying out a series of “concerns” – many of which rehashed issues cited in a May letter from Fann to the county. The auditors said they will not be able to provide a “complete forensic audit report” unless the county agrees to provide a laundry list of requests for more information.

The claims were rebutted in real time by county officials, who have said the audit is so poorly run and the security is so weak that they can no longer use voting machines in the auditors’ custody but will spend $3 million to replace them.

“It’s clear the people hired by Arizona Senate leadership to supposedly bring integrity to our elections are instead just bringing incompetence,” Maricopa County Supervisors Chairman Jack Sellers said in a statement.

Petersen said if the county does not supply the information requested – on router information, two supposedly missing hard drives, voter roll data and more – the GOP-controlled Senate will seek new subpoenas for the information or be forced to release an “incomplete” audit report.

But Ryan Snow, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, called it “a little bit misleading for the folks conducting this sham … to say they’re (Maricopa County) not cooperating. They’ve done everything that’s been required of them by a court order.”

“They’re very clearly shifting the goal post. They have done the whole sham audit and they don’t have enough information after all of this,” Snow said. “It’s further evidence it’s a scam.”

He said Maricopa County conducted two certified audits of the 2020 elections that did not reveal fraud that would undermine the election’s integrity.

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“I don’t see a lack of cooperation,” Snow said. “I see a group of election review sham auditors having done some work and they realize there’s nothing there … to substantiate baseless claims about the election.”

Snow and others said it is Fann and the auditors, not the county, who are refusing to cooperate, pointing to their refusal to release documents on how the audit is being paid for and performed. The Senate put up just $150,000 for the months-long audit, with the rest of the funding coming from private sources.

American Oversight Committee, a government watchdog group, sought those documents under the state’s public records law, but the Senate refused to comply, arguing that the law does not apply to private vendors, like Cyber Ninjas, which have the documents.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Michael Kemp said in an order filed Thursday that he “completely rejects” that argument, writing that “any and all documents with a substantial nexus to the audit activities are public records.”

“It is difficult to conceive of a case with a more compelling public interest demanding public disclosure and public scrutiny,” Kemp wrote.

Critics noted that organizers of Thursday’s meeting did not mention Kemp’s ruling – proof, they said that the senators and auditors were picking and choosing what information to discuss to create “a basis for further voting restrictions and voter intimidation.”

“At the end of the day, it is clearly an attempt to sow distrust in our election system,” Rios said. “And it’s the most un-American, unpatriotic thing I have ever witnessed in my 25 years in the state legislature.”

Amanda Lugo, democracy director for Living United for Change in Arizona, called the audit “an embarrassment to the state of Arizona.” Snow claimed the auditors are “using the sham as a fundraising and political tool without being held accountable.”

With lawmakers from other states considering audits based on Arizona’s, Rios said she does not expect a report “prior to this ‘fraudit’ taking hold in another state.”

“What legitimate company takes six months, then comes in and says. ‘Oh, we’re still not quite ready with this report,’?” she asked. “It’s a shakedown of Arizona taxpayers, unwillingly.”

Brooke Newman brooke rae noo-mun (she/her/hers)
News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Brooke Newman completed her bachelor’s degree in spring 2021 and expects to graduate next spring with a master’s degree in mass communication. Newman has written for The Arizona Republic, the State Press and AZBigMedia.

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