Democrats blast ‘cancer’ of Arizona election probe on eve of release

(Video by Rudy Cavazos/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Democrats went on the offensive Thursday, saying the Arizona election audit scheduled to be released Friday is a “cancer spreading through the country” as it is mimicked by other states.

The pre-emptive strike by Democratic legislators from Pennsylvania and Arizona came on the eve of Friday’s release of a controversial review of Maricopa County election results by private firms that has taken months and millions in mostly private funding to finish.

“The events in Arizona are spreading like cancer across this country,” Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Whip Anthony Williams said in a video conference Thursday. “Those of us who have been a part of the civil rights movement … those of us who are pushing against systemic racism … are now seeing for the first time in generations a pushback.”

Pennsylvania is one of the states, along with Wisconsin, where GOP-controlled legislatures have pushed through election audits modeled after Arizona’s, in what the Democratic lawmakers called a “Republican overstep.”

Arizona Sen. Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, joined the call to condemn the election audits, which she said are little more than Republican elected officials’ way of “feeding more red-meat to their base.”

Arizona Senate President Karen Fann has insisted that the review of the presidential and U.S. Senate races in Maricopa County are not meant to overturn either race, but merely an attempt to restore confidence in a system that has been loudly and repeatedly attacked as fraudulent by former President Donald Trump and his supporters.

Trump lost Arizona to President Joe Biden by 10,457 votes, out of more than 3.3 million cast, the first time in decades the state did not go to a Republican presidential candidate. Mark Kelly, a Democrat, also unseated Republican Sen. Martha McSally to give the state two Democratic senators for the first time in more than 50 years.

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Arizona became one of the states Trump targeted with claims of voting improprieties, a charge quickly picked up by his supporters in the state who made vague claims of polling place issues and mail-in ballot irregularities. The claims led to threats of violence against election officials, many of them Republicans.

Against that backdrop, the state Senate approved – on a party-line vote – what it called a “forensic audit” of the Maricopa County returns, despite repeated audits by state and local election officials that found the 2020 election to be correct.

The Senate allocated $150,000 to hire Cyber Ninjas – a firm that it was later revealed had no experience in election security and whose CEO, Doug Logan, was a proponent of many of Trump’s conspiracy theories. Cyber Ninjas reported this summer that it had raised at least $5.7 million in private donations, much of it from conservative groups.

Maricopa County was forced to turn over 2.1 million ballots for review, but critics have blasted what they call a “fraudit.” They say there were no clear procedures, no transparency, a lack of security and changes to voting machines that will make them unusable in the future.

It spawned regular debunking by elections officials, including Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, a Republican, who called the audit an “abomination” that dealt in “the most outlandish theories” to avoid accepting the fact that Trump lost.

Questions about the process led the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee to demand documents from Cyber Ninjas on their procedures, their funding and on any communications with the Trump campaign. The Arizona Republic and the open-government group, American Oversight, also successfully sued to get records from Cyber Ninjas, which has yet to turn the documents over.

The final report was due in May, but is scheduled to be presented to the full Senate at 1 p.m. Friday. Rios said it will be the first time Democratic members will be able to ask questions about the process, which she said has been “very one-sided and Democrats have been completely shut out” to this point.

She said she is concerned the Republicans are “going to use this report to justify more legislation that ultimately will make it harder for people to vote, especially populations that typically vote democratic.” Far from restoring confidence in the elections process, she thinks it will just sow more distrust.

Workers with the Maricopa County Recorders Office unload some of the 2.1 million ballots that were returned in July after six months in the custody of Cyber Ninjas and other firms hired by state Senate Republicans to audit the county’s election results. (Photo courtesy of Maricopa County Recorders Office)

That was echoed Thursday by Chuck Coughlin, a Republican political consultant in Arizona, who echoed the characterization of the state’s election review as “cancerous.”

“This is a partisan-funded effort … for the purposes of promoting former President Trump and his theories to keep him relevant in the election cycle,” Coughlin said. “They’re holding the Republican Party hostage to a loyalty oath, and they’re beginning to execute the hostages.”

Rios said she is planning on being present for Friday’s presentation, even though she believes the process has been a sham.

“This whole presentation is simply perpetuating the ‘big lie,’ and I’m convinced that the results they’re going to talk about are all pre-determined,” said Rios, the Senate minority leader.

Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix, said he plans to watch the presentation via livestream, because he does not want to legitimize it by being physically present.

“We can’t really call it an audit,” said Quezada, the minority whip. “It had nothing to do with auditing principles and auditing practices, so I don’t want to give it any legitimacy.

“This is a sham audit and it’s serving no purpose whatsoever,” he said.

– Cronkite News reporter Rudy Cavazos contributed to this report from Phoenix.

News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Diannie Chavez is a visual journalist completing her bachelor’s degree in journalism. Chavez, who interned at Phoenix Magazine, is a visual reporter for the D.C. News Bureau.

News Reporter, Phoenix

Rudy Cavazos expects to graduate in spring 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a focus in broadcast. Cavazos is working in the Phoenix News Bureau.