Maricopa County vendor Dominion Voting Systems at center of false conspiracies

By: - November 17, 2020 8:19 am

Supporters of President Donald Trump demonstrate at a “Stop the Steal” rally in front of the Maricopa County Elections Department office on Nov. 7, 2020. The protesters believed unfounded allegations pushed by Trump and other Republican officials and activists that Joe Biden was elected president through cheating or malfeasance, assertions that have been rejected by elections officials in Arizona and across the country, and also by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which concluded that there “is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.” Photo by Mario Tama | Getty Images

For the past decade, Maricopa County has used ballot counting machines and election software from Dominion Voting Systems, a company at the center of unfounded conspiracy theories alleging Democrats stole the 2020 election for former Vice President Joe Biden.

Since Election Day, many Republicans have spread conspiracy theories about Dominion, blaming its machines for Trump’s losses in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and elsewhere. The conspiracy theories surrounding Dominion have focused on several points, which have been debunked. Information about some of the discredited allegations is available on Dominion’s website.

Cybersecurity experts at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have said there is no reason to believe there were problems with Dominion machines or machines from any other company.

“There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised,” the federal agency concluded

Still, the total lack of evidence hasn’t stopped Republicans in Arizona and across the country from alleging malfeasance by Dominion.

For example, Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, tweeted, “I want to know who in Arizona benefits from Dominion voter systems.” 

Trump himself has repeatedly fanned the flames, alleging without evidence that Dominion machines deleted 2.7 million votes for him and tweeting on Friday, “Now it is learned that the horrendous Dominion Voting System was used in Arizona (and big in Nevada). No wonder the result was a very close loss!”

Some people have seized on an alleged software glitch that changed thousands of Trump votes to Biden votes in Antrim County, Mich. State officials later clarified that the problem, which was quickly detected and remedied, was the result of human error, not a glitch in Dominion’s software.

Warren Stewart, a data specialist at Verified Voting, a nonprofit group that promotes election integrity measures, said the problem in Antrim County was that two kinds of machines — ballot tabulators and aggregating equipment — were both supposed to receive a software upgrade. Only one did, which caused the Trump votes to be mistakenly given to Biden.

“While that shouldn’t be a problem if software were designed better, in this particular case it did create a problem,” said Stewart, who added that the paper ballots used in Antrim County made it easy to quickly obtain a correct count.

Alex Halderman, a computer science and engineering professor at the University of Michigan who serves on Verified Voting’s advisory board, said voting machines come with very real security concerns. But those concerns mostly revolve around highly sophisticated foreign interference.

In his experience, Halderman said Dominion is no more or less reliable than voting machines and software from other election services companies like Election Systems & Software or Hart InterCivic. And if there were glitches or other problems that changed votes, he said those problems wouldn’t affect only one candidate, as Trump supporters are alleging.

“It’s utterly implausible that these allegations would hold up, even as there are some real concerns that the nation has to continue to address,” Halderman said.

Halderman noted that Dominion’s voting machines still leave paper records of all ballots cast, making it easy to compare them to the results should any discrepancies arise. The limited hand count that Maricopa County conducted, for example, would have likely indicated if there had been a major difference between the machines’ results and the votes on the paper ballots. Other states, such as Georgia, will conduct full statewide hand recounts.

Perfect hand-counted audits in Arizona

There have been cases of programming errors with voting machines, Stewart said — but that’s why election officials conduct audits. 

Arizona law requires a hand count of all ballots cast in at least 2% of all voting locations, as well as 1% of all early ballots cast. Maricopa County has already completed that audit of four vote centers, which represents 2.28% of all locations in the county, and the results matched up 100% with the results tabulated by the machines. The audit for the August primary election also showed a 100% match with the machines’ results. 

Stewart said the perfect accuracy rate in Maricopa County’s audit is a good sign.

And if Dominion were to use its machines and software to deliberately delete votes and alter the outcome of elections, as Trump alleged without evidence, it would be caught because there’s a record of who voted in the disputed states, said Halderman.

“The problem with the conspiracy theories is they’re alleging that Dominion deliberately sabotaged the system somehow to delete or change millions of votes, and that’s just completely non-credible,” Halderman said.

As evidence of Dominion’s unreliability, some critics have pointed to the fact that a January certification test in Texas found that one of Dominion’s software programs, Democracy Suite 5.5-A, did not meet the legal standards and denied certification for use in the state’s elections. However, Maricopa County doesn’t use that program. Gilbertson said Maricopa County uses Dominion’s Democracy Suite 5.5-B, which was specifically designed for the county. Texas still uses older versions of Dominion’s equipment.

Maricopa County’s ballot tabulation equipment has been approved through multiple certification processes. Not only has a state certification advisory committee approved Dominion’s equipment for use in Maricopa County, the federal Election Assistance Commission has also approved Democracy Suite 5.5-B, which Gilbertson described as a “top-tier certification process.”

Halderman said the issues that Texas raised in its certification process with Dominion’s software are cause for concern. He said that includes other versions of the software, including the one used by Maricopa County, as well as machines from companies. There is “abundant reason” to believe the machines could be vulnerable to hacking, he said. But there’s also no evidence that Dominion or any other electronic voting systems have been used to alter election outcomes. Halderman said post-election audits like the ones Maricopa County conducts are a partial defense against those vulnerabilities, though he suggested that the county base the number of ballots audited on the margin of victory in the election.

“The difference between a possible avenue for someone to compromise the systems and showing that any particular election is hacked, I think there’s a world of difference between the two,” Halderman said.

No problems in the last decade

Maricopa County began working with Dominion in 2010, when the Toronto-based firm purchased the county’s previous vendor, and the company provided the county with new ballot tabulation machines in 2019 which went into use for this year’s elections.

The new voting machines replaced hardware that Maricopa County purchased in 1996. Business Records Corporation provided the precinct-based tabulators that election officials used to process ballots at individual voting locations and the central count machines for early ballots, which are counted at the Maricopa County Elections Department’s main building in downtown Phoenix.

In 1998, Election Systems & Software purchased Business Records Corporation. The county switched vendors in 2006, entering into a contract with Sequoia Voting Systems to service its voting machines and upgrade their software systems from Microsoft DOS to Windows, according to elections department spokeswoman Megan Gilbertson. Dominion bought Sequoia in 2010.

“Maricopa County has never had any software issues,” Gilbertson said, referring to Dominion and its predecessor companies.

Maricopa County signed a three-year lease with Dominion for its current voting machines. Gilbertson said the county opted to lease them instead of purchasing them out of concerns that technological advancements or changes to federal requirements could make them outdated quickly.

Helen Purcell, who served as Maricopa County recorder from 1989-2017, was the county’s top election official when it first made the switch to Dominion. She said she’s always had a good association with the company.

“We’ve been with them for quite some time and we’ve never had any kind of an issue with them,” she said.

Purcell said she first told the Board of Supervisors that the county would soon need new voting machines around 2014. The county’s growth, as well as plans for changes such as the switch from precinct-based voting to vote centers, necessitated new equipment. The old machines, she said, didn’t have enough memory to switch to an all-vote machine system.

Dominion is the second-largest provider of voting equipment in the United States, behind ES&S, Maricopa County’s vendor from 1998-2006. The company, which runs its U.S. operations out of Denver, is the largest provider of such equipment for Canadian elections.

The Dominion systems used by Maricopa County and by counties in Georgia, which is in the midst of a full-fledged recount, are very different from each other, Stewart said. Arizona’s system is simple and more reliable. Voters mark their own ballots by hand, then election workers feed them into the tabulation machines. In Georgia, voters use a touchscreen to make their selections, then the machines mark those choices onto the ballot. The ballots are printed and fed into the machines, but rather than read the voters’ choices for each race, as in Maricopa County, the machines read a QR code that tells it who the voters chose.

“There’s an absolutely justifiable concern about using that for all voters in a polling place, whereas when you mark the ballot yourself, you’re sort of self-verifying it,” Stewart said.

No truth to most allegations about Dominion

Another popular but false claim is that Dominion has received funding from the Clinton Foundation. Dominion made a one-time philanthropic gift to the Clinton Foundation in 2014, according to The Associated Press, but the nonprofit has no role in Dominion’s operations. 

Others point to the fact that a former chief of staff to Democratic U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., now lobbies on behalf of Dominion. That is true, but ignores that former aides to prominent Republican officials have lobbied for the company, as well. One of those lobbyists is a former aide to Georgia’s Republican governor and former secretary of state, Brian Kemp.

Similarly, allegations that the husband of California Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has a financial stake in Dominion are false, the AP found.

Republican Congressman Louie Gohmert, of Texas, spread a rumor that the U.S. Army seized servers belonging to a software company in Frankfurt, Germany, that contained evidence that Repubican votes were switched to Democratic votes. The Army and the software company, Scytl, confirmed to The Associated Press that the incident never occurred. Scytl said it doesn’t have an office in Frankfurt, nor does it play any role in tallying votes from the U.S.

Conspiracy theorists are quick to point out that Dominion is used in most swing states that voted for Biden — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. 

However, according to Dominion’s website, the company also provides machines and software to counties in Florida, Iowa and Ohio, swing states that supported Trump, as well as Texas, a Republican stronghold that Biden targeted heavily this year but ultimately voted for Trump. Jurisdictions in Alaska, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee and Utah, all of which voted for Trump, also contract with Dominion. The number of counties that use Dominion machines varies by state.

Stewart said calls to spend taxpayer dollars on recounts of the tallies from Dominion machines are unreasonable, given that there’s no evidence of any problems. And if there were problems, he said there’s no reason why people shouldn’t also look at Dominion states that Trump won as well. 

But if someone else wanted to pay for a recount, Stewart said they’re free to do so. He recalled that the Green Party spent millions of dollars on a recount in Wisconsin and attempted recounts in Michigan and Pennsylvania after the 2016 election.

“If they’re ready to pony up and pay for it, I say bring it on. That’s exactly why you use a system like this,” he said. “As long as it’s not on the taxpayer dime, if someone who has legal standing to do so wants to pay for, like Jill Stein did in 2016, pay for a hand count, that seems completely reasonable.”

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”