As the Arizona Senate prepared to begin its election audit on Friday, it was unclear whether Senate Republicans would permit journalists to cover the unprecedented event except under severe restrictions that would seriously limit their ability to do their jobs.

Senate President Karen Fann said Wednesday evening that her audit team was revising its media policy, which previously only permitted journalists into Veterans Memorial Coliseum, where the audit is taking place, if they signed up to work as volunteer observers and agreed to follow rules prohibiting them from taking photographs, using recording devices or even taking notes with pen and paper during their six-hour shifts. 

The original plan called for journalists to commit to 30 hours of volunteering.

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After Fann met with her audit team for about 90 minutes Wednesday, she wouldn’t say with certainty that the rule would be rescinded. She said the audit team was drafting a new policy and that she would have to see what they came up with.

“Obviously, we want full transparency. Obviously, we want to be accommodating. But we also need to make sure that the security of the ballots, the equipment, the workers, that’s number one important. So, whatever they work out,” said Fann, a Prescott Republican.

When Judge Timothy Thomason ruled that the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors must abide by subpoenas that Fann issued for ballots, tabulation machines and other materials from the 2020 general election in Maricopa County, he wrote that Senate Republicans “are obligated (to) maintain confidentiality of the materials turned over to them” and they, like any other government official, are obligated to prevent the disclosure of statutorily protected information to the public.

It’s unclear exactly what information could be jeopardized if journalists have greater access to the audit floor. Ballots are devoid of information that could be used to identify the voters who cast them.

Fann also stressed that she wouldn’t permit reporters to come and go at will, and that they would have to be in designated places at designated times, coordinated with security, to protect the security and identities of the audit workers.

Earlier this week, former Secretary of State Ken Bennett, who is serving as Fann’s spokesman and liaison for the audit, told journalists that they would be able to cover the audit from a distance in the stadium’s stands. On Wednesday, Bennett said that option would no longer be available, and that journalists would instead have to sign up as observers. He initially said they would have to commit to at least five shifts, but later said that would likely be scaled back to one six-hour shift.

Nonetheless, the requirement would effectively mean that journalists could only report on the audit if they agree to participate in it, a conflict with the ethics policies of many journalistic organizations, including the Arizona Mirror. And their ability to actually report on the events would be severely limited.

Bennett said the rules were established by himself, Fann and members of the audit team. The audit team is led by Doug Logan, who spread debunked conspiracy theories about the election and tried to help U.S. senators overturn Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump.

“We had hours of conversation about how are we going to keep cameras from zooming in on ballots and all kinds of stuff. We just came to the conclusion the best way to allow reporters is to let them be in the observer corps and write your story right afterwards,” Bennett said.

Bennett noted that journalists, along with other members of the public, are also able to observe the audit through an internet livestream that was set up by the pro-Trump One America News Network, which has spent months promoting false information about the 2020 elections, including in Arizona. One of the network’s anchors, who has spread baseless lies about election fraud in Arizona, spearheaded a group that reportedly raised more than $150,000 from Trump supporters to pay for the audit.

OANN report on Maricopa County election riddled with falsehoods

Dan Barr, a First Amendment and media attorney with the law firm Perkins Coie, said the rules constitute an unreasonable restriction on press freedoms.

“When you step back and look at it, it’s just beyond the looking glass,” he said.

Barr said it might be reasonable to impose some restrictions on reporters covering the audit, such as limiting their ability to photograph ballots or notes taken by the people counting them. The Senate can require reporters to abide by the same requirements as other observers in that respect, he said, but it’s “ridiculous” to make them participate as official observers. He also questioned why reporters would be barred from taking notes while observing, given the nature of their jobs.

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The online sign-up sheet for observers requires prospective volunteers to provide their names and email addresses, along with three letters of recommendation. It also asks for, but doesn’t appear to require, information about voter registration. An email to members of Arizona’s press corps asks journalists who are interested in observing to email the audit team directly, rather than sign up through the website.

During a recent audit of ballot tabulation machines that the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors commissioned, journalists were permitted to attend in person and observe from behind a window that separated them from the auditors. Megan Gilbertson, a spokeswoman for the county elections department, said that was to protect proprietary information and mechanisms inside the machines while the auditors had them open.

Journalists are also permitted to observe statutorily mandated recounts of ballots under similar circumstances, Gilbertson said.

***UPDATE: The headline on this story has been updated for accuracy.