Secretary of state’s observers raise concerns with audit

By: - May 6, 2021 5:16 pm

A computer from an election audit ballot evaluation station at Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Observers from the Secretary of State’s Office said they were concerned that computers used to tally recount results were left unattended and unlocked. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror/pool

Observers with the Arizona’s Secretary of State’s Office who were granted access to the state Senate’s audit of the Maricopa County election said they witnessed concerning issues in regards to security of computers, ballots and a general lack of procedures around the process. 

“What we are seeing here is outside what is normal ballot handling procedures,” Jennifer Morrell, a former elections official and partner at Elections Group, said to reporters Thursday. Morrell was one of three observers granted access to the floor of the Veterans Memorial Coliseum to observe the hand recount as part of a settlement reached in a lawsuit brought against the firm conducting the audit by Arizona Democrats. 

The Arizona Democratic Party and Maricopa Supervisors Steve Gallardo, the Board of Supervisors’ lone Democratic member, sued Cyber Ninjas, the firm overseeing the audit, in a last-minute effort to halt the audit. As part of the settlement, the Senate agreed to allow observers representing the secretary of state.

Three observers with the Secretary of State’s Office called the audit “concerning” and stressed that the process needs more transparency and safeguards to ensure the process is done in a manner that is fair and similar to how recounts are conducted by other election officials. 

The observers, who have been on the audit floor for about a week, said they’ve seen discrepancies in how ballots are counted and in procedures are conducted at counting tables, and what they see as lapses in security. 

For example, Ryan Macias, a consultant at RSM Election Solutions and the former acting director of testing and certification at the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, said that computers used on the audit floor were unlocked and did not have a “time out” where a person would have to later put in a password to enter into the system. 

“These computers were never locked,” Macias said. After noticing this, Macias looked at the Arizona audit livestream late in the evening and noticed computers on with their screens still unlocked. Many of the times Macias walked by these computers, he said he was able to see files readily available to anyone who would be able to sit down at the computer. 

The subcontractor that is helping Cyber Ninjas conduct the hand recount of the audit, Wake TSI, appears to be allowing each of the teams doing the hand recount to set certain procedures of their own, according to the observers. 

On the audit floor there are tables where ballots are counted and at each table there is a table leader who sets the pace for how fast the counting is going to take place, according to Morrell. Typically during recounts ballots are counted in batches, which are then double checked to ensure accuracy, but the number of ballots in the batches varies by table, Morrell said. 

Morrell said this is already causing discrepancies to appear on the audit floor and that each table lead has a different procedure for how to deal with the batch numbers. In Maricopa County, election officials counted ballots in batches of 10, but on the floor of the coliseum ballots are being counted in batches of 50 to 100, according to Morrell. 

Observers also noticed what they deemed concerning issues with how results are being entered into spreadsheets once the batches are counted. Macias said aggregators would enter results from all three counters’ tally sheets, rather than a final result for each ballot. When Macias and others asked how they intend to add up these tallies, they were told that the Cyber Ninjas have hired an outside CPA firm to do so. 

“There is definitely not a clear procedure for this aggregation,” Macias said.

The observers also noticed that there is no quality assurance to ensure that the numbers entered into the spreadsheet from the tally sheet are correct before the tally sheets are stored away. 

Morrell and the observers also said that the procedures for how an unproven piece of technology developed by a failed inventor seems to be evolving “day by day.” 

The technology is aimed at doing a forensic analysis of the paper of the ballots based on unfounded claims that counterfeit ballots made their way into the 2020 election. Morrell said some of the stations have rulers to align the ballots for the photos while others do not, but little is known about what the technology does or how it works. 

“We do know that there is a second review,” Macias said. 

Ballots that go through the process sometimes are stacked in a different pile for review after they are photographed, Macias said. 

In the same press conference, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs told reporters that she and a bipartisan group of other secretaries of state from across the country met with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice to discuss the audit and their concerns. 

“This is really dangerous for our democracy and we think they are writing the playbook for them to take this across the country,” Hobbs said. “This is potentially precedent setting.” 

Yesterday, the Department of Justice issued a letter to Senate President Karen Fann asking her to explain what steps she is taking to ensure the audit has not violated federal law. 

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joined the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.