Senate audit packs up, begins week-long hiatus

By: - May 14, 2021 5:02 pm

Audit workers pack up at Veterans Memorial Coliseum on May 14, 2021, as the Senate’s election audit prepared for a one-week hiatus. Photo by Michael Meister | Arizona Republic/pool

The controversial election audit ordered by Senate President Karen Fann is officially on hold, scheduled to return later this month.

Since April 23, Fan’s audit team has counted ballots, examined paper, investigated tabulation machines and other things for an audit of the 2020 general election in Maricopa County. Instead of concluding on Friday, as the audit team originally expected, workers moved the last of the ballots, computers, tally sheets and other equipment out of Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

The materials are now in storage in trucks inside the Wesley Bolin Building on the south end of the old state fairgrounds north of the state Capitol, cleared out to make way for a week of high school graduations scheduled at the coliseum. The audit will resume on May 24. The Senate’s new lease for the coliseum will run through the end of June.

The audit is dragging on far longer than originally projected. Cyber Ninjas, the Florida-based cybersecurity that leads the audit team, initially estimated that it would take about 20 days to count the results of the races for president and U.S. Senate on nearly 2.1 million ballots. In addition to counting, the team has examined the ballots, looking at folds that could allegedly indicate whether ballots are counterfeit, and looking for bamboo fibers and watermarks based on fringe conspiracy theories.

Ken Bennett, Arizona’s former secretary of state who is serving as a spokesman and liaison for the audit, told media pool reporters that the team has only counted close to 500,000 ballots. They received 46 pallets of ballots from Maricopa County election officials, and Bennett estimated that they’re now counting about a pallet a day. Not every ballot that has been counted has also gone through evaluation, which he said lags behind the actual tally.

Once the audit resumes, Bennett said the counting may speed up. The audit team is looking to hire more people to fully staff the 46 counting tables where three-person teams tally votes. On Wednesday, about 18 counting tables were fully operational, in addition to 12 paper evaluation stations. Bennett said that number increased to as many as 29 fully operational counting tables on Thursday, the last day of counting before the team began packing up.

Fann, R-Prescott, told conservative radio host Mike Broomhead on Friday that she thought the audit would go more smoothly and quickly. But if it takes more time to do it right, she’s OK with that.

“I still have every bit of confidence in our vendors, the four contractors that are doing this. I am disappointed it hasn’t gone faster and completed when we expected to be completed. But this is something that has never ever been done to this magnitude in the United States, so obviously they’re coming up with challenges of things they thought they could do faster,” Fann said.

The audit has been beset by controversies and missteps since before the counting even began.

After Fann prevailed in the county’s lawsuit challenging her subpoenas, she had no audit team in place and nowhere to store the ballots, tabulation machines and other materials. 

Once Fann announced her audit team in April, it quickly became apparent that the contractors had little or no experience with elections. Reporters learned soon after that Doug Logan, the CEO of Cyber Ninjas, had spread false allegations that the 2020 election was rigged against President Donald Trump, aided U.S. senators who were planning to object to certification of the Electoral College on Jan. 6, and even worked closely with high-profile leaders of the “Stop the Steal” movement that has spread baseless conspiracy theories about the election.

In addition to counting ballots, the audit team investigated outlandish conspiracy theories, some of them rooted in the QAnon movement that believes Trump was fighting a Democratic cabal of Satanic child sex traffickers. 

They examined the ballots with ultraviolet lights to search for watermarks, something Maricopa County doesn’t have on its ballots. The examinations, which the audit halted after a few days, were rooted in a debunked QAnon-linked conspiracy theory that Trump secretly inserted watermarked ballots into the election as a way to prove fraud afterward.

Auditors searched for bamboo fibers in the ballots to dispel baseless claims that counterfeit ballots were flown in from Asia, an exercise that audit official John Brakey decried as a waste of time. And the audit team examined folds in the ballots using technology that treasure hunter Jovan Pulitzer, a favorite of election fraud conspiracy theorists, claims to have invented, saying it will uncover counterfeit mail-in ballots. Brakey called Pulitzer a fake and fraud.

The contract Fann signed with Cyber Ninjas was for $150,000, though she later acknowledged that she knew the audit would cost far more than that. Stop the Steal enthusiasts, including the conspiracy theory-peddling One America News Network, which has special access to the audit not granted to journalists, and a nonprofit group created by CEO Patrick Byrne, are attempting to raise millions from undisclosed sources to make up the difference. 

Fann admits that she knew when she signed the contract that there would be outside fundraising not subject to public disclosure. 

After the U.S. Department of Justice raised concerns about possible voter intimidation with the audit team’s plans to knock on voters’ doors to verify voter registration information, Fann informed the feds that she had indefinitely suspended that section of the audit. Others, including observers representing Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, still have other concerns, including shifting procedures for counting ballots and allegedly subpar security.

Though the audit will be on hiatus next week, it won’t be out of the spotlight. Fann has called for county officials to appear at the Senate on Tuesday to answer questions about several concerns.

Among those concerns are allegations by audit officials that the county deleted files from equipment before turning it over to the Senate, and alleged discrepancies between official counts and the actual number of ballots in boxes turned over by the county. The county is also refusing to hand over routers that were part of the subpoenas issued by Fann and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Warren Petersen.

Jack Sellers, the chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, said the allegations of deleted files are lies, calling them, “completely baseless and beneath the dignity of the Arizona Senate.” The county argues that it would be irresponsible to turn over the routers, which are used by many other agencies in county government besides the elections department, and which they say contain confidential law enforcement information.

The supervisors will hold a meeting on Monday to “refute lies and lay out facts about these issues.” 

Bennett acknowledged that there may be a good explanation for the allegedly deleted files and said the audit’s tweet accusing the county of spoliation of evidence — Bennett temporarily lost control of the audit’s Twitter account, which he regained on Wednesday — could have been worded differently.

“They may be elsewhere. Absolutely. That’s why we asked them to come over and give them an explanation,” Bennett told pool reporters at Veterans Memorial Coliseum regarding the files. “We didn’t say there was anything malicious. Maybe it was deleted because it was a duplicate of something that was elsewhere.”

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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.”