Arizona’s election auditors are ‘making it up as they go,’ expert observers say

By: - May 19, 2021 3:18 pm

Contractors working for Cyber Ninjas, who was hired by the Arizona State Senate, examine and recount ballots from the 2020 general election at Veterans Memorial Coliseum on May 8, 2021. Photo by Courtney Pedroza | Washington Post/pool

Observers sent by the Arizona Secretary of State’s office to the Senate’s audit of the Maricopa County election shared concerns with reporters Wednesday saying that auditors are making up procedures as they go and that security issues continue to be a concern. 

“It’s bad for election security, it’s bad for voters, it’s bad for our democracy,” Joanna Lydgate, CEO of States United Democracy Center, said about the audit. “This is about casting doubt on our election process because you didn’t like the outcome.” 

The observers with the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office have raised concerns before about what they have seen, but on Wednesday they emphasized their concerns about the precedent the audit will set going forward. 

“What we are seeing happen is not an audit, it is a fundraising stunt,” Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said, adding that more elected officials should be “standing up” to the audit. She praised Maricopa County Recorder Republican Stephen Richer, who railed against the auditors during a 45-minute-long special meeting of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors earlier this week. 

Hobbs and the observers are concerned that the audit will expand its scope to other counties and are already concerned about other states that have begun to look into following the Arizona Senate’s lead. Advocates for an audit in New Hampshire are pushing for conspiracy theorist Jovan Hutton Pulitzer to lead it. Pulitzer and his unproven technology are already a part of Arizona’s audit. 

But the observers’ real concerns lie with what they witnessed while on the floor of the Veterans Memorial Coliseum. 

Jennifer Morrell, a former elections official and partner at Elections Group, 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 County Supervisor Steve Gallardo, the lone Democratic member of the five-person county board of supervisors, 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 Hobbs to send observers.

Hobbs chose a team of nationally recognized election administration experts as her observers. In addition to Morrell, Hobbs’s observers included Elizabeth Howard, an attorney with the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, and Ryan Macias, a consultant at RSM Election Solutions and the former acting director of testing and certification at the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.  

“What is going on here is unprecedented,” Morrell said. “They’re making things up as they go along.”

Morrell said she saw procedures changing without notice, and many of them have seemingly been designed to prove outlandish conspiracy theories that assert Donald Trump actually won the 2020 election in Arizona and elsewhere. Auditors are conducting “paper examinations,” which has been at the forefront of many controversies. Workers have been seen examining ballots with ultra-violet lights and taking photographs of ballots, presumably to look for alleged counterfeit ballots or watermarks that do not exist

Morrell had learned that there were five categories workers used to examine paper ballots at examination stations, but said a journalist covering the audit later told her that Ken Bennett, the Senate’s audit liaison and a former secretary of state, said the five categories were no longer part of the process. 

It wasn’t the only process that Morrell saw change, either. Ballots would be placed into piles after they were examined and sometimes these piles would be 50 ballots. Other times, they were 100. Sometimes, they were 60. 

“There was this lack of consistency in how they were explaining these procedures and in the day-to-day,” Morrell said. 

Macias said he overheard one of the ballot counters complaining about the fluctuating procedures and how “those that are there the longest are the ones making the most mistakes” because things would be different from one shift to the next. 

Cyber Ninjas and its subcontractors were forced to release their policies and procedures through a court order in late April, and it’s unclear if all of the policies were drafted before the audit or if some were created after the audit began. At least one policy was created after the audit began: One the first day of the audit, workers were on the audit floor with blue pens — something state law prohibits government election workers from using because ballot-counting machines could read any marks those pens make on ballots. After a journalist alerted audit leader Doug Logan of the problem, he first dismissed it before reversing course; after that, audit procedures only allowed for red and green pens on the audit floor.

Auditors also continue to have concerns about the physical security of the ballots and the well-being of the nearly 2.1 million Maricopa County ballots. 

Macias observed that a cage in which the ballots were stored was able to be accessed by former Arizona GOP chairman Randy Pullen, even though audit leaders said Bennett was the only person who would be able to unlock it. 

Pullen has been a major proponent of the audit and some of its major players, such as Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, who Pullen is the treasurer of a PAC which Finchem used for an unofficial election integrity hearing last year

Macias also observed a truck storing ballots had a combination lock which “multiple people” had the combination for — and when he raised the issue with Logan’s team, his concerns were dismissed. An Arizona Ranger, a member of a civilian non-profit police force volunteering to do security for the audit, eventually put a different lock on the truck, Macias said. 

Currently, the audit is on a week-long hiatus because it is weeks behind schedule and Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum — the 60-year-old former basketball stadium where the audit was being conducted — is now being used for high school graduations. The ballots are being stored in a nearby building, but that building creates a new problem, Macias said. 

The building uses an evaporative cooler, and Macias said the humidity it pumps into the air could damage the ballots if lead auditing firm Cyber Ninjas is not careful. 

Macias said one thing will change, though, when auditors return for work next week: A Wi-Fi capable router that was connected to Cyber Ninjas’ servers — which auditors said had its WiFi capabilities turned off — will be removed and replaced with a firewall. 

“We’re continuing to consider our legal options,” Hobbs said to reporters Wednesday, though she noted that the ballots and equipment belong to Maricopa County, so the decision to pursue any legal action would ultimately rest with them — and likely wouldn’t be successful.

“I think the ability to shut this down in court is very limited,” she conceded.

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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.