Damage done: Audit leader’s testimony sets off nationwide wave of misinformation
Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan (left) testifies to the Senate on July 15, 2021.
From the state Capitol in Phoenix to Mar-A-Lago in Florida, people are falsely claiming that the Arizona Senate’s election review showed that tens of thousands of illegitimate votes were counted in Maricopa County.
Lawmakers are saying it. Prominent statewide candidates are saying it. Former President Donald Trump is saying it.
Who’s not saying it? The audit team leader who started it all.
Doug Logan, the leader of Senate President Karen Fann’s audit team and the CEO of the Florida-based cyber security company Cyber Ninjas, testified at a briefing in the Arizona Senate last week that his analysis found 74,243 early ballots were counted despite no evidence that they were ever mailed to voters. He also claimed to have found more than 11,000 ballots cast by people who weren’t listed as being registered to vote at the time of the election, and nearly 4,000 ballots cast by people who registered after the deadline to vote in the November election.
Logan never said the 74,000 votes were illegally cast or improperly counted. He said he didn’t know for sure. Numerous media outlets, including the Arizona Mirror, investigated the claim in the days after the hearing and found that there was nothing suspicious about the ballots at all.
According to Maricopa County, 2,364,426 early ballots were requested for the general election and 1,918,024 were returned. The county said Logan appears to have based his number on a type of report that shows daily requests for early ballots, but which didn’t include the last 10 days before the election, omitting around 74,000 ballots that were requested at in-person early voting centers rather than by mail.
That hasn’t stopped many Trump supporters from across the country, as well as the former president himself, from claiming that Logan found the smoking gun they’ve been hoping the audit would find. And it comes shortly before Trump and a collection of other Republican officials and candidates take the stage in Phoenix Saturday at an event dubbed a “Rally to Protect Our Elections.”
Opening Pandora’s box
Experts who study disinformation say it can be difficult, if not impossible, to combat such claims once they make their way into the world. Fact-checking by news organizations and others can help counteract such misinformation, but many people simply won’t believe them.
“The problem is that one false story doesn’t go away once it’s corrected. It’s like glitter. It’s everywhere. It’s hard to clean,” said Joanna Lydgate, CEO of States United Democracy Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that supports free and fair elections, and which has devoted considerable energy to debunking the myriad false claims about the 2020 election.
Emily Dreyfuss, a senior editor with the Technology and Social Change Project at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy said the details of Logan’s claim made it easy for the falsehood to spread. It included a distinct and memorable number, which carries an aura or authority and trust. The truth relies on nuance and bureaucratic details.
Furthermore, most people don’t understand election administration and procedure, making it easy for others to distort innocuous details and make them appear sinister, Dreyfuss said.
That adherents of the “Stop the Steal” movement who have rallied around bogus election fraud claims would believe the hearing showed evidence of election fraud was nearly guaranteed, Dreyfuss said, regardless of whether Logan made clear that he didn’t actually know if the ballots were properly cast.
“Whatever kind of specific and strange and certain statement that came out of that hearing that day would have been turned into evidence of a wrongdoing,” Dreyfuss said. “This is all part of the grand lie of the Stop the Steal campaign, of the big lie of the election, which now has millions of invested people that want that to be true, so they’re looking for evidence that they’re right.”
Once the bad information gets out there, people have got to hear the truth and they’ve got to hear it from a credible source.
– Gowri Ramachandran, Brennan Center for Justice
Given that, the responsible thing would have been to not hold the hearing at all, Dreyfuss said.
“There need to be safeguards in place before we’re in a situation where such a statement could have been amplified to a waiting and willing audience who was already activated to take whatever sound bite they could and spread it around,” she said.
The fact that the misinformation came out of an official proceeding at the Arizona Senate helped lend it credibility, Dreyfuss said. And to those who are inclined to believe the misinformation, the very existence of the audit is evidence that something went wrong with the election. Dreyfuss said there’s a sociological term to describe the use of formal proceedings to influence perceptions or cast doubt on something: “performative legal proceedings.” That term can apply to the election review that Arizona’s GOP Senate authorized and that Republican-led legislatures in other states are now pursuing, or to the dozens of failed lawsuits that Trump supporters filed challenging the election results, she said.
The most effective way to combat misinformation is often to preempt it, said Gowri Ramachandran, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. Many news organizations sought to inform readers and viewers before the election about how election procedures would work, explaining, for example, that states that expanded mail-in voting likely wouldn’t have final results on election night. Though it’s impossible to say how many people that persuades, Ramachandran said it undoubtedly has a positive effect because when someone hears disinformation about the election, “they’ve already heard the right answer in advance.”
Though it’s difficult to counter misinformation once it gets out into the open, Ramachandran said it’s still important for people to hear the truth from actual experts like election officials and administrators.
“Once the bad information gets out there, people have got to hear the truth and they’ve got to hear it from a credible source,” she said.
Fact-checking the audit
Logan and Ben Cotton, the CEO of the digital forensics company CyFIR, which is a subcontractor on the election review, made a number of claims during the July 15 briefing that have since been debunked.
Chief among them is Logan’s claim about the 74,000 early ballots that has been the focus of Stop the Steal advocates in Arizona and across the country. Logan told Fann and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Warren Petersen that those early ballots were counted but “there is no clear record of them being sent.” He emphasized that he didn’t know whether there might be a good reason for that. For example, he speculated that it could’ve been the result of a clerical error.
The county’s Twitter account speculated that Logan may not have understood that many early ballots are cast in person and are never mailed out. County election officials say about 209,000 people cast early ballots at in-person locations.
A spokesman for Logan would not explain how he reached his 74,000 figure. But the number appears to have come from a lack of understanding of the data contained in early voting reports that state law requires counties to provide to political parties. Counties must provide two reports: EV32 reports, which show daily early ballots requests from voters, and EV33 reports, which show early ballot returns by day.
State law only requires counties to provide EV32 reports through the deadline for requesting early ballots by mail, while they must provide EV33 reports through Election Day. Some counties continue providing reports on early ballot requests after the deadline, but Maricopa County cut them off at the Oct. 23 deadline, said Sam Almy, a strategist with the Democratic campaign consulting firm Saguaro Strategies.
The EV33 reports would show the returns for all early ballots cast in-person at early voting centers through Election Day, but in Maricopa County there were no corresponding reports showing which voters requested early ballots at those centers after Oct. 23, Almy said. ABC15 reporter Garrett Archer, who has a deep background in elections from his time working at the Secretary of State’s Office and as a Republican campaign operative, compared the reports and found 74,241 such early ballots, almost identical to the number Logan provided during the hearing.
Logan emphasized at the hearing, and his spokesman reiterated to the Mirror, that Maricopa County has repeatedly refused to cooperate with the audit team, to the point of refusing to even answer questions about election procedure and policy. However, Almy said there are plenty of political consultants, including Republicans, who could have explained the data to Logan if he’d asked.
State Sen. Wendy Rogers, a Flagstaff Republican who has been one of the legislature’s most vocal audit supporters, tweeted confirmation on Friday that Logan got his numbers from the EV32 and EV33 reports. As Archer pointed out, those files are clearly dated, meaning it should have been obvious to anyone looking at them that there was a 10-day gap between the two.
Logan also claimed that he found 11,326 voters who weren’t listed on the county’s post-election voter registration report but were on a follow-up report on Dec. 4, a number the county said was likely derived from legitimately cast provisional ballots. Logan said another 3,981 voters were listed as casting ballots despite registering after a court-imposed Oct. 15 cutoff date. The county said no votes were counted from people who registered after that deadline.
“Since the Senate contractors are unqualified and untrained for this work, it’s tough to know exactly what data they’re using to come up with numbers,” the county tweeted.
Since the Senate contractors are unqualified and untrained for this work, it's tough to know exactly what data they're using to come up with numbers.
— Maricopa County (@maricopacounty) July 16, 2021
County officials also said Logan and Cotton made false statements when they claimed that the county relaxed its standards for verifying the signatures that voters affix to their early ballot envelopes, which election officials use to confirm their identities.
It’s unclear what, if any, steps Logan took to find out the facts behind his claims at the July 15 hearing.
Rod Thomson, a spokesman for Logan during the election review, said he doesn’t know if the Cyber Ninjas head reached out to anyone with knowledge of Maricopa County’s election practices to get more information.
Fann said the audit team talked to “a number of people” about the findings, but didn’t say who. She defended Logan and disputed the notion that his information was inaccurate, and focused more on the county’s refusal to cooperate than on Logan’s inability to determine the validity of information without the county’s assistance.
Asked whether the proliferation of conspiracy theories made it irresponsible for Logan to publicly air snippets of information before he had all the facts — Logan has a history of spreading baseless and false allegations about the election on social media — Fann blamed the county for not helping the audit team find them.
“What Logan said is the numbers don’t match up and would like the county to help explain why,” Fann said. “[I]f the county would be honest with the audit there would be no reason for snippets. We have asked for this information for three months now and they could have just sat down with the senators and talked.”
Trump, who is scheduled to attend a rally in Phoenix on Saturday, quickly latched onto the debunked claim, issuing several press releases after the Senate briefing in which he inaccurately described the 74,000 “magically appearing ballots” as illegitimate and falsely claiming that the hearing exposed evidence of fraud.
“The irregularities revealed at the hearing today amount to hundreds of thousands of votes or, many times what is necessary for us to have won,” said Trump, whom President Joe Biden defeated in Arizona by 10,457 votes.
Other prominent national GOP figures touted the same discredited claims.
“In Arizona, 74,000 ballots were counted with no record of being sent in,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colorado. “That’s not normal. That’s not right. That’s not safe nor is it secure.”
Closer to home, a number of Republican political figures in Arizona also falsely described Logan’s claim as evidence of as many as 100,000 fraudulent ballots.
Some state lawmakers even went so far as to demand that Arizona recall its 11 electoral votes for Biden, something that is not permitted by the United States Constitution. Rogers, the state senator, called for Arizona to hold a new presidential election on account of “tens of thousands of ballots mailed without being requested, the over ten thousand people who voted after registering after November 3rd,” and other dubious claims from the audit hearing.
State Rep. Mark Finchem, a Republican candidate for secretary of state, called the disproven claim “probably one of the most stunning revelations” to come out of the briefing.
Several major candidates for statewide office also ran with the bogus claims. Kari Lake, a former Fox 10 anchor who is now seeking the GOP nomination for governor, tweeted, “How do Arizonans know if their votes really counted on November 3rd? Tens of thousands of ballots are in question according to auditors — what a debacle!”
Former U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon, another Republican contender for governor, also misstated Logan’s testimony, claiming that the audit found “real problems” with the 2020 election. “Arizonans have legitimate concerns about how the #election was handled and they deserve answers,” Salmon wrote on Twitter.
Some conservative media outlets promoted the dubious claims as well. The overtly pro-Trump One America News Network, for example, which has a history of repeating false claims about Arizona’s 2020 election and which is actively raising money to pay for the audit, called Logan’s mistaken revelation a “bombshell.”
By the time credible media organizations debunk these kinds of claims, they’re starting from a disadvantage because the people spreading the misinformation have already framed the terms of the debate, said Dreyfuss, a former journalist at Wired magazine.
“We have already allowed our reporting to be reactive to the disinformers who are trying to set the agenda,” Dreyfuss said.
Ramachandran of the Brennan Center acknowledged that many of the people who buy into misinformation and conspiracy theories simply won’t be swayed by any amount of evidence. But that doesn’t mean that no one can be convinced.
“I’m an optimist that likes to believe that … for every person who won’t budge, there’s a few who are persuadable and who do really care about the truth,” she said.
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