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What's Wrong With Arizona's 2020 Audit? A Lot, Experts Say

A cybersecurity firm plucked from relative obscurity to conduct an unprecedented review of ballots in Arizona's largest country is readying to present its findings to Republican lawmakers.

Experts say there should be little anticipation about the revelations from the Maricopa County audit — and whatever those revelations are, they cannot be taken seriously.

“There are too many flaws in the way this review was conducted to trust it,” said Trey Grayson, a former Republican secretary of state in Kentucky who was the coauthor of a paper outlining the extensive problems.

Grayson cites a series of red flags, from biased and inexperienced contractors to conspiracy-chasing funders and bizarre, unreliable methods.

The report by Cyber Ninjas, a small cybersecurity firm based in Sarasota, Florida to lead the audit, is scheduled to be handed over Monday, but the findings will not immediately be made public.

Republicans in the state Senate launched the review of the county ballots in April in an effort to find irregularities that could support former President Donald Trump's false claims of a stolen election. The lawmakers did so despite the fact that the ballots had been counted and audited twice already. Courts in Arizona and other 2020 battleground states have rejected dozens of election suits as judges found no evidence to support claims of fraud.

A broad coalition of government and industry officials called the presidential election “the most secure in American history.” Trump’s attorney general, Bill Barr, said, “to date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”

In Arizona, the number of problematic ballots reported  was nowhere near Democrat Joe Biden's winning margin of 10,400 votes.

The state Senate president, Republican Karen Fann, insists the review was meant only to determine whether Arizona's election laws were good enough.

Still, leaders of the review have a history of making misleading claims about their findings, and those claims are amplified by Trump and his allies.

A look at what election experts cite as the top troubles with the election review in Maricopa County:

Biased Contractors

Fann selected Cyber Ninjas even though it had no prior experience in elections and never submitted a formal bid for the work. Its owner, Doug Logan, had  tweeted support for conspiracy theories claiming Biden’s victory was illegitimate. Logan deleted his Twitter account before his Arizona contract was announced.

“I’m tired of hearing people say there was no fraud,” read one tweet that Logan retweeted. “It happened, it’s real, and people better get wise fast.”

The auditors recruited workers from Republican activist groups and did not live up to promises to screen them for biased social media posts. A former Republican state lawmaker who was at the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was spotted counting ballots for several days. His unsuccessful state House race was on thousands of the recounted ballots.

For a time, the official Twitter account tied to the audit leaders published attacks on Democrats and journalists covering the process. The account was later banned for violating Twitter's rules.

Standard election reviews are conducted by bipartisan teams following rigid procedures designed to prevent bias and human error from corrupting the results, said Jennifer Morrell, a former Utah elections official and partner at The Elections Group, a consulting firm.

“They’re done in a way that’s observable, that’s independent, that’s public,” Morrell said.

Biased Funding Sources

The review was funded  almost exclusively by groups led by prominent Trump supporters active in the movement to cast doubt on the 2020 election results.

As of July, five groups had raised nearly $5.7 million for the effort. Among those leading the fundraising groups are Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor; Sidney Powell, a onetime Trump lawyer who filed a number of baseless lawsuits challenging election results; Patrick Byrne, a former chief executive of Overstock.com; and correspondents from the pro-Trump One America News Network.

The money from pro-Trump groups dwarfs the $150,000 contributed by the Arizona Senate, which commissioned the audit and hired Cyber Ninjas. Funding the audit with cash from interested parties who would like to see the effort replicated in other states raises serious doubts about the validity of the findings, said Ben Ginsberg, a prominent Republican election attorney.

“The audience is the funders,” Ginsberg said. “The outside funding sources is really important to concentrate on in terms of talking about the legitimacy of the audit.”

Inaccurate Claims

The findings discussed publicly so far have fallen apart under scrutiny, but not before taking hold with Trump and many of his supporters who believe his false claims of fraud.

The auditors claimed a database directory was deleted from an election management server, alleging the potential illegal destruction of data.

But after Maricopa County's technical staff explained how the hard drives on the servers were arranged, the audit’s lead digital analyst, Ben Cotton of the firm CyFIR, acknowledged that he had located all of the allegedly deleted files.

Logan has made a variety of claims about supposed irregularities that he said merited further research. He claimed there were thousands of mail ballots for which there was no record of a ballot being requested, and alleged that problems with paper and printers could allow for errors in counting ballots marked with Sharpies. Trump parroted the claims as evidence the election results are tainted.  But all of them were wrong.

Conspiracy Hunt

The auditors appear to be chasing down bizarre conspiracy theories.

Jovan Pulitzer, an inventor and former treasure hunter, has said technology he calls “kinematic artifact detection” was being used to look for altered ballots.

Pulitzer is the author of a series of books on lost treasures, including one titled “How to Cut Off Your Arm and Eat Your Dog.” In 2000, he developed a barcode scanner called Cuecat that purported to link print magazine ads to the internet. It was later named one of the 50 worst inventions of all time by Time magazine.

One audit leader, John Brakey, said they were looking for evidence of bamboo in the ballot paper. That apparently was an attempt to test a theory that thousands of fraudulent ballots were flown in from Asia.

For a while, auditors held ballots under ultraviolet lights to look for watermarks. Maricopa County ballots do not contain watermarks, but some adherents of the Q-Anon theory believe Trump secretly watermarked ballots to catch fraud.

Cyber Ninja's Logan has said, citing no evidence, that he believes the CIA or its former employees may be involved with “disinformation” about election fraud, according to the Arizona Mirror. The website reported Logan's comments were made in “The Deep Rig,” a conspiratorial film claiming the election was stolen from Trump.

Logan gave the filmmakers access to restricted areas of the Arizona ballot-counting operation, including the secure area where ballots were stored.

Jill Ryan joined KJZZ in 2020 as a morning reporter, and she is currently a field correspondent and Morning Edition producer.