Experts raise concerns about processes, transparency as Arizona election audit begins

    BRIEF

    The Arizona Senate’s historic recount and audit of the 2020 general election in Maricopa County kicked off in Phoenix’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum on April 23, 2021.

    This story first appeared in the Arizona Mirror.

    As the Arizona Senate’s historic recount and audit of the 2020 general election in Maricopa County kicked off, outside the watchful eye of journalists who were banned from attending, election integrity experts raised a number of concerns about what they deemed an alarming lack of policies or knowledge of proper procedures by the auditing team.

    After months of legal battles and various other setbacks, the Senate on Friday morning began its long-promised probe into the 2020 election, which Senate President Karen Fann ordered in December. 

    No credible evidence has ever emerged indicating fraud, malfeasance or inaccurate counts in the election in Maricopa County. A partial hand count of about 8,100 ballots in November showed a perfect match with the results from the county’s tabulation machines, a forensic audit the county ordered of its machines showed no problems and more than a half dozen lawsuits challenging the election results were rejected by state and federal judges.

    Nonetheless, some GOP lawmakers, activists and others espousing baseless claims that the election was rigged against former President Donald Trump — President Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Arizona’s electoral votes since 1996 — demanded that the state investigate the results.

    On Thursday night, the head of Fann’s audit team spoke with the media for the first time. The press briefing by Doug Logan, the head of the Florida-based cybersecurity company Cyber Ninjas, and former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, who is serving as the Senate president’s spokesman and liaison for the audit, left more questions than answers. 

    Senate won’t say who is funding the election audit or allow media access

    During the confrontational hour-long press briefing, Logan and Bennett couldn’t say whether the three-person teams that will hand count the nearly 2.1 million ballots will each have at least one Democrat and one Republican. They wouldn’t say how statisticians they consulted determined where auditors will knock on voters’ doors to confirm their voter registration, which has alarmed voting rights advocates. And they refused to disclose who besides the Senate, which has a $150,000 contract with Cyber Ninjas, is paying the company for the audit.

    They also affirmed that journalists would be prohibited from covering the audit in person inside Phoenix’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The only way reporters would be permitted inside, Bennett said, is if they work six-hour shifts as volunteer observers, during which time they would be prohibited from take photographs, recording or even taking notes with pen and paper.

    Reporter Jen Fifield of the Arizona Republic worked a volunteer shift Friday and live-tweeted the first half of her shift. She revealed that the audit team was using blue pens, which election guidelines prohibit because ballot tabulation machines read any markings made in blue or black ink. Because of that, only red pens are permitted near ballots. She tweeted that she informed Logan that the audit team shouldn’t be using blue pens around ballots, and revealed that Logan didn’t know the voting machines could read blue ink. Fifield later tweeted that the team switched to all red and green pens before any paper ballots were brought to the floor of the coliseum.

    After her tweets about the blue pens, audit organizers told her she could no longer tweet during her shift.

    A group of election integrity experts working with an organization called the National Task Force on Election Crises held a conference call with reporters Friday morning to discuss some of their concerns with the audit, which is helmed by a company that has no experience in elections-related work and is led by a man who helped spread conspiracy theories about the election.

    “I’m not going to mince words. I think the activities that are taking place here are reckless and they in no way, shape or form resemble an audit,” said Jennifer Morrell, an elections administration and auditing expert with the consulting firm The Elections Group.

    Morrell and her colleagues raised several issues with the three-person teams that will hand count the ballots. 

    When election officials are tasked with a recount, they generally use former poll workers and others with experience in election work and knowledge of how to handle ballots. It’s unclear whether any of the paid staff counting ballots for the Senate’s audit team have any background in elections. 

    Tammy Patrick, the senior advisor for elections at Democracy Fund and the former head of federal compliance at the Maricopa County Elections Department, said anyone hand-counting ballots should be following widely accepted guidelines on how to determine voter intent. It’s unclear whether the audit team has any such guidelines.

    The elections experts also found it problematic that those hand-count teams may not be bipartisan. Bennett and Logan said on Thursday that they don’t know whether each team will have at least one Democrat and one Republican.

    Additionally, Morrell 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, explained that hand counts are generally less accurate than machine counts because human beings are error-prone when doing tedious, repetitive tasks.

    At Thursday’s press briefing, Bennett said the audit team would verify signatures from at least some of the nearly 1.9 million early ballots cast in Maricopa County. Morrell said that’s worrisome, as well, because the auditors likely won’t have had any training in signature verification.

    “It’s never going to be a 100-percent perfect match, so it is as much of an art as a science,” Morrell said.

    A lawsuit by the Arizona Democratic Party, which sought to halt the audit from proceeding, raised similar concerns. Attorneys for the party alleged that the auditors aren’t following requirements in state law and the state’s election procedures manual for things like signature verification training. The Senate’s attorney argued that such requirements don’t apply to this audit, though he said the audit is abiding by laws protecting ballot secrecy and the confidentiality of voter registration information.

    The judge ordered a temporary halt to the audit from 5 p.m. Friday to noon on Monday, though only on the condition that the Democratic Party pay a $1 million bond to cover any potential costs the Senate may wrongfully incur due to the delay. The party refused to post the bond, ending the pause before it began.

    Bennett’s revelation that the audit team will conduct at least a partial recount of ballots using tabulation machines — he and Logan have given conflicting answers on that issue in recent weeks — also raised concerns. 

    If the auditors aren’t using the same machines that ballots are designed for, they must go through a complicated process in which images of the ballots are first converted to PDFs, then scrubbed of data and finally converted to a format that can be read by other software. That conversion process likely won’t have gone through any of the testing and verification that tabulation machines are typically subjected to.

    “Because we are unaware of what the technology is that they are utilizing to do this scanning, it is a little bit scary,” Macias said.

    Macias and Morrell asked the audit team to permit them as observers, but their request was rejected. 

    Trump weighed in on the audit for the first time on Friday. While Fann has long rejected the notion that the audit is meant to expose election fraud or relitigate the 2020 election, Trump described it in exactly those terms, praising Republican state senators in an email “for the incredible job they are doing in exposing the large scale Voter Fraud which took place in the 2020 Presidential Election.”

    “Our country needs the truth of the scam 2020 Election to be exposed,” the former president said in his email. “Thank you State Senators and others in Arizona for commencing this full forensic audit. I predict the results will be startling!”