Republicans’ Phony Argument for Election Audits

The Arizona audit will only undermine faith in democracy.

A man holding an American flag and a sign that says "Fair Election"
Courtney Pedroza for The Washington Post / Getty

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

For critics who say that an audit of 2020 votes in Maricopa County, Arizona, is just a costly exercise in misinformation, the Republican state senators who ordered the count have a simple question: If you’re sure that the votes were counted correctly, then what’s the harm in counting them again to reassure voters who aren’t convinced?

“We are here to make sure Arizona voters can have faith and confidence that elections conducted in this state and this county have integrity,” Ken Bennett, a former Arizona secretary of state working for the state Senate on the audit, said in April. “We’re going to be able to tell everyone in Arizona in a few weeks that they can have complete trust in their elections—or we have some areas that can be improved.”

This is a common—and alluring—claim. At a time when faith in the electoral system is badly damaged, taking steps to strengthen it seems like a good idea. The firm that was hired by the Arizona Senate to oversee the count, Cyber Ninjas, which has no evident qualifications and is run by a “stop the steal” activist, touts “the systemic, transparent method we have created to ensure Arizonan and American confidence in the election process and results.” In Wisconsin, where Republican legislators are launching an Arizona-style investigation, as well as in other states that have moved to restrict voting, such as Texas, Georgia, and Florida, leaders have similarly argued that such efforts are necessary to guarantee faith in elections.

Unfortunately, the notion is also almost certainly nonsense. Years of academic research suggest that these counts will only make the problem worse.

“The most charitable thing I can say is that people who are claiming that the ‘audit’ will increase confidence don’t know what it takes to increase confidence,” Charles Stewart III, a political scientist at MIT, wrote me in an email.

An exercise like the Arizona audit has little to no precedent, but research into other election-security measures suggests that voters are largely unaware of them, and that actions taken with the ostensible aim of stopping fraud, such as implementing voter-ID laws, have no discernible effect on confidence in elections.

By contrast, some research indicates that routine postelection audits can increase confidence, but voters aren’t always aware of these measures. An October 2020 poll in Oregon found that many respondents were unaware of the state’s auditing practices. Once respondents were informed about the measures, the knowledge made no difference or decreased faith for roughly half of them.

Arizona itself offers more evidence that these established security measures don’t convince skeptics. Using existing state laws that govern recounts and audits, Maricopa County has already conducted both a hand recount of a sample of ballots and a forensic audit. Given that these measures didn’t assuage the concerns of the state Senate, which not only is presumably more informed than the average voter about elections but also established the procedures, why would they convince an ordinary citizen skeptical of the election outcome?

Unlike the Oregon laws, this Arizona exercise (calling it an “audit” drives election experts to apoplexy) is well publicized, so voters are likely aware of it, but unfortunately that doesn’t offer any more reason for optimism. The Arizona audit is practically unique—though more states may soon try to follow suit—so no direct evidence exists, but the closest analogy is the wave of laws mandating voter ID that states around the nation have passed in recent years.

These laws are a solution in search of a problem, because the kind of in-person voter fraud that voter-ID laws are intended to prevent is vanishingly rare. The laws’ proponents have insisted that they are a positive step because they will make voters feel more sure that elections are conducted fairly. However, a new study in The Quarterly Journal of Economics found that these laws have little effect on fraud—unsurprisingly, since there’s so little fraud to begin with. Despite progressive concerns, they have little effect on voter turnout either. More important, they also have no significant impact on public impressions about the occurrence of fraud. This echoes other studies that have found, for instance, that “people who live in states with voter identification laws do not have greater confidence in elections or perceive lower rates of voter impersonation fraud.”

Fluctuations in voters’ faith in the system are a normal feature of even healthy democracies. Political scientists call partisan swings in confidence after contentious elections the “winner effect”: Voters whose candidates won show greater confidence in the accuracy of the results, while supporters of losing candidates see their faith erode. Following the troubled 2000 election, Republicans were more likely to feel that their votes were accurately counted than Democrats were. That held until after 2008, when Barack Obama won the White House and the parties’ views inverted.

“As I often say, the research on voter confidence tells us two things,” Stewart told me. “If you want to increase someone’s confidence in an election, you make sure they have a good experience when they vote, and you make sure their candidate wins.”

What has happened with the Republican Party in recent years is different in troubling ways. Since Obama’s victory, Republican faith has consistently slid downward, urged along by activists and politicians who have insisted—without evidence—that there is widespread election fraud. During the lead-up to November’s election, Donald Trump laid an extensive foundation for claiming that the election was rigged, and then he did so, even though investigations have yielded no evidence of widespread fraud and only a handful of criminal referrals, including a Pennsylvania man who pleaded guilty to voting for Trump in his dead mother’s name.

Polls since the election have consistently shown cratered Republican faith in elections, and while some of these results simply reflect partisan identification, most public-opinion experts see some real shifts. This lack of faith is dangerous to American democracy because, as Stewart wrote with the political scientist Michael Sances in 2014, “a core tenet of democratic theory is that citizens will tolerate and comply with outcomes they disagree with, provided they view the processes that generated those outcomes as fair.”

The Arizona audit will likely just sow further doubts about the process. Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, has begun posting a series of concerns about the security, counting process, equipment, and professionalism at the audit site. And as the journalists Steven Rosenfeld and Jeremy Stahl have chronicled in detail, the procedures are a mess, which is all but certain to result in a different tally than the official final tally, even if it still finds that Joe Biden beat Trump by a wide margin. That disparity will seed only more doubts and questions about the result—and the audit’s sloppy handling of ballots means that the evidence may be irreversibly tainted ahead of any future count.

And that’s just what the audit’s proponents want. They have told their constituents, despite no evidence, that the election was tainted, and then said that an audit is necessary because their constituents believe the election was tainted. The whole point of the exercise is to sow doubt.

You don’t have to take anyone else’s word for it. Even before the audit has concluded, the state Senate is on the verge of signing a deal for yet another review of the ballots in Maricopa County, The Arizona Republic reports. The current audit isn’t even instilling confidence among the people responsible for it.