Arizona’s Audit Continues to Be a Chaotic Mess

If you accept the ridiculous premise that the election needed to be rechecked, why do such a bad job of it?

A contractor working for Cyber Ninjas, who was hired by the Arizona state Senate, looks at ballots from the 2020 general election behind a fence.
Courtney Pedroza / Washington Post / Getty

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

If you’ve forgotten about the Arizona “audit” of Maricopa County’s votes in the 2020 election, you can be forgiven. At times, it seems like the audits’ backers have forgotten about it too.

Arizona state-Senate Republicans launched the process this spring as a response to false claims of election fraud spread by several of themselves, as well as former President Donald Trump. The Senate hired Cyber Ninjas, a firm run by a “Stop the Steal” backer that has repeatedly declined to offer any evidence it is qualified for the job. The process was originally expected to conclude by May 14. This was a hard deadline, because the coliseum rented for the count was due to hold another event. But the count missed that deadline, and the process resumed later in May.

May turned to June, and Donald Trump was reportedly telling people that he expected to be reinstated to the presidency in August, once the audit proved that fraud had tainted the election results. (Never mind that there remains no evidence of widespread fraud, and that there’s no mechanism for a former president to be reinstated mid-term.) By July, the due date was mid-August.

Now August is past, and Trump hasn’t been reinstated—and neither has the public seen the results of the audit. In fact, it’s been hard for the public to have any sense of what’s going on at all. I spent several days this week trying to get answers from several of the principals and couldn’t get any closer to an answer. Finally, on Thursday, a spokesperson for Arizona Senate Republicans said the findings of the audit would be released in a public hearing on September 24. That would be five months after the audit began, nearly 11 months after the election, and four months after the initial scheduled completion date.

And who knows if they’ll even meet the new deadline. Officials said late last month that the audit was supposed to be complete. On August 23, Arizona Senate President Karen Fann said the final report was delayed because members of the Cyber Ninjas team had fallen ill with COVID-19. Nonetheless, Fann said she expected the state Senate to begin reviewing a partial report two days later. But that never happened. The Arizona Mirror reported later that week that no report, partial or not, had actually been delivered. A spokesperson for the audit, Randy Pullen, told me yesterday the reports have not yet been delivered to the state Senate.

This kind of disorganization has been typical for the Arizona audit, which was troubled from its inception. (Election-security experts bristle at the very use of audit, noting that the term has a specific meaning in both industry parlance and state law, one this exercise doesn’t match.) In addition to Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan’s prejudice on the result, Cyber Ninjas had no experience running an operation of this size. That became clear as the audit missed deadlines and outside observers noted not only serious flaws in how the audit was being conducted, but also changes in the procedure on the fly, which undermine the reliability of the count. The audit is being funded largely by private money, which keeps taxpayers off the hook but also raises questions of influence and farms out a governmental function to conservative donors.

At times, officials have been said to be going beyond looking at ballots to pursue bizarre conspiracy theories, like reviewing whether bamboo threads were on ballots, a nod to a claim that boxes of ballots had been flown in from China. Ken Bennett, the Senate’s liaison to the audit, briefly announced that he was resigning his post before reversing himself. Cyber Ninjas has implied that it has found discrepancies in its work, but the company has not made public what they are or how large they are. Maricopa County’s elected leadership, which is GOP-dominated, has repeatedly refuted sloppy claims made by the auditors.

The U.S. Department of Justice and Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs have both logged numerous objections to the audit, but so have Republican election officials from other states. The audit has even taken friendly fire. State Senator Michelle Ugenti-Rita, a Republican who supported the exercise at the start, said in July that she had changed her mind. “Sadly, it’s now become clear that the audit has been botched,” she tweeted. “The total lack of competence by [Fann] over the last 5 months has deprived the voters of Arizona [of] a comprehensive accounting of the 2020 election. That’s inexcusable, but it shows what can happen when Republicans do not take election integrity deadly serious.”

The only real information to emerge has been about the procedures for the audit, not its results, and those have come thanks to court decisions, as judges rule that the Senate or Cyber Ninjas must turn over information about its procedures. On Wednesday, Fann instructed Cyber Ninjas to release records, after the Senate lost a case in the Arizona Supreme Court over withholding them.

Yet the actual report remains missing in action. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing: The process has been so flawed that the results are practically meaningless. In fact, the temptation would be to write the whole thing off as slapstick, if the stakes weren’t so high. As Trump’s claims about reinstatement show, the Arizona audit is the bleeding edge of Republican efforts to cast doubt on the American system of elections as a whole.

Meanwhile, several other states have undertaken their own reviews of the 2020 results, despite no evidence of serious fraud that would have affected the result there, either. In Pennsylvania, legislators authorized a subpoena that appears to violate state law. County clerks in Wisconsin have been baffled by requests from an investigator hired by the speaker of the state assembly. In many cases, officials have explicitly said they were inspired by what’s happening in Maricopa County. That seems to include importing the inefficacy and chaos that has characterized Arizona’s audit.