By Jeremy Herb and Fredreka Schouten, CNN
The Cyber Ninjas failed to prove fraud in the Arizona 2020 election, but former President Donald Trump’s election fraud crusade is now proceeding as if they’d won — pushing for more “forensic audits” and restrictive voting in that state and elsewhere across the country.
Trump’s allies are already demanding a new review of another Arizona county won by President Joe Biden. They are launching more partisan ballot reviews in other states following the Arizona playbook after passing laws making it harder to vote earlier this year. And they are calling for decertification of Arizona’s 2020 election despite the lack of fraud, as part of a larger effort to validate Trump’s “Big Lie” and undermine the 2020 election results.
The lesson they’re taking from Arizona’s Maricopa County ballot review is not that they failed and should stop, but rather that they should try to avoid the negative scrutiny that hounded the Cyber Ninjas’ review and “do it better” in states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, even if there’s no evidence of fraud, said Sarah Longwell, a conservative publisher and executive director of the conservative group Defending Democracy Together.
“It has nothing to do with auditing votes,” Longwell told CNN. “It has to do with creating a cloud of suspicion around the elections and keeping their fraud narrative front and center.”
The partisan ballot review in Maricopa County released last week reaffirmed Biden’s victory. But Trump and the Arizona GOP officials who backed it ignored that conclusion and the highly problematic nature of the review itself, run by a company inexperienced in election audits and which failed to follow standard auditing procedures, and instead touted other issues raised in their report — even though they were quickly rebutted by election experts and county officials.
Similar election “audits” already are moving forward in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And Texas’ secretary of state’s office announced a “full and comprehensive forensic audit” in four counties hours after Trump fired off a letter to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott demanding just such a review.
The partisan reviews of the 2020 election results have come after a host of Republican-led state legislatures enacted restrictive voting laws, frequently citing Trump’s lies as reason to enact new measures in the name of “election integrity.” Eighteen states, including Arizona, have enacted laws this year that make it harder to vote, according to a tally by the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law.
In one sign of how much the falsehoods about the 2020 election have become linked to the GOP’s identity, a recent CNN poll found that nearly 6 in 10 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said “believing that Donald Trump won the 2020 election” was “very” or “somewhat” important to their definition of what it now means to be a Republican.
Richard Hasen, an election law expert at University of California Irvine School of Law, said he once thought that it would require “some kernel of truth” for people to believe the falsehood that the 2020 election had been rigged.
“It turns out that no matter how much proof there is that the election was done fairly, people are going to continue to believe the ‘Big Lie’ because it’s being constantly repeated by Trump and his allies,” said Hasen, who co-directs the Fair Elections and Free Speech Center at UC Irvine.
“One would think in a real world, that even this fake audit, that was stacked in favor of helping Trump, that a finding in favor of Biden would have deflated the enthusiasm. And maybe it has among some,” he added. “But facts don’t matter when you’re incessantly lying about election integrity.”
Trump falsely claims Arizona victory
In the days since the final report was released in Arizona last week, Trump and his supporters have ignored its topline result. Instead, they have insisted the review backed up various conspiracy theories they have spent months advancing.
Arizona state GOP Rep. Mark Finchem — the Trump-endorsed candidate for Arizona Secretary of State — claimed in an email to supporters over the weekend that Cyber Ninjas and its subcontractors had uncovered “red handed” evidence of fraud.
He called for another audit, this time in Pima County — home to the state’s second largest city, Tucson. Biden won that county by more than 18 percentage points last November.
Finchem also repeated his demand that the election results be decertified, although there is no process for doing so in Arizona. Finchem, who announced his run for Arizona secretary of state in March, has promoted QAnon conspiracy theories. He also attended the January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington. He has denied any involvement in the riot at the US Capitol.
Trump wasted little time claiming victory as the report leaked out late Thursday last week. The former President released more than a half dozen statements over the next day and after the results were presented, attacking the media for correctly reporting that the review confirmed Biden’s victory and falsely claiming it was “a big win for us.”
Trump continued at a campaign-style rally in Georgia on Saturday, where he once again attacked Georgia’s Republican leaders who had balked at his attempts to overturn the 2020 election.
“It is clear, in Arizona that they must decertify the election, you heard the numbers,” Trump said. “It’s a disgrace. We won on the Arizona forensic audit yesterday on a level you wouldn’t believe.”
In his written statements, Trump cited the report claiming 23,000 mail-in ballots votes were cast by voters from a prior address, which the Cyber Ninjas said may have had a “critical” impact on the election. But Maricopa County quickly debunked that claim on Twitter, writing that it was “legal under federal law.”
“To label it a ‘critical’ concern is either intentionally misleading or staggeringly ignorant. AZ senators should know this too,” the county wrote.
Before the release of the Cyber Ninjas’ review, election experts and Republican and Democratic elections officials in Arizona warned the findings should not be taken seriously. The Cyber Ninjas, a Florida-based company, had no experience auditing election results, and its leader has repeated wild conspiracy theories about election fraud. The company and its volunteers and subcontractors did not follow standard auditing procedures, and observers from Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs’ office repeatedly cited instances in which those conducting the review broke their own rules.
GOP-led ‘audits’ spread to more states
That had not stopped other Trump-aligned Republicans from touting the audit. Earlier this year, Kristina Karamo, who is running for Michigan secretary of state with Trump’s support, toured the site of the Maricopa County ballot review.
And, in July, months before Cyber Ninjas released its report, she described the review as demonstrating corruption in the state’s election system.
Rep. Jody Hice, the Trump-endorsed House Republican in Georgia challenging the state’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, spoke ahead of Trump at Saturday’s rally in Perry, Georgia. Hice did not mention the Arizona ballot review, but he continued spreading the false claims about voting systems that Trump has clung to since the election was called for Biden in November and called for more audits.
“We’ve got to deal with Dominion voting machines,” Hice said, a reference to the debunked conspiracy theories about voting machines in the state. “We’ve got to deal with the corruption that’s allowed. We’ve got to have audits.”
Leaders of “audit” efforts in other key states also made the pilgrimage to Arizona in recent months amid the ballot review there.
In Wisconsin — a presidential battleground that flipped from red to blue last November — a conservative former state Supreme Court justice Michael Gableman, is leading a GOP-ordered $680,000 taxpayer-funded election review. He visited the Maricopa ballot review site over the summer.
So have Republican lawmakers from Pennsylvania, another crucial swing state Biden won last year. Republicans in the state Senate there recently approved a wide-ranging subpoena for personal information about millions of voters as they work to advance their probe of election results in the Keystone State. Senate Democrats and the state’s Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro have sued to block the effort.
Texas’ election audit of four counties, which the secretary of state’s office announced last week, is taking place in a state Trump won. But the announcement came after Trump wrote a letter to Abbott demanding an audit. While the secretary’s office stated that the “full forensic audit” was already underway, several counties told CNN last week they had not heard anything about it.
Hasen, who recently wrote a paper warning of the risks of election subversion in 2024, said it’s “incredibly dangerous” that people who continue to promote the “Big Lie” are running to oversee future elections.
“No. 1, it will further undermine people’s confidence in the process,” Hasen said. “And No. 2, someone who believes or purports to believe that the last election was stolen is more likely to act in a way to not conduct a fair election as a kind of payback for the supposed rigging the last time.”
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