A Republican-ordered audit of the 2.1 million votes cast last year in Arizona’s Maricopa County resumed Monday amid the escalating intra-party fight between state senators who sought the audit and county officials who have called it a sham.
Meanwhile, in Georgia’s Fulton County, another audit is set to move forward after a judge on Friday green-lit the unsealing of 147,000 mail-in ballots cast there in the 2020 election. It follows three audits, including a hand recount, that Georgia conducted last year.
The audits are a continuation of Republicans’ search for justification for former President Donald Trump’s lies that widespread fraud helped President Joe Biden defeat him in the 2020 election, a victory that included narrow Democratic wins in Arizona and Georgia.
Trump’s falsehoods have been embraced by a swath of GOP primary voters and by party officials eager to placate the former president and his supporters. Republican state lawmakers have introduced hundreds of bills across the nation this year that would make voting more difficult — and many of those bills have advanced or already been signed into law in states where Republicans control both the legislature and the governor’s office, including Georgia, Florida, Arizona and Texas.
Audits have yet to uncover any wrongdoing, and cannot change the election’s results months after votes were certified, the electoral college voted and Biden was inaugurated.
After a week-long delay because the Coliseum where the Arizona audit is taking place had been booked for graduations, the audit — conducted by a Florida-based company called Cyber Ninjas — resumed Monday morning.
Auditors have said they should finish by the end of June, a much slower time-frame than they had initially suggested. They are accepting private funding for the audit in addition to the $150,000 the Arizona state Senate is paying, but have not revealed who is paying or how much.
They’ve also faced criticism for failing to adhere to the standard practices and security measures of an election audit. Arizona Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs told Maricopa County officials that, because of how auditors have handled the county’s more than $6 million in election equipment, it should not be used in future elections.
“What we’re seeing happen is not an audit,” Hobbs told reporters last week. “It is a fundraising stunt.”
Arizona takes heated turn
The latest escalation in Arizona came after the state Senate president, Karen Fann, in a letter to the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors alleged that a key database had been deleted from the county’s elections server before it was delivered to auditors. The Twitter account associated with the audit also claimed a database had been deleted, and then Trump amplified that claim with a statement in which he said, “The entire Database of Maricopa County in Arizona has been DELETED!”
The county elections department responded with a lengthy — and acerbic — technical letter offering an explanation: Auditors’ tech experts had not properly reconfigured the hard drives, and once properly configured, the errors auditors had shown they’d encountered in a screenshot would be corrected.
In a closed hearing last week held by Fann and another Senate Republican, Ben Cotton, the founder of CyFIR, a contractor working with Cyber Ninjas to conduct the audit, confirmed that he had discovered what he believed was a deleted database while trying to determine how to correctly configure the drives — appearing to confirm the county’s explanation.
And — rather than reporting any potential tampering with the server, which would be a felony, to law enforcement — Cotton dropped the matter entirely. “All of this, however, may be a moot point, because subsequently I was able to recover all those deleted files and I have access to them,” he said in the hearing.
A day after that, Cotton backtracked again. In a statement posted on the Arizona audit Twitter account, he said: “My testimony on May 19th before the AZ Senate is being taken out of context by some media outlets. To confirm: the ‘Databases’ directory on the EMS Primary Server WAS deleted containing the voting databases. I was able to recover the deleted databases through forensic data recovery processes. We are performing data continuity checks to ensure that the recovered databases are usable.”
The auditors offered no evidence — beyond screenshots posted when they had initially claimed a database had been deleted, which ultimately confirmed the county’s explanation of drives that had not been properly configured — to support the claim.
And late Friday, Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel — on behalf of the Board of Supervisors — sent Fann a letter notifying senators, auditors and their contractors to preserve all documents related to the audit, an indication that a lawsuit could be forthcoming.
“Our clients delivered the server exactly as it was kept by the Maricopa County Elections Department. Nothing was deleted, or added, from the server when we prepared it to be sent to the Senate pursuant to the Senate’s subpoena,” Adel said in the letter. “Because of the wrongful accusations that the County destroyed evidence, the County or its elected officers may now be subject to, or have, legal claims. Likewise, we have reason to believe this audit is not being done in accordance with Arizona law.”
The decision in Georgia comes after a handful of plaintiffs filed a lawsuit to access the ballots. But the audit in Fulton County is likely to come with more stipulations than the opaquely operated, GOP-run audit playing out in Arizona’s Maricopa County.
While Henry County Judge Brian Amero ordered that the ballots be unsealed, “Petitioners shall only be permitted to inspect and scan said ballots in accordance with protocols and practices that will be set forth by further order of the Court,” according to court documents. The judge directed counsel for the parties to convene where the ballots are being stored this week.
Fulton County Chairman Robb Pitts, a Democrat, slammed the push for yet another review of the 2020 election.
“It is outrageous that Fulton County continues to be a target of those who cannot accept the results from last year’s election,” Pitts said. “The votes have been counted three times, including a hand recount, and no evidence of fraud has been found. The fact remains that Fulton County safely and securely carried out an election in the midst of a public health pandemic. It’s a shame to see that the ‘Big Lie’ lives on and could cost the hardworking taxpayers of this county.”
He dismissed concerns about counterfeit ballots as little more than a conservative pipe dream.
“This conspiracy theory about counterfeit ballots has been trotted out by proponents of the ‘Big Lie’ across the country and shot down every time,” Pitts said. “Whether it’s looking for bamboo in Arizona’s ballots or searching for counterfeits in Fulton’s, it is nonsense.”
Georgia elections official Gabriel Sterling said on CNN on Sunday that the Fulton County audit is being spurred by Trump supporters, and that earlier audits and recounts found no evidence of fraud.
Officials “spent literally thousands of hours examining ballots in Fulton County and other counties trying to track these kinds of claims down and so far we have seen nothing give any merit to it,” he said.
Still, he insisted that Georgia’s examination of Fulton County’s ballots will be much more regulated than the Arizona audit currently underway, which he said is not “an actual audit” and is being conducted by inexperienced people who are hoping to find fraud.
“They are going to want to find it. If they don’t find it they are going to intellectually manufacture it. And they are going to go on to other news organizations that will then pump these things up into things that are not real, which is what we are seeing in Arizona,” Sterling said.