Washington

‘Hoping something sticks’: Arizona election audit promises more intrigue than answers


The ongoing audit of the 2020 election in Arizona has the state’s Republican leaders at each other’s throats and their disputes over the process are raising doubts about the outcome of the high-tech recount.

The pro-Trump faction that is championing the effort says all they want is the truth about an election in which President Biden was declared the winner by a less than 1% margin and GOP challenges over irregularities were rejected by the courts.

Republican officials in Maricopa County, which is Arizona’s largest county and the target of the audit, say the auditors have made impossible demands. Some analysts suspect the audit is less about getting answers and more about injecting new uncertainty.

“If the county board refuses to turn over all the information requested, the group will accuse it of not being fully transparent, while if they get the information they want, they hope to find something that makes election authorities look bad,” said Darrell West, a longtime political analyst at the Brookings Institution. “It is an example of throwing a lot of stuff on the wall and hoping something sticks.”

Still, raising questions about election transparency and voting machines have been common for several decades. Just ask John Kerry.

The former Massachusetts senator and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee said in a 2018 interview with WNYC that he had questions about whether the tally of votes cast on machines in Ohio was on the up-and-up.

If Ohio had gone the other way, Mr. Kerry would have defeated George W. Bush.

“We were doubting whether the machines themselves had been appropriately measured and whether the algorithm was correct,” Mr. Kerry said. “We challenged that ahead of time, by the way, people don’t know that, and we were told by the court that you were not able to get that algorithm, to check it because it was proprietary information.”

He said it was “absolutely incorrect” that the algorithms could be shielded by private companies in an activity so central to governance.

Similar questions have been raised in Arizona, where the GOP-controlled Senate ordered the audit to suss out whether there was any merit to the allegations made by former President Trump and his supporters of massive fraud and election malfeasance.

The process has been chaotic at times, with auditors searching for bamboo fibers on ballots and running them under UV lights.

After Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, expressed “grave concerns” about the audit, Republican lawmakers this week advanced a bill that would strip her of the ability to defend election lawsuits. The bill would transfer that duty to Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a Republican.

Arizona Democratic leaders called it “troubling,” “disturbing” and “quite nefarious,” according to The Arizona Republic.

Mr. Trump, meanwhile, has been busy issuing statements urging reporters to pay more attention and complaining local officials are hiding evidence of massive corruption.

“Arizona Republican State Senators are engendering such tremendous respect, even adoration, for the great job they are doing on the Forensic Audit of the 2020 PresidentialElection Scam, “Mr. Trump said this week. “Our country is watching as early public reports are indicating a disaster, far greater than anyone had thought possible, for Arizona voters.”

The audit came to life in March after Sen. President Karen Fann hired a Florida-based group called Cyber Ninjas for $150,000 to lead the multi-firm effort.

The selection of Cyber Ninjas raised some red flags because the group had no experience with audits and the group’s CEO was involved in spreading Mr. Trump‘s “Stop the Steal” message relying on disproved or unproven theories of fraud.

This month, in the middle of the audit, Cyber Ninjas and the other firms involved in the audit demanded passwords for the Dominion voting machines used by Maricopa. They also asked for access to routers and alleged that databases had been “deleted.”

Cyber Ninjas later said they were able to recover the deleted files after the GOP-led Maricopa County Board of Supervisors dismissed their claim in a scathing letter.

Cyber Ninjas did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

The board also refused to hand over the routers, citing security concerns, and said it cannot hand over the “proprietary passwords” to the Dominion voting machines because they never had them.

However, the company has indicated that maybe those passwords could be handed over.

A spokesperson for Dominion said they share that information with auditors accredited with the US. Election Assistance Commission.

“However, not only is Cyber Ninjas unaccredited, but they have also already demonstrated bias and incompetence, including committing a serious breach of the secure chain of custody that protects voting equipment,” the company said, saying it would be “reckless” to turn over the information.

This is common practice for Dominion, which leases voting machines across the country — including in states where Mr. Trump was declared the winner.

In Florida, for instance, Mr. Trump carried 16 of the 18 counties that use Dominion machines.

Tammy Jones, the elections supervisor in Levy County, which Mr. Trump won by a 72% to 27% margin, said the jurisdiction has used Dominion machines for eight years and she doesn’t have all the passwords.

“The county doesn’t have access to that,” she said, adding that, “without a doubt, we know our vote total is correct.”

In Arizona, Cyber Ninjas’ tactics have left the GOP fighting itself, with the Republican Board of Supervisors battling Republicans in the state legislature.

The Arizona GOP did not respond to a request for comment.

Arizona Republican Party Chair Kelli Ward has been giving daily updates on social media and has accused Maricopa County officials of doing the bidding of Democrats in trying to undermine the audit — suggesting they are hiding something.

She said the audit is aimed at answering voters’ questions.

“America’s audit, the full forensic and hand recount of the ballots cast in 2020 in Maricopa County is underway once again after a week’s hiatus,” Ms. Ward said in a social media post this week. “As before each day brings new challenges to stop the audit for whatever reason the Democrats and Maricopa County elected officials can muster.”

Mike Noble, chief of research at OH Predictive Insights, an Arizona-based pollster, said audit proponents are probably happy to have the county shoot down their request because it helps them keep the issue alive, helping them increase their social media audience, raise money and rally their troops.

“If the audit ends, what can they rally around?” Mr. Noble said.

Maricopa County completed a forensic audit of the November election earlier this year and found the County “was using certified equipment and software; with no malicious hardware; that was not connected to the internet” and “confirmed that the tabulation equipment was configured and programmed to tabulate the November 2020 General Election ballots accurately.”

Ben Cotton, founder of CyFir, a firm subcontracted to help with the Maricopa audit, said he needed the passwords to the Dominion machines to “actually determine a configuration of the tabulator.”

“We don’t know if there is a card internal to the system that might be a Verizon wireless card,” Mr. Cotton said at a quasi-public hearing last week. “We know the tabulators of that model certainly have that capability, but we don’t know what the configuration is for the Maricopa county tabulators.”

Dan Wallach, a professor in Rice University’s Department of Computer Science, said it is a strange request.

“If you want to know if there’s a WiFi card, all you need is a screwdriver to look inside,” he said in an email. “If you want to examine the system, it’s just a computer, with software somewhere inside. The world of reverse engineering tools is remarkably sophisticated in the hands of a skilled operator.”

“So, I recognize that you and I have a limited view into these audits, but the evidence suggests that the auditors have no idea what they’re doing,” Mr. Wallach said.

Matt Bernhard, a research engineer at VotingWorks, a non-partisan, non-profit voting technology company, said he would like to see a more substantive discussion about the control that private companies have over the voting machines.

Three firms — Election Systems and Software, Dominion Voting Systems, and Hart Intercivic — cover more than 90% of the voting machine market, according to a study from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Mr. Bernhard said when independent observers have had the chance to review voting machines in the past they have found security weaknesses and the ability to deliver on their product is not good either.

Those sorts of lingering questions have given Mr. Trump room to operate.

He recently demanded Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a Republican, get more engaged in the probe of “the Crime of the Century.”

“As massive crime in the 2020 Election is becoming more and more evident and obvious, Brnovich is nowhere to be found,” Mr. Trump said in a statement. “Arizona was a big part and Brnovich must put himself in gear, or no Arizona Republican will vote for him in the upcoming elections. They will never forget, and neither will the great Patriots of our Nation!”

Mr. Bernhard said the problem is from what he’s seen, the auditors in Arizona are in over their head and “based on their lack of expertise, aren’t capable of finding problems if they are there.”

“It is sort of the dog chasing a firetruck situation,” he said. “The dog is never going to catch the fire truck and even if he did he wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

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