A major split is unfolding on social media and behind closed doors over the report that the pro-Trump contractors hired by the Arizona Senate Republicans to "audit" the state's 2020 presidential election will deliver to legislators on Friday.
The angry debate centers on what claims and evidence about accuracy of the elections results from Maricopa County will be included in the much-delayed report. Maricopa is Arizona's most populous jurisdiction and home to Phoenix. Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump by 45,109 votes in Maricopa County and 10,457 votes statewide.
On one side of this split are the Cyber Ninjas, the Senate's lead contractor, and that firm's subcontractors—almost all of whom have had no prior election auditing experience and have said on social media that they believed Biden was not legitimately elected. On the other side are the Arizona Senate's lawyers and the Senate's unpaid liaison to the audit, former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, a Republican, who want a credible and legally defensible report.
The publicly visible part of this dispute has played out on social media, where proponents of conspiratorial election theft claims are pressuring Senate President Karen Fann and Judiciary Committee Chair Warren Petersen to include various kinds of findings that have never before been used in, nor certified for, a government-run election audit.
"A new type of enemy has raised its head," said Jovan Pulitzer in a September 19 online video. Pulitzer led the Ninjas' inquiry into a conspiracy theory that thousands of ballots were forged in Asia and smuggled into the county's election operations center. He used scores of costly high-definition cameras and thousands of manpower hours to look for bamboo fibers in the ballots—a line of inquiry that has been ridiculed by academic experts and election officials.
"This enemy is literally under the guise of a conservative," Pulitzer continued. "He's [a top Senate lawyer] specifically requesting that the kinematic artifacts [Pulitzer's name for his process] …doesn't get included in the audit stuff. Now, unfortunately, this fellow—this operative, as I say, I'm just calling it like it is—he has nothing on me. He's already trying to crap on everything."
Pulitzer is not alone in attacking the Senate's staff for purportedly rejecting conspiracy theories. Patrick Byrne, the largest private donor of the Ninjas' review, also accused the Senate of "watering down" the report after claims that hundreds of thousands of "lost votes" and "ghost votes" from Maricopa County were being deleted. Byrne said that America's elections, election officials, and voting technology—and some Republicans—cannot be trusted.
These stances perpetuate the false narrative created by Trump and pro-Trump media that the election was stolen, and that Trump did not incite the Capitol insurrection on January 6. However, what's unfolding behind closed doors in Arizona is just as dramatic, according to Voting Booth's sources.
For example, despite protests from Trump supporters, it is an open question whether the report will end up including conspiratorial claims, dubious evidence, and the dearth of evidence concerning the accuracy of the official vote count and administering the election. Sources said all of these variables were in play as the report was finalized. These sources would not publicly discuss the report's contents but confirmed the debate over what was included.
The Ninjas have been expected to do everything they can to distract from the report's crucial bottom line: They have no concrete evidence that Trump won in Arizona even though they spent five months probing the arcane corners of Maricopa County's election administration process to unearth details that cast doubt on the certified results.
The Senate's contractors, lacking evidence that Trump won and covering up their inexperience as election auditors, may even suggest that the winner was unknowable given how the county ran the election. That tactic would echo false claims made by Trump allies in Georgia, which conducted two presidential recounts.
The fact is that Maricopa County's 2020 results, like those in many battleground states, are knowable, documented, detailed, accessible and verifiable—if one knows how to conduct an election audit and how votes are counted. With few exceptions, no one associated with the Ninjas' team had undertaken an election audit before the 2020 election.
Sloppy Recounts, Not Precise Audits
The forthcoming Arizona report is the current frontline in Trump's election denial campaign. Trump allies in other presidential battleground states—Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia—have been hoping that Arizona's review will lift their efforts to keep questioning 2020's election's results. Of course, the opposite is possible.
Affirming Biden's victory may undercut those efforts, which have become a litmus test in rightwing GOP circles. Or making dubious claims and presenting dubious evidence could serve to sow doubts about the legitimacy of Biden's presidency, which has been the goal of pro-Trump disinformation ever since he lost last November.
It's important to understand why the Ninjas' claims cannot be given the same benefit of the doubt as career election officials—which is a false equivalency they have sought to perpetuate. The Ninjas' review of Arizona's 2020 results, which initially was supposed to take several weeks, went on for five months. At most stages, but especially after it began last April, its methods were sloppy and imprecise.
An audit is a transparent comparison of two independently produced results based on examining the same underlying data. If the results are the same, or lack major discrepancies, one can assume that the initial outcome—what is being audited—is correct, and errors that caused discrepancies can be identified and addressed. The Ninjas didn't compare their counts to the building blocks of the official results. Instead, they oversaw a series of recounts that produced inconsistent results, and, in one case, failed to produce a result at all.
Starting in April, the Ninjas conducted a hand count of the presidential and U.S. Senate votes on Maricopa County's 2.1 million paper ballots. They did not compare their subtotals to the official election records and did not release their findings. Insiders told Voting Booth that the presidential totals were off by thousands of votes. In July, the Senate bought machines to count the number of ballots (not votes), to figure out what went wrong with the hand count. The Senate never released the machine count, either. The hand count was a flawed recount, not an audit.
In late July, the Ninjas hired Dr. V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai, a Boston-based technologist and unsuccessful Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Massachusetts, to conduct another recount. Shiva's contract said he would analyze the votes on the digital images of every ballot that is created when put through a scanner or tabulator. However, Ayyadurai could not process 40 percent of the county's digital ballot images, according to Randy Pullen, the Senate review spokesman. In other words, the Ninjas' second attempted at a vote recount failed.
Shiva, however, got a second contract with the Ninjas to review digital image files of the outside of absentee ballot return envelopes—to see how many envelopes lacked signatures (which would disqualify the ballot). Maricopa County's official 2020 general election canvass, issued on November 20, 2020, reported there were 2,042 rejected ballot-return envelopes—including 1,455 with no signatures. The rest had "bad signatures."
On Friday, Cyber Ninja CEO Doug Logan, his associate Ben Cotton, Pullen, Ayyadurai, and Ken Bennett, a former Arizona Secretary of State, and a Republican, will present the Ninja's report. Logan and Cotton will report on the hand count. Pullen will discuss the machine count. Ayyadurai will present the envelope signature review. Bennett will focus on administrative improvements, which was the stated purpose of the Senate's inquiry and subpoenas.
Logan, Cotton, Pullen and Ayyadurai, however, will likely cast further doubt on the county's vote counting process—as Logan and Cotton did in a July 15 briefing for Arizona legislators—even as they concede that they have no evidence showing that Trump won. Whether the Senate's lawyers and Bennett can stop the report from perpetuating conspiracy theories or making factually sloppy or unsupported claims remains to be seen.
Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.