Donald Trump wasn’t able to use his big lie to overturn the 2020 election through local officials, the courts, or Congress. But it has been surprisingly easy for a couple of his Republican allies to seize 2.1 million ballots from Arizona’s most populous county to keep his conspiracy theory machine pumping.
All they needed to do was have the Arizona GOP Senate president and the GOP Senate Judiciary chairman send a subpoena for them. That was pretty much it. Once they got the ballots, they handed them off to the Cyber Ninjas for a “forensic audit” and then rented out the Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum. And voila—the OAN mouthpieces skittered off to Phoenix to both fundraise off of, and provide live coverage about, the ongoing debacle.
To this day, there’s never been an actual vote by anyone in the Arizona state government on this so-called “audit.” There was never any discussion by a legislative body about protecting the security (and privacy) of those ballots. Or what practical issues might arise if the government lost possession of the ballots and related election equipment. The Senate president and Senate Judiciary chairman just . . . well, did it.
And for the long parade of Trump-aligned GOP legislators who made the pilgrimage to Arizona to observe the audit, the lesson is straightforward: They might be able to pull off “audits” in their states, too.
Understanding how this all happened requires a little backtracking.
It started last December when Arizona Senate President Karen Fann and then-Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Eddie Farnsworth, like the rest of the Republican party, were eager to indulge Trump’s election lies. By mid-December, Trump’s legal team had lost eight court cases challenging Arizona’s election results, but that did not deter anyone from pursuing further “investigations.”
Despite having no evidence and receiving hours of contradictory testimony from election officials during a six-hour-long hearing on December 14, Farnsworth alleged that “tampering” and “fraud” may have taken place in Maricopa County. Fann, who, according to recently-released emails was in contact with Trump (and the now pending-disbarment) Rudy Giuliani during this time, agreed.
Farnsworth and Fann decided that a “full forensic audit” was needed and issued subpoenas to the Maricopa Board of Supervisors commanding the body to provide images of every mail-in ballot, as well as access to the county’s election equipment by December 18.
The board refused to comply by a 4-1 vote, citing concerns about voter privacy and insufficient time to comply. In January, Fann and the new 2021 Senate Judiciary Chairman Warren Petersen upped the ante. They sent another round of subpoenas demanding the board hand over all of the county’s 2.1 million paper ballots, tabulators, other forms of hardware, and electronically stored information. And then the state Senate held what the closest thing this “audit” has seen to a vote: They voted on a resolution calling for the Maricopa Board of Supervisors to be held in contempt and arrested.
The measure failed by a single vote with one Republican breaking ranks in order to stop the insanity.
After escaping the possibility of jail time, the Board of Supervisors went to court to settle the dispute. As they waited for a ruling, the board agreed to conduct two forensic audits in an attempt to satisfy concerns about wrongdoing—this was in addition to the initial audit conducted in a handful of counties statewide, including Maricopa County, in November 2020.
The subsequent audits, as the first one did, verified that the election had been properly run. Still, the board lost its case.
Judge Timothy Thomason ruled in February that the Senate had a right to examine election issues, and the subpoena had sufficient “legislative purpose.” He pointed out, “The Arizona legislature granted the authority to the presiding officer and committee chairmen in each chamber of the legislature to issue subpoenas.”
The Board of Supervisors complained that Fann and Petersen were only acting on false claims promoted by Trump and were abusing their powers. Thomason said he didn’t care what their particular motives were. “This Court has no interest in the political dispute between these parties. This is a Court of law, not a Court of politics,” his ruling stated.
“It is not the Court’s function to ascertain the wisdom of the Senators’ decision to issue the Subpoenas or to determine if any attendant investigation is ‘justified,’” he wrote. “The Arizona legislature clearly has the power to investigate and examine election reform matters. Accordingly, the Senators have the power to subpoena material as part of an inquiry into election reform measures. As such, the Subpoenas have a proper legislative purpose.”
After the court ruled in Fann’s favor, Maricopa County prepared to surrender its election machines, tabulators, and ballots—just as Fann made another announcement.
Without having created a formal bidding process, she selected a Florida-based company called Cyber Ninjas to receive a $150,000 contract to lead the new audit, which would only examine the top two races on the ballot—for the presidency and the U.S. Senate—in Maricopa County. (Perhaps she made this decision because the Republican candidates lost both of those races while Arizona Republicans performed rather well down ballot.)
But the $150,000 wasn’t enough to fully fund the audit.
Fann encouraged private donors to give to funds established by outside groups to fill the gap. Many of those who stepped up are familiar fringe figures: Trump supporter and former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne; OAN anchor Christina Bobb; MyPillow CEO Mike Liddell; attorney Lin Wood. Because, of course.
When Fann was asked by the Associated Press about how she found the Cyber Ninjas, she couldn’t say. “To be honest with you, I can’t even tell you exactly what path led me here,” she said.
By total and complete coincidence, the CEO of Cyber Ninjas, Doug Logan, was a “Stop the Steal” advocate. He was also included on an “expert witness” list in a Michigan lawsuit alleging voter fraud in Antrim County. (Michigan’s GOP-led Senate issued a report debunking such claims last week.)
Maybe that had something to do with it. Or maybe it was kismet. Who could say.
Maricopa county surrendered all of the requested material on April 22. What happened then is part of MAGA world’s ongoing choose-your-own-adventure story about an unknown cybersecurity firm auditing an election that has already been thrice audited.
In their quest to find fraud, the Cyber Ninjas have chased rumors of bamboo-laced ballots flown in from South Korea, fake ballots with secret watermarks that could only be exposed by UV light, and what was believed to be suspicious folds and cheese-powder dust on ballots. At some point, voter data was transported to a lab in Montana, outside the control of any state or local officials, for analysis.
Media access has been tightly controlled for those outside the Cyber Ninja circle of trust.
For instance, while local newspapers have had trouble getting access to the process, Patrick Byrne has already written a book about the audit that was quickly turned into a film, “The Deep Rig.” Byrne stars in the film, which premiered at the Dream City Church in Phoenix on Saturday. According to the Arizona Mirror, the movie contains lots of footage from the audit and Logan, the Cyber Ninjas CEO, also plays a prominent role.
If there was one person who may have been able to put a stop to any of these shenanigans, it would have been Republican Governor Doug Ducey.
Although Ducey was initially willing to defend his state’s election results, even under pressure from Trump to do otherwise, as Fann’s effort gained steam, he went quiet and has remained content to let the fake ninja audit/fundraising-op play out.
The Board of Supervisors and GOP Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer (who was also targeted with subpoenas) have spoken out repeatedly about the foolishness of the audit. Ducey could have provided them with backup. He did not.
Ducey’s token line about the months-long effort that has consumed national attention is that he “looks forward to the findings” and he refuses to comment further until a final report is issued.
The Department of Justice, however, has thoughts about the possible civil rights violations taking place in Ducey’s state.
Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Pamela Karlan sent a letter to Fann on May 5 warning her that the audit may be violating federal law, which requires a duty to safeguard and preserve federal elections records. Karlan referenced:
[A] number of reports suggesting that the ballots, elections systems, and election materials that are the subject of the Maricopa County audit are no longer under the ultimate control of state and local elections officials, are not being adequately safeguarded by contractors at an insecure facility, and are at risk of being lost, stolen, altered, compromised or destroyed.
Karlan also expressed concern about Cyber Ninja’s plans to go door-knocking to ensure that voters lived at the address stated on voter registration records, a potential form of voter intimidation. After receiving the warning, Fann said they would “indefinitely defer” that part of the audit plans, but defended her right to retain an outside vendor to perform the audit as well as the auditors’ security procedures.
That didn’t appear to satisfy Attorney General Merrick Garland. In a June 11 speech about the need to protect voting rights, he referenced problems with the Arizona audit. He said: “Some jurisdictions, based on disinformation, have utilized abnormal post-election audit methodologies that may put the integrity of the voting process at risk and undermine public confidence in our democracy.”
Garland mentioned the letter sent by the Civil Rights Division and said, “As a part of its mission to protect the right to vote, the Justice Department will, of course, do everything in its power to prevent election fraud and, if found, to vigorously prosecute it.” He also said he plans to “publish guidance explaining the civil and criminal statutes that apply to post-election audits.”
As a possible legal showdown looms between the Arizona Senate and the Department of Justice, and Ducey is keeping his lips zipped—while Trump is cheering on the Republican state senators and hyping what’s to come.
At a Saturday rally in Wellington, Ohio, Trump thanked “the brave Republican senators in the state of Arizona for what they’re doing.” He said:
Because they saw what was happening—and I have nothing to do— what’s going to happen is they are going to issue a report at some time in the not too distant future, and it will be very interesting to see, but that’s them doing. This is the Senate, the state Senate, of Arizona, let’s see how that comes out, but I guess it’s going to be coming out very, very soon. A lot of states have gone to watch them, and they’ve come away with praise, real praise, so let’s see how that turns out. Arizona, it’s a big deal.
Trump may say he has “nothing to do” with the audit, but he’s demanding that other states conduct something similar and openly threatened to withhold support from Republicans in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin who refuse to go along with such exercises.
Naturally, many lawmakers seeking Trump’s support are eager to show their interest in the Arizona audit. The Coliseum has become a summer tourist destination for MAGA lawmakers who hope to follow the Arizona model. The Arizona Republic found that officials from Pennsylvania, Alaska, Wisconsin, Missouri, Georgia, Colorado, Michigan, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia have made the trip. Many of them have talked about replicating the effort in their home states
The Cyber Ninjas finished their examination of paper ballots this past weekend and a final report is expected in the coming weeks. But for MAGA, the Arizona audit is already a proven winner.
If you think Cyber Ninjas will produce a report saying that the audit proves the election was on the up-and-up, well then maybe you should treat yourself to a showing of The Deep Rig. The people who commissioned the audit, the people who paid for the audit, and the guy overseeing the audit, all made their views on the election clear months ago and now, on the big screen.
Besides, the Cyber Ninjas have the same fallback plan as every other conspiracy theory in the history of humankind. All they have to do is offer the possibility that fraud could have maybe happened, somewhere, somehow. Go ahead, prove it 100 percent beyond the shadow of the doubt otherwise. In their minds, the burden of proof is on you to prove everything went perfectly, not on them to prove enough bad stuff happened to throw things off course.
Whatever they write in the report doesn’t really matter.
This audit has been a success in continuing to cast doubt on the election. It showed how a few motivated actors can throw the political system into chaos for months after an election is concluded. And, bonus, it has provided loads of #content for the MAGA media and its various anti-anti-Trump sympathizers. More movies are probably on the way for your viewing pleasure.
Until someone, whether at the Department of Justice or elsewhere, definitely demonstrates otherwise, Karen Fann has shown there’s a new way for elected officials upset with the outcome of an election to delegitimize its results.