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2020 election falsehoods thrive amid Arizona ballot review

PolitiFact | The review of ballots in Maricopa County has been criticized as partisan and amateurish.
In this May 6 photo, Maricopa County ballots cast in the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors working for Florida-based company, Cyber Ninjas at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix.
In this May 6 photo, Maricopa County ballots cast in the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors working for Florida-based company, Cyber Ninjas at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix. [ MATT YORK | AP ]
Published Jun. 21
Updated Jun. 21

Republicans in Arizona are still pushing the myth that President Joe Biden stole the 2020 election — a falsehood that ultimately culminated in the Jan. 6 violent attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The falsehood lives on in the review of about 2.1 million ballots in Maricopa County, Arizona, launched in April. A report on its findings is expected later this summer. Election experts, both Democrats and Republicans, have questioned the legality of the partisan-led ballot review and say it lacks transparency. They’re concerned that it could feed a new wave of misinformation about the election.

And yet, Republican politicians from more than a dozen other states have visited the Coliseum in Phoenix where the ballot inspection is underway — a sign that they may pursue similar ballot reviews elsewhere.

Tim Miller, former political director for Republican Voters Against Trump, called the audit a “circus” in an essay for The Bulwark. He warned that the audit, promoted by QAnon supporters, could conclude it was Trump who won and that “the former president and his MAGA media echo chamber will once again stoke the flames of insurrection.”

Local journalists in Arizona have been following the twists and turns of the audits. Here are some of the answers they’ve found for common questions, along with analysis from election experts.

What’s the status of the Arizona ballot inspection?

Biden won Arizona by about 10,500 votes, flipping the state after Trump won it in 2016. Despite judges rejecting lawsuits alleging wrongdoing and post-election audits in Maricopa County finding no abnormalities, Republican state senators wanted their own audit.

State Senate President Karen Fann, with encouragement from Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, sought a review of the ballots and sued Maricopa to gain access.

To conduct it, the state Senate Republicans hired a team that included a little-known group called Cyber Ninjas, headed by Doug Logan, who promoted “stop the steal” conspiracy theories about the election.

The ballot inspection started in late April and is largely complete, with a few exceptions including braille ballots, said Ken Bennett, a former GOP secretary of state and a spokesperson for the Senate Republicans. The review is now in the phase of a “forensic paper evaluation,” which includes examining the authenticity of the ballots.

The workers are looking at whether the ballots were folded, as would be expected with mail-in ballots, or not folded, as would be expected for ballots cast in person, Bennett said.

But election experts say there is nothing suspicious about the presence or absence of folds.

Jennifer Morrell, a former local election official and national expert on post-election audits, was tapped by the Arizona secretary of state to observe the ballot inspection. She concluded it was rife with problems, including the assumption among auditors that folded ballots suggest fraud.

“I almost had to laugh: In my experience, voters will fold ballots every which way, no matter where they vote or what the ballot instructs them to do,” she wrote in the Washington Post. “Chalk it up to privacy concerns or individual quirks — but no experienced elections official would call that suspicious.”

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It’s wrong to assume that all Election Day ballots would not have a fold, said Tammy Patrick, a former Maricopa elections official.

“Provisional ballots are folded and placed into an envelope for authentication/adjudication,” said Patrick. “Folds mean nothing about the validity of a ballot.”

The Arizona Republic reported that a tech contractor hired by the state Senate made copies of election data and is reviewing it in a “secure lab” in Montana. Bennett told PolitiFact that the findings by the tech firm will be incorporated into the final report about the ballot review.

What’s with claims that the audit showed Trump won?

Social media posts have claimed that the audit found “250k fake votes” for Biden and that Trump won by 228,000 votes in Maricopa. Similar falsehoods with the same number have circulated for months.

Officials involved with the audit say these claims are wrong.

“There’s been no such finding released,” Bennett said. Bennett told PolitiFact that the report will be finished in late July or August.

Organizers have repeatedly said that they aren’t releasing partial results. When they finish their review, organizers will take a few weeks to write a report and hand it over to the state Senate. It would then be up to the state Senate about whether to forward any findings to the state attorney general.

Claims that a large number of ballots are missing are “all speculation and unfounded,” Bennett said. But the organizers are looking into what he called “minor discrepancies.” Fann wrote in a May 12 letter to Maricopa officials that there were discrepancies between logs created by Maricopa that state the number of ballots in a batch and the actual number of ballots in a batch.

But Maricopa’s board of supervisors, four of whose five members are Republican, said those differences reflected damaged ballots that were sent to be duplicated and are tracked separately. Megan Gilbertson, a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Elections Department, said the state Senate didn’t subpoena all logs that pertain to duplicated ballots.

Are there really complaints that some ballots are too neat?

Bernard Kerik, a Giuliani ally and former New York City police commissioner who was pardoned by Trump for tax fraud and other charges, has said some of the ballots may be too neat.

“When I was there, one of the auditors showed me an example of a ballot that was flagged as suspicious because every single oval was filled out perfectly, without a single stray mark – something that would be easy for a machine to accomplish, but is almost impossible to do by hand,” Kerik wrote in an article for Newsmax.

Bennett said that the auditors are examining the ballots and markings. But again, they haven’t released any findings.

Election officials typically find variation in how voters make their marks on ballots, including how completely they fill out the oval, Patrick said.

Some voters do take great care in marking their ballot, as the instructions tell them to. Meanwhile, other voters are messier. Morrell, the expert on audits, wrote in the Washington Post that she overheard an Arizona audit volunteer talking about an alleged “Cheeto finger” that stained a ballot.

The allegation that a neatly filled out ballot is suspicious isn’t unique to Arizona. A poll manager in Georgia, a Republican activist, raised concerns about what she said were “pristine” ballots that had a different “feel” in Fulton County.

Are other states going to embark on similar audits?

Politicians, election officials and activists from about 17 other states including Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania have visited the Coliseum, according to Bennett.

The Wisconsin delegation’s trip was funded by Voices and Votes, a group headed by Bobb and Chanel Rion of OAN, the conservative outlet that has raised money for Arizona’s ballot review, according to reporting from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, a PolitiFact partner.

It’s uncertain how many other states are interested in similar ballot inspections. A group in Georgia is pursuing a review of ballots in Fulton County.

What’s the connection to QAnon?

The Arizona Republic reported that the conspiracy theory QAnon is hovering in the background of the audit.

“QAnon followers have coalesced around a theory that the audit itself would trigger the major event long prophesied by Q,” the Arizona Republic wrote. “Some follow every development of the audit on channels devoted to it on Telegram, a messaging application that has grown in popularity as Facebook and Twitter have culled users who post disinformation.”

Q is an anonymous internet persona who claims to be a government insider with information on a “deep state” plot to work against Trump. The conspiracy theory claims public figures like Hillary Clinton, Tom Hanks and Oprah Winfrey are Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles who will be brought to justice one day. Q’s posts on a fringe internet forum have been the basis for the QAnon conspiracy theory.

“The audit is The Great Awakening in how we’ve been manipulated by those that want to control us,” the user Just Stan wrote June 2 on the Arizona Audit Watch Chat channel, the Arizona Republic reported.

QAnon was also linked to the conspiracy theory about secret watermarked ballots. Auditors did initially scan ballots with UV lights to see if there were watermarks, but soon dropped that process.

Is Biden’s Justice Department taking any action?

Attorney General Merrick Garland made a reference to the Arizona ballot inspection without naming the state in a June 11 speech on voting rights.

“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 said.

In May, the Justice Department sent a letter to Arizona’s Fann suggesting that the audit may violate the federal Civil Rights Act, especially in regard to voter intimidation. The letter prompted Republicans to stop plans to go door to door to speak to voters in Maricopa.

Garland announced he will soon double his staff in the civil rights enforcement division. Lawyers are scrutinizing new election laws and post-election audits, Garland said.