By Eric Bradner and Anna-Maja Rappard, CNN
The final report produced by Cyber Ninjas, the company hired by Arizona Senate Republicans to conduct a months-long, partisan review of the 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa County in the 2020 election, shows that the results of reviewers’ hand recount are nearly identical to the county’s tally.
The state Senate released the report Friday during a presentation by Cyber Ninjas and its subcontractors of its findings.
“The ballots that were provided to us to count in the coliseum very accurately correlate with the official canvass numbers,” Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan said during the presentation. He noted that the hand recount found President Joe Biden gaining 99 votes in Maricopa County and former President Donald Trump losing 261 votes — which he called “very small discrepancies.”
Still, the report is certain to be used as propaganda by Trump and his allies to push for more restrictive voting laws and further investigations into the 2020 election, both in Arizona and in other states.
Logan and other presenters used the report and Friday’s presentation to cast doubt on tens of thousands of ballots.
Both before and during the hearing, elections experts debunked virtually all of the claims Cyber Ninjas and its subcontractors made about ballots they characterized as questionable and Maricopa County’s handling of cybersecurity.
The report recommended that the Republican-led Arizona legislature “tighten up the election process to provide additional certainty going forward.” It also recommended that some of the reviewers’ findings be forwarded to Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a Republican who is running for the US Senate, for further investigation.
The final report largely mirrored a draft version that had circulated Thursday night, which Maricopa County Republican officials harshly criticized.
“You don’t have to dig deep into the draft copy of the Arizona Senate/Cyber Ninja audit report to confirm what I already knew — the candidates certified by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, Governor, Secretary of State and Attorney General — did, in fact, win,” board chairman Jack Sellers, a Republican, said in a statement in response to the draft.
“This means the tabulation equipment counted the ballots as they were designed to do, and ethe results reflect the will of the voters,” he said. “That should be the end of the story. Everything else is just noise.”
Elections experts in both parties, looking at the manner and the methods of the so-called “audit,” have said for months that its results will not be credible. It was conducted by the Florida-based company Cyber Ninjas, which had no experience auditing election results and is led by a man who has repeated wild conspiracy theories about election fraud. The company and its volunteers and subcontractors did not follow standard auditing procedures, and observers from Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs’ office repeatedly noted instances in which those conducting the review broke their own rules.
Still, former President Donald Trump and those who have propped up his lies about widespread election fraud have pointed to the Arizona review as crucial in their continuing effort to challenge the 2020 election results.
Here’s what you need to know about the Senate’s release of the sham report:
How we got here
The Republican push to undo Maricopa County’s election results began as soon as Biden won the state by 10,457 votes — finishing a narrow 0.4 percentage points ahead of Trump, thanks in part to a more than 45,000-vote advantage in Maricopa, the home of Phoenix and Arizona’s most populous county.
Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, visited Arizona weeks after the election there and made calls to Maricopa County Republicans. He left a voicemail on Christmas Eve for Maricopa County Supervisor Bill Gates, a Republican, saying that “maybe we can get this thing fixed up.”
In early 2021, the county’s board of supervisors had hired two firms certified by the US Elections Assistance Commission to audit its elections equipment and software. Those audits found no problems.
But it wasn’t enough for Arizona state Senate Republicans, who were under pressure from conservatives in the state to undo the 2020 election’s outcome, no matter the facts. Senate President Karen Fann, in a December email to a constituent obtained through an open records request by the watchdog group American Oversight, said she’d been communicating with Giuliani and had spoken on the phone with Trump.
Senate Republicans issued subpoenas for Maricopa County’s ballots and other materials. After a judge ruled that Maricopa County must comply with the subpoenas in February, the Senate hired Cyber Ninjas, a firm with no experience auditing elections, to conduct a “forensic audit” on March 31, paying the firm $150,000 while controversially allowing it to raise outside money.
Fann signed a lease for the Arizona State Fairgrounds’ Veterans Coliseum beginning on April 19, giving Cyber Ninjas a place to conduct what would become a bizarre, months-long review of Maricopa County’s ballots.
What auditors did
On April 23, ballot counting at the coliseum began, with volunteers streaming in to participate in a process many hoped would show Trump had won Arizona last year. Crazy Times Carnival opened in the parking lot outside of where the review was taking place.
The process was haphazard from the outset. Observers from the Democratic secretary of state’s office documented a host of cybersecurity and data-entry concerns, as well as ballots themselves being mishandled and auditors failing to follow their own security protocols.
At one point, workers were using UV lights — which a spokesman for the review said was to check for fake ballots and bamboo fibers in ballots, part of a conspiracy theory that Chinese ballots had been injected into Arizona’s election.
Behind schedule, the ballot review had to be halted on May 14 because the coliseum had been reserved for high school graduations. Ballots were moved by tractor trailer into the Wesley Bolin Building, which the State Fair had rated as not recommended for use between May and September because of heat.
The review resumed on May 24 and concluded, with ballots going back into the Bolin building for storage, on July 9. Fann, meanwhile, ordered a separate machine count to take place in that building.
Throughout the audit, Trump-aligned legislators from other states visited and toured the coliseum. Several have sought to launch Arizona-style “audits” in their own states.
On July 29, the ballots were returned to the Maricopa County treasurer’s office, and they are now locked inside a permanent vault there, where federal law requires that they be preserved for two years. At one point in August, the completion of the firm’s report was delayed because several people involved, including CEO Logan, had Covid-19.
What they presented
Fann and Arizona Senate Judiciary Chairman Warren Petersen on Friday received a report detailing the results of the “audit.”
They heard from Logan and two other people involved in the review: tech subcontractor Ben Cotton and conspiracy theorist and anti-vaccine activist Shiva Ayyadurai, who made a series of dubious claims about signatures on mail-in ballot envelopes.
They also got reports from two liaisons senators had appointed to the review: Randy Pullen, who detailed a machine count of the ballots after the conclusion of the Cyber Ninjas’ hand recount, and said the machine count was slightly closer to the county’s official tally than the recount’s tally, and Ken Bennett, a former Arizona secretary of state who issued a series of conclusions and recommendations.
In past meetings, similar rosters of participants have made unfounded claims that were quickly debunked by Maricopa County officials and others.
One critical example that illustrates how the sham audit has given birth to conspiracy theories that have taken hold on the right: In an earlier meeting, Logan, the Cyber Ninjas CEO, said that Maricopa County had received and counted more than 74,000 mail-in ballots “where there is no clear record of them being sent” to voters, and said the discrepancy merited a massive door-knocking campaign to check the veracity of the votes.
That claim was false. In fact, those 74,000 ballots were early votes cast in-person. Election experts explained that Logan had failed to understand the purpose of the early voting data Maricopa County had collected — a mistake an experienced auditor would have been unlikely to make. Still, Logan had provided fodder for Trump, who publicly repeated the claim about 74,000 ballots at his Phoenix rally just 10 days later, even though it had already been immediately and widely proven as false.
More allegations of discrepancies coming
The report shows that Cyber Ninjas and its subcontractors are still seeking ways to cast doubt on the election.
It points to tens of thousands of ballots that Cyber Ninjas says it could not fully vet, saying there were inconsistencies when Maricopa County’s voter registrations were compared to a commercial data company’s records. It includes heavy caveats around those doubts, noting that they do not necessarily mean votes were improperly cast, and says the Arizona attorney general should follow up with Maricopa County officials — who stopped cooperating with the Cyber Ninjas’ review — to get answers. Throughout the months-long review, county officials repeatedly batted down similar claims from Cyber Ninjas and its subcontractors.
Maricopa County officials, who had seen the draft report, responded Thursday night by pointing to the results — which weren’t substantially different than the county’s final tally — and dismissing the areas where Cyber Ninjas raises concerns in the draft report.
“The #azaudit draft report from Cyber Ninjas confirms the county’s canvass of the 2020 General Election was accurate and the candidates certified as the winners did, in fact, win,” the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors said on its Twitter feed.
“Unfortunately, the report is also littered with errors & faulty conclusions about how Maricopa County conducted the 2020 General Election,” the board said. “Board members & election officials will pay close attention to what is said at Friday’s scheduled Senate hearing & share facts as needed.”
Why experts say the results aren’t credible
The way Cyber Ninjas and its volunteers and subcontractors conducted the partisan review has led Republican and Democratic elections officials in Arizona, including GOP officials in Maricopa County, to warn that it should not be taken seriously.
Hobbs, the Arizona secretary of state and a 2022 Democratic candidate for governor, issued a 46-page report pre-butting the audit’s results. The report calls the Senate-run recount “secretive and disorganized.” It reiterates most of the issues Hobbs has cited for months; lack of security, shifting processes for screening and counting ballots, chain of custody and transparency problems. Over and over, the report notes there were no consistent procedures in reading ballots, tallying ballots and storing the ballots. One person working to examine the paper in the ballots complained that the process changed “every day, every day!”
“It is clear that any ‘outcomes’ or ‘conclusions’ that are reported from the Senate’s review, by the Cyber Ninjas or any of their subcontractors or partners, are unreliable,” Hobbs’ report says.
Stephen Richer, the Maricopa County recorder — a Republican whose 2020 victory was one of the GOP’s few gains in the state, as they lost the presidential race and a Senate seat — released a 38-page letter titled “Dear Arizona Republicans” in August. In the letter, he said he would still be willing to conduct a review of the 2020 election to ease Republicans’ worries, and would do so with Fann and GOP lawmakers — if they ditched Cyber Ninjas.
“What I’m not willing to do is further indulge the biased, inexperienced, incompetent, conspiracy-theory-driven, unscrupulous, partisan Cyber Ninjas,” Richer said.
Jennifer Morrell, a national expert on election audits who observed the Arizona process, wrote in The Washington Post: “In more than a decade working on elections, audits and recounts across the country, I’ve never seen one this mismanaged.”
Then there’s the reality that the review has proven profitable for those conducting and broadcasting it, raising the potential for serious conflicts of interest: Cyber Ninjas has privately raised at least $5.7 million for the ballot review. The pro-Trump, far-right propaganda network OAN was granted extensive access — and its correspondent was simultaneously fundraising during its broadcasts for election audits.
What about the routers?
A part of the process Cyber Ninjas and its subcontractors attempted to conduct might not yet have concluded.
Maricopa County turned over ballots, voting machines and more after Senate subpoenas, but repeatedly denied the Cyber Ninjas’ request for access to the county’s network routers — which Maricopa County officials said would be a security risk.
The Senate and Maricopa County officials reached a settlement last week in which former US Rep. John Shadegg and tech experts he hires will have access to the routers and logs showing internet activity and will answer any questions the Senate has.
The county has said its voting machines were not connected to the internet during the election. Trump and his supporters have still placed the routers at the center of conspiracy theories about his Arizona loss, though. At a July rally in Arizona, Trump said: “They don’t want to give them. They are fighting like hell. Why are these commissioners fighting not to give the routers?”
What’s next in Arizona?
Republicans who control the state legislature will likely seek to turn their findings into legislation to address anything they spotlight — rightly or wrongly — as a problem with how elections are conducted in the state.
The results Friday are also likely to provoke a strong reaction from the base of ardent Trump supporters who have bought into his lies about election fraud. Some, such as Republican state Sen. Wendy Rogers and state Rep. Mark Finchem, who is running for secretary of state, have said the state should decertify its 2020 election results, even though there is no process in place to do so.
Exporting Arizona’s “audit” to other states
Ultimately, the risk to democracy posed by the partisan theatre that Arizona Senate Republicans have conducted in recent months is that Trump and his supporters are seizing on the misinformation it has produced and attempting to use it to influence future elections.
Trump’s allies have already tried to export Arizona’s sham “audit” to other states. In Wisconsin, the GOP state Assembly speaker has tapped a former state Supreme Court justice to investigate the 2020 election. In Pennsylvania, Senate Republicans are launching an Arizona-style review that they are calling a “forensic investigation” of the 2020 election.
And several Republican-led states, including Texas, Florida and Georgia, this year enacted restrictive new voting laws targeting processes such as mail-in voting in the wake of Trump’s lies about fraudulent ballots.
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