Arizona Senate's plan for counting 2.1M ballots impossible and biased, election consultants say

Jen Fifield Andrew Oxford
Arizona Republic
Experts question Arizona Senate's planned Maricopa County election audit

Lacking transparency, partisan and probably not possible.

That’s how several election audit consultants from across the country describe the Arizona Senate’s plan for recounting the 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa County in November.

The plan released last week does not give the Senate’s contractors enough time or money to do the audit properly, and the lack of detailed, monitored and secure procedures could lead to miscounted or mishandled ballots — purposefully or not, according to four nonpartisan election consultants with experience performing or reviewing audits.

"I don't think there is any good end to this," said Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser of elections at Democracy Fund, who previously worked for Maricopa County Elections Department.

Full hand counts such as the one proposed here have taken other states months and cost millions of dollars. Georgia did its hand count of about 5 million ballots cast in the 2020 presidential election in less than a week, but that involved dozens to hundreds of workers in each of the state's 159 counties, according to the Associated Press.

Arizona's audit is slated to cost $150,000 and to be done in 60 days. Auditors have been given 20 days to do the hand count and plan to use 120 people at a time. The full audit includes not just the hand count but an analysis of voter information and an audit of the county’s voting technology.

Patrick and others say a lack of transparency in the audit will make its integrity hard to judge. The proposed statement of work doesn’t say whether anyone will be allowed to observe the process in person, and there’s no indication that the boards set up to count ballots will be bipartisan — a standard procedure for hand counts.

The companies and people working on the audit already have raised suspicions for some.

Cyber Ninjas, a small Florida-based cybersecurity company, will oversee the audit. The company has no known election auditing experience but its CEO does have a history of propagating claims that the presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump. The company's CEO, Doug Logan, said in a statement on Tuesday that his bias doesn't matter because his company has created an auditing process that will be fair and ensure personal biases do not affect the results.

"The big question should not be, ‘Am I biased,’" Logan wrote. "but ‘Will this audit be transparent, truthful and accurate?’ The answer to the latter question is a resounding ‘Yes.’”

Logan said that his company has created a "systematic, transparent method," for the audit.

The state Senate also may rely on work from a grassroots group led by former Republican legislative candidate Liz Harris, which has worked for months to collect evidence of widespread voter fraud.

'Audit is not a joint effort'

County officials turned over information the state Senate subpoenaed earlier this year but recently drew the line on two fronts:

  • The county refused to let the Senate use its election headquarters to conduct the audit.
  • The county refused to answer additional questions from the company conducting the audit.

Jack Sellers, the Republican chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, sent an email to Senate President Karen Fann on Monday telling her the county will not answer Cyber Ninjas' questions or provide anything other than what’s in the subpoenas.

“To avoid any confusion, I want to be clear that the audit is not a joint effort between the County and the Senate Republican Caucus,” Sellers wrote. “Maricopa County will not communicate with your vendors or interpret Arizona law for them.”

If the county were to cooperate more fully, some, including David Becker, executive director and founder of the national election nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research, worry that the outcome could spread more false claims about election fraud that would impact future elections in Arizona and beyond.

Despite court battles turning up no proof of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election, Republican state lawmakers nationwide are using voters' doubt about the election's integrity to try to pass measures that would change how voting happens, Becker said. 

"We had the most secure, transparent election with the highest turnout in the middle of the pandemic," Becker said. "That is amazing … and yet the legislation being proposed is based on a lie."

In Arizona, Senate President Fann, who signed off on the audit, would not comment on the concerns raised about the plan. She has said she is confident in the auditors she hired and told Capitol Media Services last week that the audit is being done with “utmost transparency with the most qualified people, with checks, double checks and triple checks to make sure all this is done correctly.''

3 components of election audit

Sellers and other county officials continue to say the audit is not needed.

The county completed multiple post-election audits that show votes counted accurately and machines untampered. Those efforts included a hand count of results from a sample of ballots by all major political parties and a test of voting machines by two independent firms.

Additionally, several lawsuits alleging fraud or misconduct were heard and dismissed.

Fann has said the Senate's effort is not about overturning the 2020 presidential election but about ensuring the integrity of the voting process.

Much of what is outlined in the statement of work, though, seems aimed at attempting to prove heavily repeated claims of fraud in the presidential election, including that there were widespread cases of fraudulent ballots and ineligible voters.

The three main parts of the audit would:

1.     Hand count all 2020 ballots cast in Maricopa County. This would include “a hand-tally and examination of every paper ballot.” It’s meant to catch incorrect vote counts and “ballots that are visually different and possibly fraudulent,” according to the report.

2.     Verify voter information. This would include “validating the legitimacy of voter rolls,” and looking to see who voted in certain precincts. The report states that the information will be used to find invalid voters such as “deceased voters” and “non-citizens,” and find people whose votes weren't counted.

3.      Review the voting system. This would include imaging more than 1,800 voter check-in systems, more than 350 vote tabulation machines and all other election hardware, and reviewing internet connections and ballot images. It is meant to see whether votes were counted correctly and “issues where results may have been manipulated.”

Logan of Cyber Ninjas said that his company has experience working with companies to find out how their systems could be infiltrated, and he came up with the audit plan based on those "threat modeling" principles.

In general, the price of the audit seems low and the timeline seems too short, said Becker and Harri Hursti, a data security expert, hacker and the founding partner of Nordic Innovation Labs. 

Hursti said state election audits he was involved with in California and Ohio had narrower scopes, cost $2 million each and took about three months.

Regarding the Arizona Senate’s audit, Hursti said, “You can’t provide a quality, thorough study with those working hours and that cost.”

Experts question 20-day window for hand count  

Conducting a full hand count of ballots is a complicated, error-prone way to verify election results, Hursti said.

“We humans are slow and error-prone,” Hursti said. “Sometimes, also dishonest, but let’s not even go there.”

The Senate will need strong accounting practices and exact procedures to ensure everything goes correctly, said Jennifer Morrell, a partner at The Elections Group, a national elections consulting group. She doesn't see that in the Cyber Ninjas report, she said. Morrell is a former election official in Colorado and Utah who specializes in audits.

The Senate hired Wake Technology Services to run the hand count of all votes cast in 10 federal races, including the presidential, senate and eight congressional contests. Wake Technology worked on an audit of election results in Fulton County, Pennsylvania, which has a population of about 15,000. The IT company does not advertise elections as an area of expertise and did not respond to an inquiry from The Republic.

The timeframe set out to do the count, 20 days, is unreasonable, according to Hursti and Morrell.

The county’s hand count, which was led by political parties and performed by 33 boards of three people each with support from 15 county staffers, took about three days with about eight to nine hours of counting and looked at multiple races on 8,802 ballots.

At that rate — counting 1,035 ballots an hour — the full hand count of 2,089,563 ballots would take about 252 eight-hour days. The Senate auditors plan to count all 10 federal races on the ballots, double the number of races the county reviewed.

Georgia's hand count looked only at the presidential race. In the state's most populous county, Fulton County, it took 172 two-person counting teams nearly three days to count 528,777 ballots, and more than 15 others were on hand to help, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. Bipartisan monitors oversaw the counting, and political appointees and others were invited to observe.

A 2019 study by national election nonprofits found that in Rhode Island, it took auditors about 62 seconds to evaluate 10 contests on each ballot.

“I don’t know they would have time or resources to complete this,” Patrick said.

For the Senate’s audit, the report says up to 120 people will be present at a time for the hand count and that each person in groups of three will independently count ballots in their batches, with a supervisor overseeing the counting.

When the county does hand counts, it staffs each board with three people from different political parties. There is no indication that will the case in this audit.

Instead, the plan says that "non-partisan counters" will be utilized, drawn "from a pool of primarily former law enforcement, veterans and retired individuals." The counters will undergo background checks to ensure they haven't worked for political campaigns or "any vendor involved in the voting process."

The Cyber Ninjas report does not say whether observers will be allowed. Under state law, counties must allow observers to watch the audits they conduct.

Becker said the lack of observation was most concerning to him.

The Senate’s audit will be “videotaped 24 hours a day,” the report says. But those watching won’t be able to see much. Another part of the report says that “any such video footage must be streamed, recorded or broadcast in such a manner that the candidate or ballot proposition selections on each ballot shall not be visible or discernible.”

The report says that access to the counting area will be restricted “to duly authorized and credentialed individuals who have passed a comprehensive background check.”

Without observation, “they can characterize the election however they want and no one would be able to confirm or deny that,” Becker said.

Logan wrote in his statement that he asked Wake Technology to create a process that was "beyond reproach, designed so that it was difficult for there to even be the perception of wrong-doing."

He said that the company "will be revealing more details on our procedures as we get closer to the actual audit."

A spokesperson for Logan declined to answer additional questions.

Verifying voter data

Harris’ group may take on the portion of the audit that will attempt to verify voter information.

The Cyber Ninjas report says this part of the audit will be done by a “registration and votes cast team,” that has been doing “non-partisan canvassing” in the state to “statistically identify voter registrations that did not make sense, and then knock on doors to confirm if valid voters actually lived at the stated address.”

Harris said that more than 4,400 people have signed up to participate in her grassroots effort to find abnormalities in voting in Arizona, and her group has been canvassing in the state for going on four months.

Harris at first told The Republic that her group was helping with the Senate’s audit, but she couldn’t say on what part because of a nondisclosure agreement. Later, Harris said she doesn’t know what her involvement may or may not be.

She said Republicans, Democrats and independents are involved in her group. The effort “has nothing to do with 'Stop the Steal,'” she said.

Whatever team Cyber Ninjas relies on, it will be using data the team already has collected that it says "brought forth a number of significant anomalies suggesting significant problems in the voter rolls." A review of those "anomalies" will be used to choose three precincts to examine in detail for the audit.

Cyber Ninjas wrote in its report that “a combination of phone calls and physical canvassing may be utilized to collect information of whether the individual voted in the election.” It says no voters will be asked who they voted for.

Patrick said this methodology is flawed. Relying on surveys is problematic, she said, mainly because research has shown that people lie in surveys.

Others believe it is illegal. The advocacy group Protect Democracy and a group of Democratic election attorneys sent Cyber Ninjas and the other audit companies a letter Tuesday arguing that canvassing voters door to door about their participation in the election would amount to voter intimidation.

Citing several federal laws, including the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, the lawyers threatened to sue if the companies carry out the scope of work or “or any other conduct that intimidates voters.”

The county regularly updates and audits its voter rolls.

Under Arizona law, voters are placed on an inactive list if two consecutive county mailings are not returned. If there is no activity after two federal elections, the voter is canceled.

The county uses many lists to cross-check its voter registration database for people who died, felons, non-citizens, incapacitated residents and residents who move and register to vote in a new county or state. The lists include those from court juries, Arizona counties, the Arizona Secretary of State, and the federal Electronic Registration Information Center. The county also reads daily obituaries and keeps track of early ballots returned for various reasons.

County’s refusal to cooperate could set Senate back

The largest roadblock the Senate could face is a lack of cooperation from the county, which is currently refusing to provide the space, additional information and documents the Senate says it needs.

The Senate has access to anything it requested under subpoenas it issued to the county in January, but Cyber Ninjas has a long list of additional information and documents it wants.

The Senate does not yet have anywhere to put the 2.1 million ballots it will receive, or anywhere to conduct an audit of this size with COVID-19 social distancing measures in place. The Senate is looking for a secure place to put the ballots that can be monitored by cameras at all hours.

Fann has told The Republic that the county and Senate had discussed doing the Senate’s audit at the county’s tabulation center, which provides the space and the 24-hour security needed to ensure the ballots are not tampered with.

But the county rejected the Senate's request to use the center for its audit. More specifically, a county attorney told the Senate's attorney in a letter last week that the county would deliver the ballots anywhere the Senate wanted — besides county property.

The county also refused to answer further questions. Instead, Sellers suggested Cyber Ninjas read Arizona election law and watch a Senate hearing county officials participated in to answer the Senate’s questions about election processes and integrity.

The county and Senate have feuded for months, and although a judge implored them to work together, the communication seems to have diminished.

On Monday, Sellers told Fann that all future communication on the topic must go through a county attorney.

Helen Purcell declines to help, but Ken Bennett steps up

The county’s refusal to cooperate could seriously inhibit the Senate’s plan. The Senate needs to understand how to set up and work the county’s voting machines, interpret the extensive election data and voter information the county provided, and understands the idiosyncrasies of Arizona election law.

Not all are willing to help.

That includes former county recorder Helen Purcell, a Republican who ran elections in the county for decades until 2016. Purcell said that the Senate Republicans reached out to her for help, but she declined.

 “I couldn’t take part in something I couldn’t believe in the first place,” she said. “I think doing this audit in the first place is ridiculous.”

Purcell said the involvement of Cyber Ninjas concerns her, and she believes the hand count is far too complicated to do in the timeline and with the resources the Senate has.

Another former and influential Republican leader in the state is willing to help the Senate, though.

Ken Bennett, who served as Arizona secretary of state from 2009 to 2015, said he called Fann to offer his assistance if it was needed, and Fann asked him to serve as a liaison between the Senate and its vendors.

He was secretary of state in 2010 during a recount of Proposition 112 — a statewide ballot measure thatwould have changed the deadline for submitting initiative petitions.

Bennett said he has numerous questions about how the Senate’s audit will happen. He also said he doesn’t believe this audit can be done for $150,000.

He said Friday he had read about one-third of the statement of work and already had some 15 questions. “I’m going to be giving my input as to whether they’ve thought of all the things they need to think of,” he said.

Bennett said he does not have the power to tell vendors what to do but will provide his advice.

Bennett said he asked the state Democratic Party if it would put forward someone to work with him.

But party officials have said they do not want to lend legitimacy to a process they view as unnecessary and as only undermining confidence in the election process.

Pointing to the firms chosen to run the audit, Democrat Party chair Raquel Terán accused Fann and Republicans of “caving to conspiracy theorists and charlatans.”

“After ignoring guidance from election security experts, they've decided to hire a firm whose CEO was pushing ‘Stop the Steal’ conspiracies and has absolutely zero credentials to audit elections,” Terán said. “The Arizona Democratic Party will not participate in any sham audits, and President Fann should be ashamed for letting conspiracy theorists get their hands on our elections systems.”

Reach the reporter at jen.fifield@azcentral.com or at 602-444-8763. Follow her on Twitter @JenAFifield