'You can't make a change ... by sitting on the sidelines': Recruitment of ballot counters raises concerns

Jen Fifield Robert Anglen
Arizona Republic

The effort to recruit people to count ballots for the ongoing audit of Maricopa County's presidential election results appears targeted in part at traditionally conservative groups — and some of the recruiters themselves have far-right political ties.

One recruiter is a retired police officer who works as an investigator for an extremist right-wing group that warns of "the growing threat of the Marxist and the Islamic movement in America."

Another person involved in recruitment used her brief stint as the county Republican Party chairwoman to try to "get Trump back in office" by protesting the results of one of the county's prior audits.

Their efforts target retired police officers, veterans and Republican groups, according to three recruiting pitches obtained by The Arizona Republic.

The politically charged messaging of one recruiting email left a group of retired law enforcement officers defending itself against claims of partisanship after some members complained.

Cyber Ninjas, the main contractor hired by the Arizona Senate to conduct the audit, promised that the company was working to get ballot counters from all political backgrounds and that those who were hired would be "nonpartisan."

While Republicans are involved, the Arizona Democratic Party and the Maricopa County Democratic Party told The Republic that the Senate's contractors did not reach out to them to help recruit counters.

It's unclear who exactly is leading — and paying for — the recruiting efforts.

Cyber Ninjas did not respond to The Republic's questions about how it is recruiting the ballot counters and who is providing the company the money needed to pay those workers. And the recruiters who responded to The Republic did not give details about who they are working for.

It's also unclear whether all of the counters are paid. Senate liaison Ken Bennett said Wednesday that some are paid and some are volunteers, but he didn’t know the mix. 

The costs for the audit are piling up as the ballot counting is anticipated to take much longer than Cyber Ninjas expected — meaning even more costs.

While the Senate originally anticipated leaving Veterans Memorial Coliseum by May 14, Bennett now says that may not happen, and there is no hard deadline. It's unclear whether the coliseum will allow the auditors to stay past May 14, with one fair official saying an extension is "not feasible."

The recruiting efforts, and the revelation that former state lawmaker and Stop the Steal advocate Anthony Kern is among those counting ballots, adds to worries Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser of elections at Democracy Fund who previously worked for Maricopa County Elections Department, has over the lack of bipartisan involvement and oversight of the audit.

"The fact that they are recruiting from groups already having a perception of the election being stolen or illegitimate or lacking integrity is just a way of setting up a predetermined outcome," Patrick said. "And that’s incredibly problematic.”

Patrick is one of several election consultants from across the country who are watching the audit in disbelief, worried that the lack of clear and fair procedures will lead to inaccurate or biased results that will fuel claims of widespread election fraud and give lawmakers cover for far-reaching changes to how Americans vote.

Arizona election audit: Who's checking your ballot?

Email: Don't listen to 'the media'

A recruitment email to the Coalition of DPS Retirees encourages former law enforcement officers to join the audit effort to make sure every vote counts. It's not clear when the email was sent.

Although the email stresses the audit is bipartisan, it includes language that mimics Arizona GOP talking points used to suggest the presidential election was rigged against former President Trump.

"I encourage you to not listen to all you are hearing on the media," the email says. "You can't make a change to something you don't like by sitting on the sidelines."

The author of the email is Stephanie Ameiss, a retired Gilbert police officer who works for Understanding the Threat, which bills itself as a "modern-day Minuteman" and promises to put "freedom back on the offensive where it belongs." 

The controversial right-wing consulting firm is run by disgraced former FBI agent John Guandolo, who is described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist. Guandolo has said mosques and Islamic centers are fronts for terrorist organizations.

Guandolo's firm drew condemnation in 2014 from the American Civil Liberties Union in Arizona and several Muslim community leaders after former Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery hired him to conduct a $40,000 terrorist training session.

Montgomery, who was appointed to the Arizona Supreme Court in 2019 by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, defended hiring Understanding the Threat and said its training was mischaracterized.

The group's website says it is "the only organization in the West empowering citizens, police, elected officials and community leaders with tools to identify and dismantle Marxist/communist and jihadi networks at the local level."

Ameiss said her work with the audit was not connected to her employer.

"This recruitment effort had nothing to do with Understanding the Threat," she said in an email Tuesday to The Republic.

She confirmed recruiting from the ranks of retired police officers and at American Legion posts. She said she was looking for bipartisan hand counters.

"Recruiting is going good," she said in the email. "We are signing up honest hardworking people."

Ameiss declined to say if she was recruiting on behalf of the Arizona Senate, Cyber Ninjas or some other group. She would not discuss how she was contacted to recruit ballot counters.

Twitter moment: Republic reporter kicked out of Arizona audit site after tweet about former state lawmaker

Retired officer raises concerns

Retired Arizona Department of Public Safety Officer David Paul, who received the email, said he thinks the recruiting effort was clearly partisan.

"They’re looking specifically for people who are biased toward favoring former President Trump," he said.

Paul pointed to other aspects of the audit that raise concerns for him, including allowing Kern, the former state lawmaker and Stop the Steal supporter, to count ballots. He also called Cyber Ninjas founder Doug Logan a "rabid Trump supporter and conspiracy theorist" and said he "has no business running an audit."

Former Arizona lawmaker Anthony Kern (right, standing) helps in examining and recounting Maricopa County ballots from the 2020 general election with contractors hired by the Arizona Senate at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix on April 30, 2021. Kern, who was on the 2020 general election ballot, also was in Washington, D.C., during the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

Coalition of DPS Retirees Chairman Colin Peabody confirmed receiving complaints about the email from two other members.

"We won't be sending out anything like that again," he said, adding the group doesn't take sides in elections.

Peabody said he sent the recruiting offer to members as an opportunity for off-duty employment. He said he simply cut and pasted the email, which listed Ameiss as the contact.

The email offered ballot counters $15 per hour for six-hour shifts and says the job will run for at least 10 days. It also required one day of training. 

Peabody said he was surprised by the pushback from members, but also said he understands how the email could be construed as partisan.

"We are not pro-Biden or pro-Trump," he said. "We try desperately to convey that."

November candidate: Former Rep. Anthony Kern, a Stop the Steal backer, now counting your ballots

Republicans take on recruiting

Two local Republicans were involved in another recruiting effort for ballot counters this weekend that reached out to the members of the South Mountain GOP, which represents Legislative District 27, an area that includes parts of downtown and south Phoenix.

District Chairperson Tracy Ireland sent an email to the group’s members on Sunday with information about the ballot counting work.

She wrote that the pay would be $15 an hour, and listed various shifts.

“Thank you for stepping up & becoming a part of AZ history!” she wrote.

Ireland told people who were interested to email Linda Brickman, a local Republican who briefly served as interim chairperson for the Maricopa County Republican Party this fall.

Brickman attended the county's post-election test of the voting machines. After the test, party representatives are asked to sign a letter certifying that the machines worked properly.

She signed her name, but also wrote “certification denied” next to it. Brickman told the Arizona Mirror afterward that the machines were working properly, and that her dissent was aimed at overturning the election result.

“It is most important that we sign the way it was necessary to sign to help our president get back into office,” Brickman told the Mirror

The Arizona Secretary of State’s Office has said that Brickman’s statement on the certification was meaningless. But it was part of the ongoing effort by some Republicans to reject the election results, despite no evidence of fraud presented in multiple court challenges or in any of the county’s multiple audits.

The recruiting message sent by another local party leader was more detailed, giving an explanation of the purpose of the audit and why it is important.

On May 3, Pat Shaler, a Tea Party Scottsdale leader, posted a message on a Republican blog saying that the focus of the audit is getting an accurate ballot count “for the Arizona Legislature to know what, if anything, needs to be modified in the laws to assure free and fair elections” and “to assure the 47% of the public who believe that the 2020 election was fraudulent as to the facts.”

Shaler said that people should reach out to her and she would forward their information to the “volunteer coordinator.”

“Voting is to be easy,” Shaler added at the end. “Cheating must be difficult.”

The Republic was unable to identify who is serving as the audit’s volunteer coordinator.

The Arizona Republican Party did not respond to an email from The Republic asking whether they were asked to help recruit ballot counters.

Shaler told The Republic in an email that what she wrote in the post was all that she knows.

“I have no idea who the ‘main person’ is for recruitment,” she said. “The contractors may have no idea because volunteers for counting have to be recruited only from residents of Maricopa County — so, I suspect it was more of a local effort and probably a lot of word of mouth.”

Shaler said that from what she has seen “everyone, at all levels, are doing whatever they can to help to make this successful — accurate and thorough without any preconceived outcome.”

Another recruiting effort for ballot counters in Phoenix was posted on Craigslist recently, but the company that was mentioned, Southwest Contractor Staffing, told The Republic that it was fake.

Audit concerns: Department of Justice asks Arizona Senate to respond to concerns about election audit

Rules for counters differ from AZ law

Cyber Ninjas told the Senate in its contract that it would be using "non-partisan counters." 

"These individuals will undergo background checks and will be validated to not have worked for any political campaigns nor having worked for any vendor involved in the voting process," the contract says.

Logan, the Cyber Ninjas CEO, told reporters prior to the start of the hand counting that workers were screened to ensure “there was nothing on their social media or other details that showed strong opinions one way or another.”

The contract said the counters would be "drawn from a pool of primarily former law enforcement, veterans, and retired individuals." It does not give additional details on recruitment.

Each ballot is reviewed by three counters, who tally votes separately, and the vote counts are then compared after a certain number of ballots are reviewed. Logan told reporters that the contractors were not committing to have members of different political parties at each counting table.

This is in contrast to state law, which requires that bi-partisan teams review ballots during hand counts.

Under Arizona election law, post-election hand counts are required in each county, if all major political parties decide to participate. For those hand counts, the county chairperson of each major political party appoints the ballot counters.

Each ballot is reviewed by a "hand count board" that must include "designees from at least two recognized political parties and no more than 75% of the members may be from the same political party," according to the state's elections procedures manual.

For three-member hand count boards, that means that "no more than two board members shall be members of the same political party entitled to continued representation on the ballot."

These types of rules are common across the country, Patrick said. It's meant to overall ensure fairness in counting votes, but in particular to ensure fairness as counters review votes where the voters' intent is not clear.

Having members of different political parties review each ballot is crucial in these instances, Patrick said "to be sure there isn’t any kind of partisan interpretation." 

It's unclear how or if the Senate's contractors are adjudicating votes, or whether each individual counter is just marking what they believe the voter intended without calling votes into question.

Under state law, board members also must take a loyalty oath saying they will uphold the U.S. and Arizona Constitutions. It's unclear whether the counters are taking an oath for this audit.

Also under state law, candidates appearing on the ballot, except for the office of precinct committeeman, may not serve as hand count board members. That would have disqualified Kern.

Bennett has said that the Senate did not have control over how ballot counters were screened and chosen.

Costs of paying counters, audit climb

The $150,000 the Arizona Senate agreed to pay Cyber Ninjas for the audit may not be enough to cover the wages for hand count workers, and that isn't the only cost of the audit.

The audit also is examining the county's voter machines and voter information, and there are various other costs, such as some expenses at the coliseum.

Cyber Ninjas is taking outside donations to help cover the full cost of the audit, but will not say who is paying the firm and will not disclose the total estimated cost.

Administrators of social media posts tied to the Arizona Audit have publicly urged donors to give as much as they can to three key audit fundraising efforts operated by Trump supporters. They are: Former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell; former Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne; and One American News Network host Christina Bobb

And Bennett has said that the number of counters will soon double.

The costs also include paying the many staff members of Wake Technology, the firm that Cyber Ninjas put in charge of running the hand count.It's unclear how many employees the company has, what their shifts are or how much they are paid.

Have questions about this audit? Email the reporters at jen.fifield@azcentral.com or robert.anglen@arizonarepublic.com. Follow them on Twitter @JenAFifield and @robertanglen.