The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The obvious goal of the Arizona recount: Injecting more doubt into the 2020 results

A contractor for Cyber Ninjas, which was hired by the Arizona State Senate, works to recount ballots from the 2020 presidential election on May 1 in Phoenix. (Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images)

The reason it’s fun to lie back on a warm spring day and look for shapes in the clouds is that you can usually pick something out. When there are a lot of clouds, slowly swelling and shifting as they drift along, it’s not hard to apply a bit of imagination and see a marching elephant or a hot-air balloon.

Humans are good at spotting patterns in chaos. I’m not an evolutionary scientist, so I’ll defer to them for an explanation of how this was advantageous. But our skill is obvious, even outside the context of lazy afternoons lying in the grass. Give us a big set of data and we can find some throughline.

This ability has collided uncomfortably with the Internet. Give people an endless supply of information, not all of it legitimate, and people can build up entire ecosystems of belief only loosely bound to reality. The flagship example of this in recent months is the QAnon movement, a self-assembled community that has plunged deep into a surreal and dangerous world of belief. But the same can also be said of claims that the 2020 election was somehow stolen from President Donald Trump, a claim that itself depends on a flimsy latticework of cherry-picked dubious or debunked assertions.

Give people a wide range of information and a motivation to find a particular pattern, and humans really shine.

A subset of this tendency is underway in Arizona. There, the Republican-controlled state Senate authorized a recount of ballots cast in Maricopa County last year. Maricopa is not only the largest county in Arizona, but it accounted for more than 60 percent of the votes cast in the state in 2020. Joe Biden won the county by about 45,000 votes while eking out a statewide victory by about 10,000. So the value in undercutting the results in Maricopa is clear: Drop 10,458 votes from that total into the shadow zone of uncertainty and the results in the state overall fall into the same space. And then: Who knows what?

This theory is ascribed to by none other than Trump himself.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they found thousands and thousands and thousands of votes,” Trump told a crowd at Mar-a-Lago last week. “So we’re going to watch that very closely. And after that, you’ll watch Pennsylvania and you’ll watch Georgia and you’re going to watch Michigan and Wisconsin. … Because this was a rigged election, everybody knows it.”

I also would not be surprised if that’s what they found. In fact, it’s completely obvious that this is the goal of the recount.

There is nothing wrong with recounting ballots, of course, at least in general. Recounts can be an important mechanism for validating the results of a close election. (Republicans sought a full recount from the outset, a request rejected by a judge in part because the vote had been audited by the county in accordance with existing statutes.) But the credibility of a recount depends on it being conducted according to an open, unbiased process — which the recount in Maricopa County is not.

For example, the process is being run — without bipartisan observation — by a group of private companies, managed by a firm called Cyber Ninjas. When Cyber Ninjas’ expertise in administering such a process was called into question last week, it responded with remarkable vagueness.

“What’s important to remember is that Cyber Ninjas is the coordinating firm of four companies conducting components of the audit,” it said in a statement. “In each component, the company administering that work has election experience in that area. Each member of our team has been part of election audits, including Cyber Ninjas, which was part of election audits in Michigan and in Georgia.”

The company is headquartered in Florida, where, according to interviews conducted by Politico, no one seems to have heard of it. But people have heard of Doug Logan, the company’s founder. He made something of a name for himself late last year … promoting obviously false claims about voter fraud in the 2020 election.

Perhaps you remember Sidney Powell, a member of Trump’s legal team who was deep-sixed after her wild false claims about electronic voting machines drew unwelcome (although completely justified) negative attention. After being sued by two of the companies against which she’d made false claims, Smartmatic and Dominion Voting Systems, Powell was forced to admit that she not only had no evidence but that “no reasonable person” would have believed her claims.

One person who not only believed her claims but who helped reinforce them was Doug Logan. He put together a document titled “Election Fraud Facts & Details” that makes the same claims about Smartmatic and Dominion that have been repeatedly debunked. (For some reason, it is still on Powell’s website.) The Logan document makes a number of other dubious claims, too, including pointing to “Statistical Analysis by multiple mathematicians” that the claims shows fraud occurred — the analyses don’t — and that there were “Startling Vote Spikes” in vote counting in 2020, something that was demonstrably a function of large cities reporting their votes.

All of this goes back to our original point: There are enough allegations floating out there that not only can one construct a worldview centered on fraud but the existence of so many allegations themselves are often used as evidence of impropriety without cause.

Asked last month whether he stood by the debunked claims Powell had elevated, Logan said he did. This is the person leading the recount effort in Maricopa County.

How that recount is unfolding is itself murky. Although the counting is being live-streamed, its observable only from a distance. That holds in the room, too: Media outlets have not been given an opportunity to review what’s underway. Reporters were told that they would need to sign up as volunteer observers; one reporter from the Arizona Republic was turned away after being told she was being vetted by organizers.

Meanwhile, the counting itself is being done by people who appear to have undergone a somewhat different vetting process. The group includes a man named Anthony Kern, a Republican former state representative who not only endorsed false fraud claims after the election but was at the Capitol during the insurrection on Jan. 6. Even after this history was made public, he was allowed to participate in the recount.

Perhaps Kern is applying a rigorously objective assessment to each ballot he reviews.

But then there’s the process itself. A lot has been made of the fact that, at the outset, the ballots were being examined under ultraviolet light, apparently in an effort to find watermarks — and, presumably, to flag possible fraudulent ballots if they had no such watermarks.

Elections officials threw a bit of cold water on that strategy though: None of the ballots were watermarked.

Then there’s the fact that the ballot counters have been trained to check whether early ballots have been folded, a process given the hilariously scientific-y name of “Kinematic Artifact detection,” according to reporter Garrett Archer. Here, too, there’s a bit of a problem, as Archer’s outlet, ABC15, reports:

“All mail-in-ballots are early ballots, but not all early ballots are mail-in ballots. Maricopa County residents were also invited to vote early, in person at vote centers across the county as they became available starting in October 2020. According to Archer, ballots sent to military and overseas residents are also not folded.”

Consider what is likely to follow, then: The Cyber Ninjas squad announces that it has completed its review of the ballots and has found, to its endless concern, that a number of early ballots — perhaps more than the 10,500-vote margin in the state — failed its “kinematic artifact” test. It simply cannot vouch for the validity of those votes.

The state scrambles to make the point above about early ballots, but the damage has been done. Another point of data is connected by red string to the sprawling false claim on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago bulletin board.

Put more plainly: The object of the recount is solely to introduce new questions about the vote in Arizona, a task undertaken under an umbrella of “validation.” Logan and Arizona Republicans assume that something untoward happened and are looking to bolster that claim.

Clouds float by, and that one looks a bit like voter fraud, if you squint.