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The great bamboo hunt: Arizona’s bizarre vote-examination effort gets more bizarre

A box of Maricopa County ballots cast in the 2020 general election are delivered to be examined and recounted at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix on April 29. (Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic via AP, Pool)
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This article inaccurately reported that Ryan Hartwig claimed to have been told about ballots being loaded onto airplanes in Seattle. What Hartwig claimed was that Staci Burk had been informed about ballots being put on trucks to be shipped around the country.

Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) will probably soon be the third-highest-ranking Republican in the House. On Thursday, she demonstrated why: She’s onboard with even the most dubious efforts to question the results of the 2020 presidential contest.

“I fully support the audit in Arizona,” Stefanik told former Donald Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon in a podcast interview. “We want transparency and answers for the American people. What are the Democrats so afraid of?”

The “audit” to which Stefanik refers is a remarkable exercise in trying to gin up doubt about the results in the state. Authorized by the Republican state Senate, it is being managed by a firm with no demonstrable track record in validating ballots and run by a man whose embrace of debunked conspiracy theories about fraud were elevated by former Trump attorney Sidney Powell. The effort to review every ballot cast in Maricopa County — which by itself gave President Biden his margin of victory in the state — has been undertaken using an opaque, often inscrutable process, outside of the close view of objective third parties and with the assistance of obviously motivated actors, such as a former legislator who was at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

All of this has been known for a while, and all of it suggests that the motivation for the audit is not “transparency and answers” so much as “cobbling together a rationale for claims about fraud.” But no element of the review better captures its nature than an element that was revealed on Wednesday.

One of the people helping coordinate the review is John Brakey, founder of AUDIT Elections USA. Speaking to a reporter from a local CBS affiliate, he explained one of the tests that was being conducted as part of the review process.

“There’s accusations that 40,000 ballots were flown in to Arizona and it was stuffed into the box, okay?” Brakey said. “And it came from the southeast part of the world, Asia, okay? And what they’re doing is to find out if there’s bamboo in the paper.” Because, he added later, “they use bamboo in their paper processing, people in southeast Asia.”

He discussed the high-definition cameras being used to photograph the ballots, noting that it was a process that could identify if ballots were hand-completed. He also made clear that he didn’t really believe the bamboo-ballot theory.

“I don’t believe any of that,” Brakey said. “I’m just saying that is part of the mystery that we want to un-gaslight people about and this is a way to do it.”

There’s obviously value in debunking false narratives. The problem with the Great Bamboo Conspiracy, though, is twofold: first, that the claims about ballots being flown in don’t pass an initial smell test and, second, that the process being used by the volunteers in Arizona wouldn’t be able to detect bamboo anyway.

It’s actually a bit hard to track down the source of the “40,000 ballots from Asia” story. Before the election, Trump and his allies repeatedly claimed that ballots could be brought in from overseas and added to counts, a claim that by itself was never feasible. It requires precisely forging ballots, completing them without detection, ensuring that they are from registered voters who hadn’t already voted and, perhaps most importantly, getting them into the country without detection.

One theory behind that latter necessity emerged on a conservative online radio show in December. Host Stew Peters elevated a claim made by a man named Ryan Hartwig, a past contributor to the right-wing group Project Veritas. Hartwig claimed that he got a tip from a Veritas staffer about a woman named Staci Burk who knew someone who’d seen ballots being loaded into trucks in Seattle to be moved around the country. Another tip pointed to ballots being moved by plane. Hartwig went to the airport in Phoenix, allegedly in the company of a congressional staffer, and saw someone loading boxes onto a Korean Air plane. A lot of spy-movie stuff ensued but, unsurprisingly, no actual ballots were seen.

Incidentally, this all purportedly happened on the evening of Nov. 7, 2020, hours after Biden had already been declared the winner of the election.

In another broadcast, Peters published audio of a man purporting to be affiliated with the Defense Department and also a nephew of the Koch brothers who alleged that he knew about ballots being unloaded in Arizona, under the protection of the National Guard. That audio was recorded by Burk — though, again, there’s nothing offered to substantiate the claims.

This appears to be the genesis of the ballots-from-Asia claim. By itself, it should be obvious that there is no reason to assume that any of this is true. There is certainly not enough here to decide to double-check more than 2 million ballots for signs that some of them might have originated in Asia, much less to do so by trying to figure out if the paper used to print them included bamboo.

Not that what the volunteers were doing would detect that anyway.

Steven G. Drexler is a forensic document examiner from Birmingham, Ala. He has decades of experience in forensic science, including two decades in analyzing documents, including as an expert witness in criminal trials.

Drexler spoke with The Post on Thursday afternoon and explained that the only way to actually determine what the paper used for the ballots was made out of was destructively.

“The destructive test to do fiber content of the paper is, like, punching a pinhole in the paper,” he explained. “But you’ve got to take like 20 samples to make sure you’re using a good random sample.” Those samples are then closely examined to determine what fibers they contain.

In other words, it takes more than just eyeballing the paper or photographing it. It requires taking multiple physical samples of the paper and examining them independently. It requires knowing what you’re doing and what you’re looking for.

Drexler pointed out that there were other, easier ways to evaluate the legitimacy of a document.

“The first characteristic I would look at is how a genuine document was printed,” he explained. “What type of process was used to print and produce the documents? And then I would examine the disputed documents and determine whether or not they followed the same printing process as a genuine document.”

“A lot of times a forger will mess up somewhere in the document,” he said.

This, too, requires an experienced eye. It seems unlikely that such experience is in great supply at the vote-counting site in Maricopa County.

We should not jump to conclusions about what the Arizona effort will find. Perhaps the conspiracy-theorist running the show will come to the lamentable determination that no fraud was manifested in his review. Perhaps the volunteers will step forward to explain their work and to validate the original, nonpartisan audit of the tally done by the county.

Or maybe, instead, we’ll be treated to a battery of allegations about what might have been found, about photographs of ballots that appear to show what some have concluded look like the fibrous tissue from bamboo shoots. Maybe this team will introduce all sorts of new questions based on their opaque review process, more than enough, by their measure, to throw the results in the state into doubt.

If you had to guess which outcome seems more likely, which would you pick?