The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Arizona, Republicans accidentally created a robust demonstration of the shoddiness of their fraud claims

A contractor working for Florida-based company Cyber Ninjas yawns as Maricopa County ballots cast in the 2020 general election are examined and recounted on May 6 at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix. (Matt York/AP)
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Bill Gates is vice chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, one of four Republicans on that body. On Monday afternoon, he made his frustrations with the ongoing “audit” of votes from the 2020 general election in that county apparent.

“It’s time to say enough is enough,” Gates said. “It is time to push back on the ‘big lie.’ We must do this. We must do this as a member of the Republican Party, we must do this as a member of the Board of Supervisors. We need to do this as a country.”

In addition to his comments at the news conference, Gates was one of seven signatories (most of them Republican) to a brutally blunt letter offered in response to questions posed by Arizona state Sen. Karen Fann (R). Fann, as president of the Senate, has been the legislative face of the vote-counting effort that her Republican-led chamber authorized. The questions she posed were apparently inspired by the team leading the audit, a group called Cyber Ninjas, and centered on various vague allegations of improper handling of ballots or deleted material.

The response from Gates and his colleagues is unsparing.

“The Arizona Senate is not acting in good faith, has no intention of learning anything about the November 2020 General Election, [and] is only interested in feeding the various festering conspiracy theories that fuel the fundraising schemes of those pulling your strings,” the letter to Fann reads. “You have rented out the once good name of the Arizona State Senate to grifters and con-artists, who are fundraising hard-earned money from our fellow citizens even as your contractors parade around the Coliseum” — the location of the vote-counting effort — “hunting for bamboo and something they call ‘kinematic artifacts’ while shining purple lights for effect. None of these things are done in a serious audit. The result is that the Arizona Senate is held up to ridicule in every corner of the globe and our democracy is imperiled.”

More than six months after the 2020 presidential election, Arizona Senate Republicans are leading an audit of the 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa County. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

Point by point, the letter rebuts the claims raised by Fann, arguing convincingly that the senator and the inexperienced team leading the audit simply have no idea what they’re talking about. The impression one gets from the letter is the impression you might get from watching a YouTube flat-earther challenge an esteemed geology professor on the shape of the planet: a thorough response with no shortage of demonstrated disdain.

Something particularly interesting is happening with the Arizona “audit” (as its proponents call it) that has otherwise been missing in the months since the 2020 election. Because it’s happening now, in relative isolation, and because it carries at least some sort of authoritative stamp that provides a process for feedback, the nation is at long last able to directly confront false election claims promoted by former president Donald Trump and his allies. The result is Republicans stepping up to deride the process as a grotesque, unfounded sham.

To be very clear, there is nothing unusually sloppy or unfounded about the Arizona audit. With no obvious exception, all of the allegations of fraud and malfeasance that have emerged since Trump lost six months ago have been equally shoddy and baseless. Each of them has been the product of an under-informed or obviously biased complainant — or, alternatively, has been numeric prestidigitation meant to imply fraud that never actually manifests in any other way.

What sets Arizona apart is that it can’t be lumped into some overarching narrative of “irregularities,” and it can’t simply be left at “this guy who has a PhD in chemistry says that the n-curve values are suspicious.” They wanted to count the votes, and now they are and now the actual experts have permanent palm marks on their foreheads.

It’s really quite clarifying. Even Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) had to sort of shrug at the whole thing.

“I accept the results of the election,” he said Monday. “I don’t know what the audit is all about in Arizona. I don’t know the details, but I am ready to move on.”

This is a fervently pro-Trump senator who in the weeks after the election spoke of calling Arizona to try to figure out a path to victory for Trump. Were there any obvious legitimacy to the Arizona vote count that’s underway, you’d think he’d embrace it. Instead, he has done the opposite.

Trump himself, of course, has supported the Arizona effort. He has never been bound to reality and has always embraced any wild claim that entered his radar. But he’s obviously frustrated that his allies on cable news aren’t willing to link their reputations to what’s happening in the state.

“Fox News is afraid to cover it — there is rarely a mention,” he complained on his blog over the weekend. “Likewise, Newsmax has been virtually silent on this subject because they are intimidated by threats of lawsuits. One America News (OAN), one of the fastest growing networks on television, and the ‘hottest’, is doing a magnificent job of exposing the massive fraud that took place.”

What does the OAN coverage look like? In a report from Monday, it consisted of correspondent Pearson Sharp walking through Fann’s original letter to the board of supervisors — the letter that prompted the, um, sharp response from the county’s Republican leadership. Calling the coverage credulous minimizes it; the report is little more than Sharp repeating one of Fann’s claims and then adding an eyebrow-raised insinuation that malfeasance had been proved. Considered in the broadest context, the OAN report does expose a massive fraud that’s underway, but not the one Trump thinks.

But to the supervisors’ point about how the “audit” fuels fundraising schemes, it’s clear that the utility of alleging fraud still exists. It exists for Trump for psychological and political reasons. It exists for OAN for audience-building reasons. And it exists for right-wing lawmakers for attention-seeking reasons. So Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) have planned a rally in Phoenix on Friday, assuming that neither of them is otherwise detained.

Both also signed a letter sent by a small group of lawmakers to deputy assistant attorney general Pamela Karlan who had questioned the legality of the audit. That letter, too, centered on Fann’s allegations. It also assured Karlan that Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) had “personally visited the site of the election audit and we are confident in the integrity of the process and look forward to reviewing the results, no matter what is found.”

Biggs was also identified by one of the organizers of the protests at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 as having helped develop the plan for the day.

What’s happening in Arizona is unusual only in that it is happening in a spotlight, and it is happening through a formal system that allows it to be held to account. It is part and parcel with the other claims that Trump, Biggs, Gaetz and the rest have made since November, but it is happening at a quieter moment and more directly challenging the authority of Republican officials, without showing any results.

There probably will never be a “have you no sense of decency” moment for Trump’s effort to argue that the election results were suspect. But Republicans coming together to identify the flagship effort to undermine those results as biased and sloppy is at least a step in that direction.