The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The unresolvable dishonesty at the heart of the Arizona election review

A reporter watches as ballots cast in the 2020 general election in Maricopa County are examined April 29 in Phoenix. (Rob Schumacher/AP)

The results of the presidential election in the state were razor-thin, with the incoming president triumphing by a bit over 10,000 votes. There were vague questions about the validity of the outcome, including unsupported conspiracy theories about foreign actors shifting the results. But those were just theories, ones offered by supporters of the losing candidate without any robust evidence.

So, attorneys for the winning candidate dismissed the idea that a recount was needed.

“On what basis does [Green Party candidate Jill] Stein seek to disenfranchise Michigan citizens? None really, save for speculation,” Donald Trump’s attorneys wrote in a legal filing in December 2016 objecting to Stein’s effort to count the cast ballots again after their client’s win. “All available evidence suggests that the 2016 general election was not tainted by fraud or mistake.”

Oh, did you think I was talking about something else?

It is also the case that all available evidence suggests that the 2020 presidential election was not tainted by fraud or mistake, including in Michigan, where Biden won by 154,000 votes, or in Arizona, where he won by about 10,500. Yet the response from Trump and his allies to the idea that votes should face new scrutiny has been very different.

So, in Arizona, the Republican-led state Senate authorized an effort to scrutinize the results not statewide but in one county, Maricopa, that alone accounted for Biden’s margin of victory. That effort is being conducted not by experienced auditors but instead by a firm that hasn’t done this work before and that is run by a guy who has actively embraced the sorts of fraud allegations for which no available evidence exists.

You’ve heard about this effort by now, perhaps in the context of its participants using cameras to look for bamboo residue on ballots, an effort rooted in an obviously ridiculous conspiracy theory about ballots being flown in from Asia to aid Biden and an effort that experts told The Washington Post wouldn’t effectively detect bamboo anyway. But the “audit,” as its proponents like to describe it, is far broader than just the Great Bamboo Hunt, deploying all sorts of novel mechanisms for questioning the validity of ballots while understaffing the actual counting of votes. From the outset, the obvious goal has been to undermine, not to reinforce, the legitimacy of the results in the county.

In an interview with CNN, the face of the effort, Arizona state Senate President Karen Fann (R) unintentionally made clear just how unserious the effort was. CNN’s Kyung Lah challenged the effort as undermining the democratic choice made by Maricopa voters.

“You’re talking about trying to disprove conspiracies,” Lah said to Fann.

“If I have to, yes. Why wouldn’t we?” Fann replied. “If somebody says something is out there? I would love to be able to say, ‘That’s not true, guys.’”

We’ve been over this before, but this is a classic logical fallacy. If I were to claim that you were a hologram and that I should therefore be awarded ownership of your car, it would not be incumbent upon you to prove me wrong in a court of law. Instead, I would be asked to provide credible evidence of my claim before anyone would need to take it seriously.

And while that’s obviously an extreme example, it is not much more extreme than “ballots were secretly flown from Asia without detection and counted to give Biden just enough of a victory in Arizona” or even that “rampant fraud occurred that gave Biden a victory in a number of states.” In each case, it is not up to those who don’t hold the positions to prove them wrong; it’s up to those making the claims to prove that they are feasible. Which hasn’t happened, at least not to any objective standard.

“Let me ask you a question,” Fann later said to CNN’s Lah. “Are you 100 percent confident that every vote that came in in Arizona or any other state, are you — can you say emphatically, 100 percent that no dead people voted, that ballots weren’t filled out by other people, that the chain of custody from the minute people voted their ballots, that the chain of custody was accurate and on target the entire time? Can you tell me that?”

Lah noted that the data showed that no rampant fraud had occurred, but there’s a more direct response to Fann: No, of course not.

No one can say with 100 percent certainty that no votes were cast on behalf of dead people. No one should say that no ballots were filled out by other people, because some obviously were. (The “chain of custody” question is slightly different, but Fann’s specific allegations that something suspect occurred in Arizona in that regard was robustly rebutted by the state’s actual elections experts.) The point isn’t that these things happen, which they do and always have. The point is that there’s no evidence that anything systemic or widespread occurred in Arizona or anywhere else. The proper response to uprooting isolated examples of fraud is to use the robust systems already in place to uproot them, as has happened. It’s not to throw the whole election in a blender and see what you can make from it.

More to the point: There is no reason to think that the process Fann’s team is undertaking can be relied upon to prove widespread fraud, given the various flaws in that system articulated in various places. There is similarly no reason, particularly given her comments to CNN, to think that Fann is more interested in enhancing confidence in the election than in undermining it. She’s endorsing an effort that explicitly looks to highlight any incident of purported fraud and explicitly airs out ludicrous conspiracy theories. This obviously undermines the election based on no more valid speculation than Stein brought to Michigan four years ago.

You’ll recall that Trump, even after winning the electoral vote in 2016, tried to stand up a commission aimed at uncovering rampant election fraud. He had argued that his loss of the popular vote was a function of millions of illegally cast votes, a claim perhaps more ridiculous than my efforts to steal your car. But it collapsed because states, including Republican-led ones, declined to hand over personal voter data and because members of the commission included to give an air of bipartisanship quickly rejected the effort’s methodology. Trump scrapped it, with he and his allies declaring victory anyway.

What’s happening in Arizona is different for a lot of reasons. For one, there’s no pretense of objectivity and no requirement that outside parties sign off. For another, there’s a big difference between standing beside Trump’s psychological soothing effort when he was nonetheless the president and doing it when he and millions of his supporters think that the election was stolen from him. And for a third, it’s different because the effort itself is obviously less rooted in assuring a reliable accurate assessment of the vote.

Over and over, those close to the Arizona effort have used the same descriptor for its eventual outcome: no-win. If the audit simply shuts down, like Trump’s fraud commission, there’s no reason for Trump supporters or the firm running the audit not to hype the idea that it found significant irregularities. If it releases findings that throw more than 10,000 ballots into some sort of “unverified” category — as seems almost certain — the forces of reality will be forced to note all of the asterisks and bad decisions that undergird those findings as the findings themselves are hailed as bulletproof by Fann and Trump. If the results of the review mirror the confirmed result in the county (which, incidentally, had already passed a state review), there will be a lot of pressure from Trump’s base of support on Fann and Trump to reject them. In no scenario is the result one that everyone will be motivated to accept.

We need to be specific about one point. That the process is unfolding as it is necessarily a function of trying to undermine the results of the election. It was motivated by that outcome and is predicated on the idea that there are ballots to be thrown out. There is no way that the most egregious conspiracy theories can be confirmed as false because such theories, like water, will reshape to fill whatever container they’re in. That numerous ballots have already been flagged as suspect according to observers — often for reasons that experienced observers understand aren’t suspect at all — means that the desired gray area has already been created.

There’s an ironic parallel here. If politically motivated prosecutors wanted to scour the Trump Organization’s financial records for evidence of wrongdoing, they could almost certainly find something that could be elevated as evidence of some sort of improper behavior, just as they could with a boundless review of anyone’s finances. Of course, they would then have to prove their case in a court of law, a high bar for evaluation.

In Arizona, there is no subsequent official review in which the claims offered need to be defended. This is it. And at this point there’s no question about the motivation or outcome. The only question is what happens next.