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The Arizona election review did exactly what it was intended to do

Maricopa County ballots cast in the 2020 general election are examined and recounted at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix on May 6. (Matt York/AP)

It’s been five months since Republicans in Arizona’s state Senate authorized an outside review of votes cast in last year’s presidential election. The review was limited to Maricopa County, the state’s most populous and one that President Biden won by 45,109 votes — four times the 10,457-vote margin by which he won the state. In other words, should the review find significant problems with the vote in Maricopa, it would call into question the results in the state overall.

That was the point, of course. The point was always to try to bolster reasons to be skeptical of the results. This was framed by state Senate President Karen Fann (R) as being an effort to rule out various conspiracy theories about the election but looking for monsters under a kid’s bed only reinforces that monsters are worth looking for. The Republican base — and a state party that had encouraged people to be willing to “give their life” for the fight against purported voter fraud — was clamoring to be taken seriously. So the Senate Republicans took them seriously.

To an extent. The group selected to conduct the review was called Cyber Ninjas. Run by Doug Logan, who’d publicly embraced debunked conspiracy theories about the election, the firm had no experience in actually reviewing election results. It was quickly obvious that no wild goose would go unchased, as most obviously evidenced by volunteers involved in the effort being tasked to try to identify bamboo fibers in cast ballots under the cringey theory that illegal votes had been flown in from Asia.

For months, this dragged on, delayed, in part, by Logan contracting covid-19. But then an announcement: The review’s results would be released on Friday! And then more news: Leaks of drafts of the Cyber Ninjas’s report showed that the recount of the votes not only found more votes for Biden but that his lead over former president Donald Trump had grown.

After all of that! Predictably, there was a lot of guffawing at the outcome: All that the review had done is validate Biden’s win! But that is almost certainly a misread of what we should expect the response from Trump and his base to be.

What the preliminary draft suggests, assuming it is upheld, is that the review may have been more of a good-faith effort than expected, albeit a good-faith effort on a bad-faith process. That the top-line results largely match the actual results in the county simply suggests that the clunky, flawed process used to count the votes landed closer to target than might have been expected. It is not the case, of course, that this new tally should be considered a more accurate one than the county’s own count.

Focusing on that number also misses the point entirely. We knew in November that Biden had more votes in Maricopa County than did Trump. The allegation has always been that some of those votes shouldn’t count and, on that point, the Cyber Ninjas offer lots of room for speculation.

In its draft report, it estimates that about 33,700 votes were cast by people who’d moved from their listed addresses or might have voted in multiple counties — issues it identifies as being of “critical” severity. To be clear at the outset, there is no reason to treat this claim as serious or valid on its surface; the legal principle of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus (false in one thing, false in everything) should certainly apply here. Even within the report itself, the Cyber Ninjas admit that “there are potential ways that a voter could receive their ballot which in some cases would not violate the law” in the case of those who’d purportedly moved. It also explained how it identified those multiple-county votes: It found thousands of voters “with the same first, middle, last name and birth year” who’d voted in multiple counties.

Just out of curiosity, I quickly looked at voter data in Arizona compiled by the firm L2. Searching for “John Smith” in the state yielded hundreds of results. I narrowed the search down to John Smiths who are aged 43 — there are four. Two live in Maricopa County. This took me about 60 seconds. Yet, on Friday morning, Trump’s spokesperson was hyping this figure as significant.

Those are just the “critical” concerns the Cyber Ninjas elevate. There is also a “high” severity issue of multiple ballots being returned by voters, per its assessment. It offers a number of reasons that might have happened, including, of course, that a “fraudulent ballot” was sent in. Months into the review, this question isn’t answered, just raised. But I suspect that Trump and his allies might isolate this as the most likely, if not certain explanation for what occurred.

In other words, the Cyber Ninjas appear to have done exactly what they were hired to do. They were not hired to recount ballots that had already been counted. They were, instead, hired to slather some semblance of authority on top of conspiracy theories. To anchor irrational assumptions about fraud to something resembling rationality. It took longer than expected, but that’s what the draft report offers.

Perhaps I’m being overly cynical. Perhaps Logan will appear before the state Senate on Friday — without outside questions being asked, per the hearing announcement — and admit that there’s no legitimate reason to question the results of the vote in Maricopa County. But I doubt it. And in the meantime, critics of the review who were long warranted in their skepticism have celebrated that it generated the same top-line result that Trump and his allies never treated as important in the first place.

The Arizona review has at long last been put to bed. It’s rather surprising that anyone might think at this point that the conspiracy theories will be.