The Arizona Senate returned nearly 2.1 million ballots to the control of the state’s largest county Thursday as the GOP-led recount of votes cast in the 2020 presidential election drew to a rocky close, marked by upheaval that is likely to further undermine public confidence in its conclusions, set to be announced next month.
A key audit official resigned Wednesday after voicing concerns about a lack of transparency by private contractors hired to lead the effort to scrutinize the ballots cast in Maricopa County — and then, hours later, took back his resignation, telling local reporters that he had negotiated better access to the process.
Meanwhile, Twitter on Tuesday suspended a string of accounts that had been promoting the ballot review, including one that had been billed as the audit’s official handle, saying that they violated company policies on “platform manipulation and spam.”
Also this week, a previously supportive Republican state senator announced that she believed the audit has been “botched” — the third member of a 16-member caucus to express reservations over a process that was ordered up by the chamber’s GOP leadership.
The tumult provided a dramatic capstone to a widely criticized review of the 2020 election that has been decried by election experts and Maricopa County officials and has deeply divided Arizona Republicans.
On Saturday, GOP state Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita announced on Twitter that she believed Senate President Karen Fann (R) had shown a “total lack of competence” in managing the project.
In an interview Thursday, Ugenti-Rita, who has sponsored Republican-backed legislation to tighten election rules, said that she at first supported the audit as a way to identify areas to improve Arizona’s voting laws. But now, she said she has concerns about the long delay in concluding the audit, about how much management Fann delegated to the private contractors and about the lack of transparency in the process — including the fact that no hearings were held with the public or members of the legislature.
She also said that Fann had “failed to manage public expectations,” allowing former president Donald Trump and others to claim the audit could be used to reverse Arizona’s results.
“It’s very difficult to see the end. And when it does end, because it’s been so tainted, I think it puts the public in a very difficult position of deciding whether to trust this,” Ugenti-Rita said. “Because I’ve been on the forefront of election integrity for over a decade, I care about how this audit is being managed. . . . Why would I want an audit that’s run into the ground and doesn’t fix anything?”
The latest defection is potentially problematic for Fann, given that the GOP holds only a one-vote majority in the 30-member state Senate.
Fann did not respond directly to Ugenti-Rita, but in statements this week, she defended the audit as a necessary way to instill public confidence in Arizona elections.
In a tweet Wednesday, Fann said that the “counting of the ballots is complete.” On Thursday, pallets of cardboard boxes filled with ballots were loaded onto trucks and returned to a facility controlled by Maricopa County.
“Now we wait for the draft and final reports,” Fann added.
Trump and his supporters have showcased the Arizona effort as the first step in vindicating his false claims that the election was stolen — and he has pressured other Republican-led state legislatures to initiate similar reviews.
Appearing at a rally attended by 5,000 people in Phoenix on Saturday, Trump devoted much of a nearly two-hour speech to his baseless claims that he, not President Biden, won Arizona’s 11 electoral votes. He predicted that the audit would produce “outrageous” results that would force Biden’s victory to be revisited in Arizona and elsewhere.
“The state senators from Arizona, it started with them. And now it’s turning out to be a revolution in this country,” Trump said.
Biden’s victory in Arizona, the first by a Democrat since the 1990s, was certified by Gov. Doug Ducey (R), and claims of fraud were rejected by state and federal courts. Two previous audits in Maricopa County, where Biden won by more than two points, found the count had been accurate.
Despite that, the Republican-led state Senate ordered the ballot review and in March hired a group of private contractors led by the Florida-based Cyber Ninjas to conduct a hand recount of the ballots cast in Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, as well as a review of county vote tabulators and computer software.
From the beginning, critics said the process lacked neutrality. Cyber Ninjas’ chief executive had echoed allegations that the election was stolen before he was hired. The company announced Thursday that $150,000 in public funding for the audit was supplemented by nearly $5.7 million in private donations from groups that have promoted false claims that the election was tainted.
On Thursday, the county tweeted a link to allow the public to view the ballots being trucked back to a Maricopa facility — and highlighted how much of the recount was financed by private donations.
“Honest question: When the Senate is paying $150K and outside groups who believe there was massive election fraud are putting up nearly $6 million toward the audit, who are Cyber Ninjas and subcontractors really working for?” the county’s official account tweeted, adding, “#NotOurAudit.”
The recount began in April, when the state Senate used a legislative subpoena to seize Maricopa’s ballots and voting equipment and move them to a former basketball arena.
While Cyber Ninjas had once promised to finish its work by mid-May, the process dragged on. At one point, equipment was packed up and moved off the floor of the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum to accommodate local high school graduations.
When work did not conclude last month, ballots were moved again, this time to a nearby warehouse at the state’s fairgrounds, because organizers of a gun show had rented the arena.
Despite Trump’s repeated claims, Fann has insisted the audit’s goal is to improve future election procedures and not revisit Biden’s 10,450-vote win in the state.
She has blamed Maricopa County officials for the long-delayed process, accusing them of withholding items that they were required to turn over, as well as county expertise that could help guide the work of the auditors. On Monday, the Senate issued a fresh subpoena, demanding the county share computer routers and images of mail-in ballot envelopes, among other things.
“The auditors are doing the job they were hired to do, albeit more difficult than originally planned due to Maricopa County withholding vital documents and information, which appears to be purposely withholding the truth,” Fann said in a statement Tuesday. “The voters deserve to know their votes are safe, secure and legally counted.”
County leaders said that they will not acquiesce to an inept ballot review, calling it a “sham,” “a con” and “a spectacle that is harming us all.” The back-and-forth has marked a remarkably emotional spat among elected officials, nearly all of whom are Republicans.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Jack Sellers (R) said Wednesday that supervisors were discussing “various options” for how to respond to the new subpoena with their lawyers.
As the review has proceeded, it has drawn sharp criticism from election experts, who have called it incompetent and sloppy, led by auditors with no experience in election administration and little understanding of the state’s balloting practices. The recount also drew a warning from the Justice Department, which cautioned that the process could violate federal laws aimed at securing ballots and preventing voter intimidation.
In recent days, Ken Bennett, a former Arizona secretary of state who serves as the Senate’s “liaison” to the project, has given interviews expressing deep reservations about the work of Cyber Ninjas.
Bennett told a conservative radio host last week that he was worried there had been “serious issues” with the tallying of ballots during the hand recount. That critique had previously also been raised by observers sent by Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who had warned that people often make errors during tedious, repetitive hand counts of large numbers of ballots.
To confirm the hand count, the Senate last month purchased giant paper-counting machines to do a mechanical recheck of the total number of ballots counted.
But in a radio interview, Bennett said that when he asked questions about the procedures that would be used to ensure the machine count was conducted independently and that the results from the new count would not be “force balanced” to match Cyber Ninjas’ work, he was told he would not be provided that information.
Bennett said he hit a breaking point when he was barred from the Phoenix audit site last week after he shared interim data from the machine count of about 24 of 1,600 boxes of ballots with outside analysts. The analysts quickly announced publicly that those results matched the county’s certified results from November, suggesting Maricopa’s original results might be accurate.
On a conservative radio show on Arizona’s KFYI on Wednesday, Bennett said that he had concluded he had become a “liaison in name only” and could not continue in his role — particularly if he was going to be asked to endorse Cyber Ninjas’ final report before it was published.
Bennett said wouldn’t “rubber-stamp” a report if he was “locked out of its development.”
Later, he said he decided to rejoin the audit and promised to explain his reasoning more in a future statement.
Jeremy Duda in Phoenix contributed to this report.
Clarification: This story has been updated after Cyber Ninjas provided an amended figure of how much it received in private donations to run the Arizona ballot review. The company received nearly $5.7 million, not more than $5.7 million.