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Ballots and voting equipment are moved again as review of 2020 election drags on in Arizona’s Maricopa County

Maricopa County ballots cast in the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors working for Florida-based company, Cyber Ninjas, at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix. (Matt York/AP)

Nearly 2.1 million ballots and hundreds of tabulating machines at the center of a controversial Republican-commissioned review of the 2020 election in Arizona were packed up in trucks Thursday and moved — again.

It was the fourth time the ballots and machines used in Arizona’s Maricopa County have been moved since April, when the state’s GOP Senate first obtained them using a legislative subpoena for a review that many local officials have decried as a “circus.”

And it was the latest indication that the process — conducted by a private firm called Cyber Ninjas and once estimated to probably conclude by the end of May — has dragged on longer than organizers had hoped, adding to concerns that the ballots and equipment were in jeopardy of being damaged.

The latest change of venue, to a 19,000-square-foot exhibit hall at a Phoenix-area fairgrounds, was necessary because the former basketball arena that has been home to much of the process has been rented out next week for a gun show. Ballots had been packed up previously to make way for high school graduations scheduled for the arena.

The delay will probably ensure that tensions over the partisan process continue to percolate, as supporters of former president Donald Trump push for similar reviews to be launched around the country as they seek to spread the falsehood that Trump’s defeat in Arizona and other key states was the result of fraud.

“Calling what has happened under the Senate contractor in the Coliseum an ‘audit’ insults the voters’ intelligence and fuels the imaginations of those who wish to tear our democracy apart,” said Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jack Sellers, a Republican who has opposed the process, in a statement Wednesday.

A spokesman for the audit told a reporter for the Arizona Republic that there was “a little more work to do,” necessitating the move. He said organizers are also contemplating further legal action to force the county to turn over computer routers and passwords they believe are necessary to fully complete their processes.

Audit spokesman Ken Bennett told The Washington Post work is now expected to take a week or two longer to complete — on Thursday the Senate signed a contract for space on the fairgrounds through July 14. He has previously said a final report of findings is not expected until August at the earliest but did not update that timeline this week.

In an interview, an observer watching the process on behalf of Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D), the state’s chief elections officer, said it appeared to him as though the delay has potentially been caused by audit workers who were spotting problems and struggling to reconcile their own numbers.

Ryan Macias, former acting director of certification and testing for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, said he overheard one worker express confusion over why a process she believed was sound was producing so many mistakes.

Macias also said audit organizers had been continually introducing new procedures into their work — on Tuesday he said for the first time he saw workers using large scales to weigh boxes of ballots, presumably to get a new count of how many ballots each box contained.

“They are scrambling. They are tired. They are making mistakes. And the entire thing is chaotic,” Macias said.

Bennett responded in a text message and said while he is sure some people working at the audit are tired, he disagreed with Macais’s other assessments.

Hobbs said she fears the delay might be intended to financially benefit groups that have been raising money from private donors to supplement the $150,000 in taxpayer dollars earmarked for the audit.

“The longer it drags out, the more they’ll be able to continue to raise funds off it,” said Hobbs, who is running for governor.

She also said she has concerns about the safety and security of ballots being moved again, particularly to a building that may not be properly temperature controlled to house paper ballots in July. County officials said this week that they would replace voting equipment and tabulators that had been handled by the contractors out of concerns that the review process has compromised the equipment’s security.

Stephen Richer, who as the county’s recorder serves as its top elections official and is also a Republican, added in an interview: “The most frustrating thing about this is that this county is full of no nonsense people who want to go about doing our jobs. . . We have this looming over us.”

Supporters of the Arizona audit, meanwhile, many of whom are convinced it will vindicate Trump’s false claims, have been growing anxious in recent days for its findings to be revealed.

Joe Biden was the first Democrat to win Arizona in nearly 25 years, snagging the state’s 11 electoral college votes largely on the strength of his victory in growing and diversifying Maricopa County.

Allegations of fraud or irregularities in Arizona’s vote were rejected last year by both state and federal judges. Maricopa’s results were confirmed through a number of reviews, including a hand recount of a sample of ballots conducted jointly by both political parties, as well as a forensic audit conducted by federally accredited labs that was ordered by the county and concluded in February.

Still, Republicans in Congress and the state legislature have embraced Trump’s claims that the election was marred with problems.

Senate President Karen Fann (R), who initiated the new audit, has said its goal is not to try to undo President Biden’s narrow victory in Arizona but instead identify areas where state elections could be improved.

Trump and his supporters have made clear they hope the audit ends with an effort by Arizona’s state legislature to decertify Biden’s win and a rush of similar ballot reviews across the country.

No matter what Cyber Ninjas concludes or when the report is published, the findings are likely only to stoke the turmoil.

Cyber Ninjas has no previous experience auditing and recounting election results and is not federally certified to review election machines. The company’s chief executive had echoed false claims the election was stolen from Trump before he was chosen by the state senate to run the recount. He also appeared on camera in a new movie produced by Trump ally Patrick Byrne that premiered last weekend and argues the election was stolen.

Inside the ‘shadow reality world’ promoting the lie that the presidential election was stolen

And the process used to recount ballots — live-streamed exclusively using cameras operated by the pro-Trump One America News — has been widely panned by election experts as sloppy, opaque, frequently shifting and prone to mistakes.

“There isn’t any standard they’re being held to, and it’s all very secretive,” said Kim Wyman, the Republican secretary of state in Washington state, who has warned that the Arizona process is undermining faith in the democratic system.

Now there is the delayed process as well.

When Fann announced on March 31 that Cyber Ninjas had been hired to lead a group of companies in conducting the audit, she said they would produce a final report in about 60 days. When work began on the floor of the Coliseum in late April, organizers said they would finish a hand recount and examination of ballots by May 14, when a lease the Senate signed to occupy the Coliseum lapsed. After that date, local high schools had rented the building for graduation ceremonies.

By mid-May, it was clear Cyber Ninjas and its subcontractors would not be done in time. Instead, the Senate decided to truck away all of Maricopa’s ballots and machines and store them in another building on site, then return to the Coliseum floor for further work after the graduations concluded.

The ballots were returned to the Coliseum, and work began again in the last week of May. At that time, Bennett confidently told The Washington Post the auditors would have no difficulty finishing the process by the end of the month.

Indeed, a Twitter account connected with the audit last week announced that workers had completed the hand recount and a separate process to examine the paper on which ballots are printed. Pro-Trump media outlets that had been closely following the audit began to excitedly predict preliminary results would be released early this week.

But Bennett told The Post on Saturday that “aggregation and quality control verification” were still underway, and Fann tweeted there was still work to be done. All week, cameras have showed workers appearing to examine spreadsheets of information on computer screens and, at times, opening boxes of ballots and reexamining their contents.

But Attorney Gen. Merrick Garland, election experts and Republican leaders in Maricopa have all expressed concern. In May, all seven elected officials in Maricopa County — including five Republicans — signed on to a scathing letter to the state senate denouncing the audit as a sham.

“Our state has become a laughingstock,” they wrote. “Worse, this ‘audit’ is encouraging our citizens to distrust elections, which weakens our democratic republic.”

Noting the tactics used by organizers of the review, such as hunting for bamboo in ballot paper and at times examining ballots with UV light, they added: “Your ‘audit,’ which you once said was intended to increase voters’ confidence in our electoral process, has devolved into a circus.”

In addition, a new report published last week and co-authored by former Kentucky secretary of state Trey Grayson, a Republican, and University of Wisconsin Professor Barry C. Burden concluded that the Arizona procedures “deviate significantly from standard practices for election reviews and audits” and that any findings are “suspect and should not be trusted.”