The nearly 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa County, Ariz., last fall are currently packaged in 40 cardboard shrink-wrapped boxes and stacked on 45 pallets in a county facility in Phoenix known as “the vault,” due to its sophisticated security and special fire-suppression system.

But on order of the Republican-led state Senate, the ballots and the county’s voting equipment are scheduled to be trucked away next week — handed over for a new recount and audit spurred by unsubstantiated claims that fraud or errors tainted President Biden’s win in Arizona’s largest county.

The ballots will be scrutinized not by election officials, but by a group of private companies led by a private Florida-based firm, whose owner has promoted claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent and who has been cited as an expert by allies of former president Donald Trump seeking to cast doubt on the election in other parts of the country.

Trump supporters, including a lawyer who volunteered with his post-election legal team, have been raising private dollars to supplement $150,000 in taxpayer money that has been earmarked to fund the Arizona recount.

Nearly three months after Biden took office and despite dozens of courtroom losses and previous recounts, many Republicans around the country continue to echo Trump’s falsehoods that the election was rigged as justification to pass new voting restrictions.

In Arizona, lawmakers are going beyond that: They are launching what is the most extensive endeavor around the country to look backward and scrutinize the official November results, in which Biden won the state by 10,457 votes.

The recount has sparked an internecine fight among state Republicans, with the GOP-led Maricopa County Board of Supervisors refusing to assist the effort, saying multiple past reviews have already demonstrated the election was run properly. And it has triggered deep fears among Democrats and voting rights groups that the process could further election conspiracy theories that led to violence on Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol.

“There are people who have been looking for any reason to get their hands on all of the ballots. Now they’ve gotten their chance — and we don’t know what they’re going to do with it,” said Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D), whose office is in charge of state elections. Hobbs said she is examining possible legal options to stop the process.

The Arizona recount, which is set to begin April 22, is being led by Republicans in the state Senate, headed up by its president, Karen Fann, who has agreed to spend public money out of a Senate operations budget for the review.

Fann has said the Senate’s audit is designed to “restore integrity to the election process” and would be independent and transparent.

She referred questions to former Arizona secretary of state Ken Bennett, who is acting as a volunteer spokesman for the recount. Bennett said in an interview that the goal is not to re-litigate the outcome of the 2020 election.

“This is not about calling into question the results of the November election,” said Bennett, a Republican who served from 2009 to 2015. “This is about identifying if there are any areas of our elections that need to be improved going forward.”

Voting rights advocates disagree.

“I don’t understand what the purpose is at this point, outside of further undermining confidence in our elections,” said Elizabeth Howard, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice.

'Arizona will not forget'

Biden’s narrow victory in Maricopa County — which he won by more than two percentage points — helped him become the first Democrat to win Arizona since Bill Clinton.

Rumors immediately began circulating that some votes for Trump had been rejected because voters had used his signature Sharpie pen to mark their ballots. Election officials and courts emphatically rejected those claims.

Later, Republicans argued that Maricopa’s process for matching signatures on ballots sent by mail to those of registered voters kept on file had been weak. But claims of problems in the Arizona vote were ultimately dismissed by both state and federal judges.

“Plaintiffs have not moved the needle for their fraud theory from conceivable to plausible,” wrote U.S. District Judge Diane J. Humetewa in December.

Amid the tumult, the five-member Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, which includes four Republican members, voted unanimously Nov. 20 to certify Biden’s win. At the time, the GOP chairman said there was “no evidence of misconduct or malfunction” and said it was time to “dial back the rhetoric, rumors and false claims” about the vote.

Maricopa County’s results were upheld 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. The county elections department said the result of the multiple tests confirmed that the county’s elections equipment “provided an accurate counting of ballots and reporting of election results.”

Gov. Doug Ducey (R) in December certified Biden’s win and touted the state’s elections procedures — drawing harsh attacks by Trump.

“Arizona will not forget what Ducey just did,” Trump said at the time.

Ducey told reporters in Arizona last week that he had “defended our election integrity. I’m not going to change my position at all.”

Still, with state Republicans and other party leaders supporting Trump’s claims that the election was stolen, Ducey has said that the Senate is “well within its legal rights” to audit the election and that he will withhold further comment until the results are reported.

Despite the past reviews, Bennett said Republicans in the state Senate continued to have questions about how the count was conducted, including whether overwhelmed county workers may not have fully examined signatures on ballot envelopes.

“If that happened, it will be discovered in this audit,” he said.

The GOP-led state legislature has been sparring with local officials over the election results for months, issuing a subpoena for the ballots and voting equipment in January and nearly voting to hold county officials in contempt for refusing to immediately comply.

In February, an Arizona judge ruled that the county must turn over the material. Since then, the ballots and equipment have been packed up while state officials worked to hire vendors to run the process and locate a venue for the hand recount.

County officials have said the Arizona Senate cannot use their facilities. “To avoid any confusion, I want to be clear that the audit is not a joint effort between the County and the Senate Republican Caucus,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Jack Sellers, a Republican, wrote in an email to the Senate last week. He declined to comment.

This week, the Senate announced it will rent the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the former home of the Phoenix Suns, to host the recount.

The company running the effort is Cyber Ninjas, a Sarasota, Fla.-based cybersecurity firm, which is leading a trio of other companies.

A Senate Republican news release said the firm was hired “after months of interviewing various forensic auditors.” It did not disclose how Cyber Ninjas was identified or chosen. The firm has not cited previous work involving elections and is not federally accredited by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to test voting systems.

The company’s website features images of a man dressed in a black ski mask and black gloves with a samurai sword in hand, and the words, “Do you have a Cyber Ninja on your side?”

After the firm’s selection, Arizona news organizations reported that the company’s chief executive, Doug Logan, posted now-deleted tweets endorsing theories that the November vote was marred by fraud.

In December, for instance, the Associated Press reported that he retweeted a user who asserted that after auditing the state’s ballots, “you may discover Trump got 200k more votes than previously reported in Arizona.”

Logan — who started Cyber Ninjas in 2014, according to Florida corporate records — has said in a statement that his company is “hired by major companies and organizations to determine possible ways their systems could be infiltrated and compromised, and then help them figure out how to seal those holes.”

A spokesman for Logan declined to comment further while the audit is underway.

Logan was listed in December as a potential expert witness in a lawsuit brought by a voter challenging the election results in Antrim County, Mich., according to court filings. The county has emerged as a fixation of Trump supporters after an error not long after polls closed led the county briefly to report that Biden won the heavily Republican area.

Allies of Trump claimed it showed the election could be stolen by manipulating voting machines. In fact, the mistake was the result of human error and swiftly corrected, according to the county clerk and other Michigan officials.

When asked how Logan got involved in the lawsuit, Matthew DePerno, a Michigan lawyer handling the Antrim County case, did not answer directly, responding instead by email: “Can you answer my question, how much election fraud is acceptable to you and the Washington Post?”

Logan also confirmed to the Arizona Mirror that he wrote a document titled “Election Fraud Facts & Details” that is posted on the website of conservative attorney Sidney Powell, a Trump ally who filed a number of unsuccessful lawsuits challenging the election results in various states.

In an email, Logan told the Arizona publication that he prepared the document for use by U.S. senators who sought to challenge the election results when Congress formally counted the electoral college ballots on Jan. 6. The Mirror reported that he did not indicate who asked him to compile the document or for which senators it was intended. It is also not clear how it came to be posted on Powell’s website.

Powell did not respond to requests for comment.

The document echoes debunked claims about connections between Venezuela and Dominion Voting Systems, a manufacturer of vote-tabulating machines, and alleges the machines have “significant security vulnerabilities” that could be exploited by foreign powers.

Dominion, whose machines are also used in Maricopa County, has sued Powell and others over such claims, asserting they are false and defamatory.

In a statement, a Dominion representative said that Cyber Ninjas and the other firms selected to conduct the Arizona Senate recount are “beyond biased.”

“Dominion supports all forensic audits conducted by independent, federally accredited Voting System Test Labs — but this is not that,” the statement said.

Logan told the Arizona Mirror that he believed there were “a lot of election anomalies that need a proper explanation for the American people to have confidence in their elections” and that his own concerns about the election made him a good choice to run the Arizona audit.

“I will work with anyone who I feel is genuinely seeking for more transparency and accountability in our elections. The media may think this is some bad idea; but this used to be the way our country operated,” he wrote in an email to the Mirror. “It’s also the most skeptical person who makes the best auditors; not the person who thinks it is impossible to find anything.”

In separate statement released publicly, Logan said the question should not be whether he is biased, but instead whether the process he leads will be “transparent, truthful and accurate.”

Bennett said Logan’s personal views will have no effect on the process.

“We’re not auditing the opinions of the contractor,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to me whether an auditor has some skepticism. … We’re going to make sure they use processes that are fair and transparent and reflect the auditing of the ballots and not what their opinions are.”

Howard of the Brennan Center for Justice noted that generally accepted government auditing rules published by the U.S. Government Accountability Office cite objectivity and independence as “key critical standards to conducting an audit.”

Worries of voter intimidation

Cyber Ninjas’ process, as outlined in a seven-page statement of work that the company submitted to the Arizona Senate, has drawn sharp criticism from voting rights groups and Democrats.

For one thing, the company has said it will pair the recount with other tests of the county’s voting machinery. The county has already handed over flash drives with 11 gigabytes of data reflecting the activity logs of county voting machines.

Voting rights advocates have been particularly concerned by the company’s plan, detailed in its statement of work, to conduct phone and in-person interviews with voters in selected precincts where Cyber Ninjas identifies “a high number of anomalies” to determine whether they really cast ballots in November.

Lawyers who have represented Democratic officeholders and voting rights groups sent Cyber Ninjas and its subcontractors a letter last week warning that the tactic could violate laws prohibiting voter intimidation.

“This is an arm of the state — in the form of contractors for the state — who are going out and interrogating people in an effort to uncover baseless claims of fraud,” said Jared Davidson, counsel to the group Protect Democracy, which signed on to the letter. “Having the state or their agents investigate people in their homes and make any kind of implication of illegality is extremely intimidating and is the logical extension of voter suppression efforts that we’re seeing in other states.”

Bennett said the companies are responsible for ensuring no voter intimidation takes place.

Davidson also questioned the qualifications of Cyber Ninjas to perform the work and whether it could complete the ambitious process it has outlined for the $150,000 fee set aside by the Arizona Senate Republicans.

“This is not being done in good faith,” Davidson said. “If this audit comes out with baseless claims of illegality, we know some Arizona Republican representatives will use this as a pretext for legislation to suppress voting access.”

Logan has said that no one working for his company will physically handle the ballots during the recount, which will be performed by a Pennsylvania-based company called Wake Technology Services, one of the three subcontractors.

According to the statement of work, Wake Technology has done hand-count audits, including one in Fulton County, Pa., last year. The elections director for Fulton County said the company counted 1,000 ballots and has not yet issued a public report.

A representative for Wake Technology did not respond to requests for comment.

Logan has also said that all ballot counters in Arizona will be Maricopa County residents who will undergo background checks to ensure they have never worked for political campaigns. The counters will be drawn, the company has said, from a pool largely made up of retirees, including former military and law enforcement officials.

It is not clear how many such people would be required or how they will be trained. Bennett said the state is recruiting observers from both parties to watch the process, which will also be live-streamed online.

Meanwhile, the audit is being championed by Trump allies including Christina Bobb, a lawyer who hosts a weekly show on the pro-Trump network One America News, who tweeted that she had established a new group to raise money for election- related efforts, including the recount in Arizona.

“This audit is crucial to know the truth about 2020,” she wrote. “$5, $10, $20 will help the AZ senate finally complete the audit. DONATE TODAY!”

Later, Bobb tweeted that the effort had reached its goal of $150,000 but would continue raising dollars to assist the Arizona audit.

According to its website, Voices and Votes, is led by Bobb, her fellow OAN anchor Chanel Rion and Courtland Sykes, who in 2018 ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate to represent Missouri.

Bobb, who has previously cast doubt on the Arizona results, confirmed in an email that she volunteered to assist the Trump campaign’s legal effort after the election. But she said no Trump lawyer or staff was involved with her new fundraising group, nor is OAN.

She said she had spoken directly to Cyber Ninjas, which had agreed to accept private donations. “This is an issue that the American public cares a lot about, so it’s not surprising that people want to help,” she wrote.