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‘Our democracy is imperiled’: Maricopa County officials decry 2020 recount as a sham and call on Arizona Republicans to end the process

More than six months after the 2020 presidential election, Arizona Senate Republicans are leading an audit of the 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa County. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

The Republican-dominated Maricopa County Board of Supervisors on Monday denounced an ongoing audit of the 2020 election vote as a “sham” and a “con,” calling on the GOP-led state Senate to end the controversial recount that has been championed by former president Donald Trump.

In a fiery public meeting and subsequent letter to state Senate President Karen Fann, the board members said the audit has been inept, promoted falsehoods and defamed the public servants who ran the fall election.

Calling the process a “spectacle that is harming all of us,” the five members of the board — including four Republicans — asked the state Senate to recognize that it is essential to call off the audit, which officials have said is only about one-quarter complete.

“It is time to make a choice to defend the Constitution and the Republic,” they wrote. “We stand united together to defend the Constitution and the Republic in our opposition to the Big Lie. We ask everyone to join us in standing for the truth,” they added, using a term that refers to the false claim that the election was stolen.

Read the Maricopa County officials’ letter

In a calculated show of unity, they were joined by Maricopa’s other elected officials: the sheriff, a Democrat; and the Republican county recorder, who leads the elections office.

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

The pushback by Maricopa County officials amounts to their most vehement protest yet of the recount, which began in late April and is being conducted in Phoenix by a private Florida-based company, Cyber Ninjas, whose chief executive has previously echoed Trump’s false allegations that fraud tainted the 2020 election.

Jointly, the county officials agreed that they would refuse to attend a meeting that had been called Tuesday by Fann to discuss what she had termed “serious issues” with the vote that Cyber Ninjas claims to have identified.

“I will not be responding to any more requests from this sham process. Finish your audit and be ready to defend what you’re finding in a court of law,” Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jack Sellers (R) said at the public meeting.

Supervisor Bill Gates (R) said at Monday’s meeting that no county official would attend Fann’s meeting.

“This board was going to be part of a political theater broadcast on live stream by OAN,” he said, referring to the pro-Trump news outlet One America News, whose hosts have been covering the audit while some have also simultaneously raised private donations to pay for it. “We’re not going to be a part of that.”

Mike Philipsen, a spokesman for Fann, said in an email that the Senate president had not seen Monday’s meeting in Maricopa and that she would respond to the county officials at her meeting Tuesday.

On Twitter, the chairman of the state Senate Judiciary Committee, Warren Petersen, wrote that he was “disappointed” Maricopa officials would not attend Tuesday’s meeting. He added that their letter included “unnecessary insults” and did not “fully answer” all of the questions posed by the audit.

Cyber Ninjas did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The sharp words from Maricopa officials came as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s closest allies, signaled discomfort with the Arizona audit Monday: “I accept the results of the election. I don’t know what the audit is all about in Arizona. I don’t know the details. But I am ready to move on.” He told reporters that although he favored election restructuring, “2020 is over for me.”

A cybersecurity expert who promoted claims of fraud in the 2020 election is leading the GOP-backed recount of millions of ballots in Arizona

The state Senate used a subpoena to remove the county’s voting machines and nearly 2.1 million ballots from a county facility late last month and handed them over to a team of contractors led by Cyber Ninjas. Since then, the companies have been conducting a slow hand recount of the ballots on the floor of the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

As part of the process, they also have incorporated other murky and ill-explained analysis, including physically examining the ballots using UV lights and microscopes. One official involved said the goal was to look for bamboo in the paper, which might indicate ballots were illegally smuggled from Asia.

Their procedures have been criticized as sloppy and constantly shifting by election experts sent as observers by Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D).

“You have rented out the once good name of the Arizona State Senate to grifters and con-artists, who are fundraising hard-earned money from our fellow citizens even as your contractors parade around the Coliseum, hunting for bamboo and something they call ‘kinematic artifacts,’ ” the county’s five supervisors wrote in their letter Monday. “None of these things are done in a serious audit. The result is that the Arizona Senate is held up to ridicule in every corner of the globe and our democracy is imperiled.”

Arizona Republicans have been divided over how to deal with Trump’s near-daily insistence that the election was stolen from him. Joe 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.

Still, the state GOP, members of the congressional delegation and the Republican-led state legislature have indicated support for some of Trump’s claims, and the state Senate agreed to spend $150,000 in taxpayer money on the audit. Other funds are being privately raised from Trump supporters, who have said they hope to force similar audits in other states.

On Monday, Reps. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) and Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) joined Reps. Matt Gaetz ­(R-Fla.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) in signing a letter defending the audit to the Justice Department, which had previously questioned whether the process complies with federal law that requires the preservation of ballots for 22 months after an election.

“In a constitutional republic, the most important thing you can do is make sure the integrity of our election system is protected, free, transparent, and open. That is what is taking place today,” the lawmakers wrote.

A Justice Department spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

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A spokesman for the audit has said the contractors have counted about 500,000 ballots so far. They were forced to pause this week because local high schools have rented the coliseum for graduation ceremonies. The companies packed up the ballots and trucked them to an off-site storage facility and have said they plan to start again next week.

Before the pause, Fann said in a letter last week that Cyber Ninjas had identified what she described as serious security concerns.

Among the claims: that county officials had deleted files from a server before turning it over to the Senate for review and that the number of ballots in some batches examined by the company did not match the number designated on accompanying paperwork.

A Twitter account associated with the audit went further, claiming that the officials had deleted files just before handing over material to the Senate and caused “spoliation of evidence” — a potentially criminal act.

Trump seized on that and took it even further, writing in a statement Saturday that the “entire Database of Maricopa County as been DELETED!” and adding: “This is illegal.”

Much of the county’s 13-page letter — and an accompanying 17-page technical memo — was devoted to disputing those claims.

The officials said that the county did not delete any files and that a single screenshot released by the contractors to substantiate the claim provided no evidence of doing so. Instead, they wrote that it appeared that the contractor had failed to properly search and locate the files from a copy they had made of the server’s contents.

“Every file the Senate has asked for is there. No files from the 2020 election have been deleted,” County Recorder Stephen Richer said at Monday’s public meeting.

Other claims, too, the county officials said, appeared rooted in a failure to understand procedures involved in running an election.

Richer, a Republican, defeated a Democratic opponent in November to win election to the county office that helps run elections. He noted he could have gone along with complaints about the vote and pinned them on his now-defeated opponent.

But he said he believes that the allegations had no merit and were instead maligning county officials who had run a fair election and done nothing wrong.

“We all have our limits,” he said.