The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Trump seizes on Arizona ballot audit, election officials fear partisan vote counts could be the norm in future elections

Trump supporters protest the election outcome on Dec. 14 outside the Phoenix State Capitol Executive Tower as the state’s presidential electors meet to vote. (Courtney Pedroza for The Washington Post)
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More than five months after the 2020 presidential election, and after numerous failed attempts to overturn the results, former president Donald Trump has seized on a new avenue to try to call the outcome into question: a hand recount of 2.1 million ballots cast in Arizona’s largest county.

Several advisers said the former president has become fixated on the unorthodox process underway in Phoenix, where the GOP-led state Senate took ballots and voting equipment from Maricopa County and turned them over to Cyber Ninjas, a private contractor whose chief executive has echoed baseless claims that the election was fraudulent but has now promised a fair review of the November results.

Ensconced at his private club in Florida, Trump asks aides for updates about the process multiple times a day, advisers said, expressing particular interest in the use of UV lights to scrutinize Maricopa’s ballots — a method that has bewildered election experts, who say it could damage the votes.

“He talks about it constantly,” said one person who recently visited Mar-a-Lago and listened to Trump discuss the recount for about 45 minutes, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

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

Trump’s embrace of the Arizona effort — which he and his allies claim will prove that the election was stolen — has come amid mounting anxiety among election officials that similar partisan vote counts could become the norm.

“I’m very concerned this has ramifications for every state in the country,” Kim Wyman, a Republican who serves as secretary of state in Washington state, said in an interview. “This is politicizing an administrative process with no real structure or laws or rules in place to guide how it goes.”

She added: “Every time in the future the party in control loses, they will use some post-election administrative process to call it into question, and people will no longer have confidence that we have fair elections.”

In Georgia, Gabriel Sterling, a top Republican election official who has clashed with Trump, tweeted that the Arizona audit is “another step in undermining confidence in elections. This process is neither transparent nor, likely, legal.”

Georgia Voting Systems Manager Gabriel Sterling expressed his frustration on Dec. 10 with conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. (Video: The Washington Post)

The endeavor in Phoenix has been pilloried for abandoning state guidelines intended to make recounts fair, and for allowing the rules to be set by a private contractor who previously promoted claims that the election was stolen.

Cyber Ninjas has fought efforts in court to disclose the procedures it is using and placed tight restrictions on media outlets and independent election experts who wish to observe the recount. On Thursday, in response to a judge’s order, the company for the first time released manuals governing its work counting ballots and examining equipment.

Longtime election officials who have gotten a glimpse through a live stream have expressed shock at how little the contractors are disclosing about basic processes — for instance, how workers are determining voters’ intent as they review ballots.

And the funding and organization for the effort are enmeshed with a network of figures who have promoted Trump’s false claims that the election was rigged.

Arizona Senate President Karen Fann (R), who spearheaded efforts to conduct the audit, has said that it is not about challenging President Biden’s win in Arizona, but is rather aimed at identifying possible weaknesses in state election laws that could be improved.

“When you’ve got half of the people who do not trust the electoral system anymore, rightly or wrongly, and they have questions, who is responsible for answering these questions?” Fann said Tuesday on KTAR News in Arizona. “This has been the sole thing, to get answers, so that if we have any problems, we can fix them.”

But Trump and many of his supporters have repeatedly invoked Arizona as a kind of first domino that could fall — claiming that the recount will identify problems that would justify reexamination of the count in other states, as well.

“I think it’s going to be incredible. I think it’s going to be eye-opening,” Trump said Wednesday on conservative host Dan Bongino’s podcast. “Because I have no question we won Arizona. We had rallies, we had such enthusiasm like nobody’s ever seen anything like it. And then all of a sudden, we lose. People couldn’t believe it.”

Three Trump advisers said the former president frequently cites the possibility of exposing fraud in Pennsylvania and especially in Georgia, constantly insisting to advisers and visitors that he won the election.

Biden was the first Democrat to capture Arizona since Bill Clinton, driven largely by his win in rapidly diversifying Phoenix in Maricopa County. Angered by his loss in a state that has been a Republican stronghold — and particularly a decision by Fox News to declare Biden the victor of a close race in the state on election night — Trump has promoted false claims of fraud in Arizona since November.

Such allegations have been decisively rejected by previous audits of the Maricopa vote and both state and federal judges in Arizona. Gov. Doug Ducey (R) drew Trump’s ire by certifying Biden’s win and declaring that the state’s elections provided a national model for fairness and integrity.

Still, Arizona Republicans in Congress and the state legislature have continued to advance Trump’s claims of possible problems in Maricopa. Egged on by state Republican Party Chair Kelli Ward, the state Senate ordered the new audit earlier this year, financing it with $150,000 in taxpayer money.

Ward has been aggressively promoting the audit, posting a video to Twitter of herself interviewing Ken Bennett, a Republican former secretary of state who volunteered as a spokesman for the effort. A note at the bottom of the screen included a website to donate to the state Republican Party’s “integrity fund.”

But some Republicans fear that focusing so much attention on re-litigating Trump’s loss will turn off moderate voters at a time when the party is already losing ground in Arizona and elsewhere — and could fuel false information, including the kind that led to violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

“Election integrity is a losing issue. It doesn’t help us get our voters out,” said Dan Eberhart, a prominent Arizona Republican donor who has supported Trump. “This is a mistake issue and a red herring the Democrats want us to chase. I don’t see a win there for us, but Trump keeps repeating the issue, and it resonates for some in the party.”

Ducey, who recently reiterated that he thought the November election had been fair, has been largely silent about the audit. Last week, Trump demanded that the governor deploy National Guard troops to secure the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix — where the recount was being held and which was not under any noticeable threat — and blasted him as “one of the worst Governors in America, and the second worst Republican Governor in America.”

National party leaders have sought to tread carefully, well aware that a majority of GOP voters believe Trump’s claims that the election was stolen.

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel has not gotten involved in the Arizona effort. But she recently told donors that Arizona is among the states the RNC is targeting in 2022 as part of its “election integrity” efforts, according to a lengthy presentation she gave earlier this month, in which she said that the party is seeking public records to examine how elections are being administered and will focus on training poll watchers on the ground.

Meanwhile, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is examining the results of an internal poll about the 2020 election to determine whether grievances about the vote should be incorporated into messaging ahead of the 2022 midterm election, including in Arizona where Sen. Mark Kelly (D) faces reelection, according to a copy of the poll reviewed by The Washington Post.

Maricopa County officials and election experts have watched the process unfold with dismay.

“When this all started, I thought perhaps if they really do this right, we perhaps could get beyond this and really alleviate some of the concerns,” Jack Sellers, the Republican chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, said in an interview. “But the more we’ve gotten into this, the more I realize this is creating more chaos, more doubt and not solving anything.”

The five-member board, which includes four elected Republicans, agreed to conduct two new election audits, which concluded in February and confirmed the accuracy of the November count showing that Biden won the county by more than two points. The board objected to the efforts by the state Senate to conduct its own recount and has refused to allow county facilities to be used for the effort.

Sellers said he is concerned that the private contractors seem to lack basic knowledge of Arizona election procedures. “It’s very disconcerting,” he said, adding that he is convinced that Maricopa had a “fair, efficient and honest” election.

Election officials nationwide have expressed astonishment at the murkiness of procedures employed by Cyber Ninjas, a Florida-based firm that has not cited any previous experience involving an official election recount and is not federally accredited by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to test voting systems.

After the Arizona Democratic Party filed a lawsuit to try to halt the process, lawyers for the state Senate and Cyber Ninjas successfully argued in state court this week that few of the laws that govern elections and recounts should apply to its effort because it is a legislative investigation that will not affect the outcome of a vote.

Cyber Ninjas also sought to keep documents describing the procedures it is following in the recount under seal, unsuccessfully arguing to a judge that they are “trade secrets.”

Media access to the count has been extremely proscribed — and at times barred completely — even as the pro-Trump One America News network (OAN) was given the right to live-stream the event. After objections by news organizations, the state Senate agreed this week to begin allowing one local reporter at a time to attend the recount, positioned in bleachers high above the floor where counting is taking place.

Arizona Republic reporter Jen Fifield, who worked the first shift on behalf of local media on Tuesday, tweeted that she was not allowed to observe workers conducting key parts of the audit in other areas of the arena, including performing what Cyber Ninjas has claimed will be a thorough forensic analysis of voting machines.

The live stream shows dozens of people wearing different colored shirts handling and examining ballots, but it is not clear who was hired to serve as ballot counters or what kind of training they received.

The private contractors also have recruited volunteer “observers” to watch the process, but Bennett, the spokesman, has conceded that most are Republicans. (The state Democratic Party has boycotted the effort.)

On Thursday, several national voting rights advocates sent a letter to the Justice Department, expressing concern that the ballots are “in imminent danger of being stolen, defaced, or irretrievably damaged” and asking that federal monitors be sent to Phoenix “as soon as practicable.” A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.

Observers, who were given orange shirts to wear, are not allowed to take notes, and on the live stream this week, there appear to just be a handful, roaming between tables where ballots are being counted.

“The idea that there are whole tables not being watched just blows me away,” Scott McDonell, the county clerk in Dane County, Wis., said in an interview that he watched the process unfold online.

McDonell — who oversaw recounts in his county after the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections — said that in those cases, bipartisan groups of observers crowded around every ballot, taking notes so they could bring any concerns to the attention of election officials, who would adjudicate disputes.

Although laws that govern recounts differ by state, he said they generally are designed to “prevent bias from creeping in.” A process that abandons those laws injects distrust in the system, he said, adding: “I worry we can’t get it back.”

Added Wyman, the Washington secretary of state: “Right now, in the heat of the moment, this probably feels really good for a lot of people frustrated with the results. But it undermines confidence in fair elections, at a core foundational level. And it’s going to be hard to recover from it.”

Fann has promised that the state Senate’s audit will be fair and independent. Bennett told reporters this week that the Senate’s goal is to complete a more thorough analysis than any the county conducted previously.

“We are here to make sure Arizona voters can have faith and confidence that elections conducted in this state and this county have integrity,” he said. “We’re going to be able to tell everyone in Arizona in a few weeks that they can have complete trust in their elections — or we have some areas that can be improved.”

The effort to examine ballots with UV lights has spurred particular enthusiasm among Trump supporters — and particular worries among election officials.

The exact purpose of the lights remains murky. A document released by Cyber Ninjas Thursday described the use of the light, but did not say what it is intended to detect. It indicated the weight and thickness of ballots would also be studied. OAN reported Monday that the lights were being used “to search for ballot watermarks and weed out phony ballots.” That prompted Maricopa County to release a fact sheet noting that the county’s ballots do not bear watermarks.

Asked about the process at a news conference Tuesday, Bennett said workers are using UV light to look “at the paper” and are “part of several teams that are part of the paper evaluation.”

He added that he did not know whether workers were hunting for the nonexistent watermarks, adding, “We’re looking for a lot of things.”

In an interview, he added: “The best understanding I have is that they’re looking for watermarks or anything that might appear under the UV light they wouldn’t see without it. . . . If there’s nothing there, they won’t find it.”

Arizona reporters monitoring the audit from inside the Coliseum on Wednesday and Thursday reported that they did not see the UV lights in use.

Bennett has repeatedly said the goal of the recount is to complete a review that all Arizona voters can trust.

But critics have noted that Cyber Ninjas chief executive Doug Logan has connections to Sidney Powell and Lin Wood, two Trump-allied lawyers who filed unsuccessful lawsuits after the election challenging the results nationwide.

Bennett has said funding for the audit will be supplemented by private donations, including from a group founded by OAN hosts.

At a news conference Wednesday, Bennett urged members of the public to donate to the audit through a website connected to a group called the America Project, whose chief executive is Patrick Byrne.

Byrne, a former chief executive of, attended a raucous hours-long meeting with Trump in the Oval Office in December where he, Powell and former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn advised the president on tactics to overturn the election, as The Post previously reported.

In an interview this week, Byrne confirmed that he had started the website to raise money for the Arizona audit. “All we want is the truth,” he said. The website was also touted by Flynn, who posted a message on Parler urging people to donate.

Bennett said he had not been aware of Byrne’s connection to the site, which he said Logan had urged him to promote.

An official Twitter account set up for the audit also plugged the fundraising website linked to Byrne.

“This audit is historic and the first of its kind in the United States,” @ArizonaAudit tweeted, adding that if people wished to “join the tens of thousands of Americans who are helping fund this audit,” they should visit the site.

Alice Crites and Eugene Scott contributed to this report.