The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Observers of Arizona’s GOP-led election audit document security breaches, prohibited items on counting floor

Maricopa County ballots cast in the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors working for Florida-based company  Cyber Ninjas on May 6 in Phoenix.
Maricopa County ballots cast in the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors working for Florida-based company Cyber Ninjas on May 6 in Phoenix. (Matt York/AP)

Observers of Arizona’s Republican-led recount have found security gates left open, confidential manuals left unattended and quality-control measures disregarded, according to the Arizona secretary of state’s office.

In one instance, a software update caused so many errors that the company handling the recount abandoned the update and went back to the old software. In other instances, prohibited items including cellphones and pens with black or blue ink were allowed onto the counting floor.

And in an alleged incident last week, audit spokesman and former state Republican Party chairman Randy Pullen told an observer that the pink T-shirt the observer was required to wear while watching the proceedings made him “look like a transgender,” according to the Arizona secretary of state’s office.

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D) and election security experts have long criticized the audit as error-riddled. Now, Hobbs’s office is documenting the alleged infractions online.

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 effort to hand-count the 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa County during the 2020 Presidential Election resumed on May 24, after a week-long pause,” Hobbs’s office said in a statement posted on the new webpage, which was launched Tuesday. “Observers on behalf of the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office continued to note problematic practices, changing policies, and security threats that have plagued this exercise from the start.”

The alleged infractions — all of which took place within the past week and a half — are only the latest debacle in the partisan audit, which was ordered by the GOP-led state Senate despite the fact that county officials, as well as state and federal judges, found no merit in claims that the vote was tainted by fraud or other problems.

President Biden narrowly won Arizona, the first time a Democrat captured the traditionally GOP state since Bill Clinton in 1996.

Former Arizona secretary of state Ken Bennett (R), who is also acting as a spokesman for the audit, said he was not immediately able to comment.

Pullen told The Washington Post in a text message that the allegation about his remarks on the observer’s T-shirt was “not true.” He did not specify whether he was referring to his reported comments or the color of the observer’s shirt.

“It interesting that he would say that,” Pullen said, referring to the unnamed observer. “Volunteers have red shirts, yellow shirts, green shirts, blue shirts, orange shirts and white shirts on the floor to identify their job. Every color has a nuisance associated with it. Our 300+ volunteers make jokes about the colors of their shirts every day.”

The audit’s Twitter account, @ArizonaAudit, tweeted last month that Hobbs’s previous allegations, made in a six-page letter, were “baseless claimes [sic].”

Republicans hired a Florida-based private contractor called Cyber Ninjas, whose chief executive has echoed former president Donald Trump’s false allegations of fraud, to handle the recount.

The company has been criticized for running an opaque process and failing to follow state rules for elections and recounts. Its audit has been embraced by Trump and his allies as the key to overturning his election loss, and has spawned a wave of unfounded theories about how the Maricopa County vote could have been rigged.

Fueling the speculation have been the unorthodox practices of the contractors, who have been conducting physical examinations of the ballots, including inspecting their weight and thickness and examining folds on ballots under microscopes. At one point, workers were holding ballots up to UV lights.

Hobbs announced Wednesday that she is running for governor, releasing a campaign video that in part highlights her work overseeing the state’s elections.

“We had a job to do, and that job was simple: Count every vote,” Hobbs says in the video. “When you’re under attack, some would have you believe you have two choices, to fight or give in. But there’s a third option: Get the job done.”

Hobbs won the right to post observers at the audit site through a lawsuit last month. Her office has flagged issues spotted on the counting floor by the observers, including in a letter of complaint to audit officials. They included ballots and computers left unattended by audit workers.

Observers of the audit are provided with pink T-shirts to wear while on the counting floor. In one of the incidents documented by the secretary of state’s office, observers last week said that organizers “refer to them as ­‘pinkies’ or ‘pinkos’ to either imply and/or assert that the observers are communists.”

One of the observers also wrote a first-person account of her observations for The Washington Post, writing that she had never seen an audit or recount “so mismanaged” in a decade working as an elections professional.

A spokeswoman for Hobbs said that the new compilation of problems flagged by observers will be updated “periodically as observer notes are compiled.”