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Arizona finished its “audit.” Other states are just getting started.

Ten months later, the GOP is still trying to dispute the 2020 election.

Contractors sitting at a number of tables in a large arena examine Maricopa County ballots from the 2020 election.
Contractors working for Cyber Ninjas examine and recount ballots from the 2020 general election in Phoenix, Arizona, May 8, 2021.
Courtney Pedroza for the Washington Post
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

Arizona’s spurious election “audit” concluded on Friday, confirming yet again that President Joe Biden won Maricopa County and the state of Arizona — but not putting an end to former President Donald Trump’s false claims of election fraud, which are now fueling similar efforts to relitigate the 2020 presidential election in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Texas.

The results of the “audit” — a haphazard GOP review of ballots with no legal force behind it, done by a group called Cyber Ninjas in Arizona’s Maricopa County, home to Phoenix — found the vote totals virtually unchanged from the actual election results, which were certified by Arizona officials in November of last year.

That outcome isn’t a surprise: There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election, which US elections officials said last year was “the most secure in American history.” Every recount requested by Trump and his supporters has upheld the results of the 2020 election.

While the ballot review didn’t turn up Trump’s nonexistent election fraud, the process has caused a legion of problems for Arizona elections officials, who are currently facing death threats and will now have to spend millions to replace voting machines in Maricopa County.

It also hasn’t quieted some of the most aggressive proponents of voter fraud conspiracies in Arizona, including state Republican Party chair Kelli Ward, who is now calling for a “full signature audit” in Maricopa County, and Trump himself, who used a Saturday interview with right-wing outlet One America News to push debunked claims of election fraud.

And, perhaps most worryingly, Arizona’s attempt at a recount has provided a clear roadmap for pro-Trump officials around the country — specifically, in Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin — to pursue their own “audits” and sow further distrust in American elections.

The Arizona recount was never credible

On the surface, the Arizona audit’s findings this week approximated Maricopa County’s actual, certified 2020 election results. The vote totals in the final report only differed by a few hundred votes out of about 2.1 million, with Biden actually picking up votes.

In the final report released Friday, however, Cyber Ninjas never explicitly says that Biden won, and the report also continues to baselessly raise the possibility of election fraud.

That, combined with the process behind the audit — partisan, slipshod, and conspiratorial — makes for a deeply concerning precedent, particularly as other states take up similar efforts.

From the start, the recount was a partisan enterprise, supported by Arizona’s Republican Senate majority. The company hired to conduct the audit — Cyber Ninjas, a Florida-based security firm — had no experience conducting an election audit, and its CEO, Doug Logan, openly promoted pro-Trump election conspiracies on Twitter before deleting his account in January, according to the New York Times.

Cyber Ninjas also hired a group called Wake TSI to complete the hand count of Maricopa County ballots, adding to the chaos of the process. According to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice, Wake TSI has ties to Trump’s “Stop the Steal” movement and had previously been contracted by the pro-Trump group Defending the Republic to review the results of the election in one Pennsylvania county.

Cyber Ninja’s methods were also wildly out of line with normal audit procedures, which prioritize the security of ballots and voters’ personal information, and the group performed its review without the transparency typical for such processes, insisting to reporters and other observers that their procedures were “trade secrets.”

As Vox’s Ian Millhiser reported in May, Cyber Ninjas also pursued a long list of nonsense audit methods, including examining ballots under ultraviolet light and considering their “thickness or feel.”

Specifically, according to Millhiser:

After a state court ordered Cyber Ninjas to disclose how it is conducting this so-called audit, a subcontractor revealed that the process involves weighing ballots, examining them under a microscope, and examining the “thickness or feel” of individual ballots in order to identify “questionable ballots” that need to be examined by a “lead forensic examiner” and then “removed from the batch and sent for further analysis.”

On Friday, after the conclusion of the audit, a tweet from Maricopa County officials summed up the Cyber Ninjas effort.

“Cyber Ninjas confirms the county’s canvass of the 2020 General Election was accurate and the candidates certified as the winners did, in fact, win,” the official Maricopa County Twitter account noted. “Unfortunately, the report is also littered with errors & faulty conclusions about how Maricopa County conducted the 2020 General Election.”

Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin are following the Arizona model

Although the Arizona audit didn’t produce the result Trump wanted — an impossible about-face from the certified results that would give him further pretense to call into question the entire 2020 election — the effort is already serving as a model for Republicans looking to promulgate election fraud conspiracies.

Specifically, as of this week, Republican legislators in Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin have all embarked on a mission to implement recounts or investigations of their own, though the election is long over and certified.

On Thursday, the Texas secretary of state’s office released a statement that it would perform a review of the election results in four large counties — Dallas, Harris, Tarrant, and Collin — adding that they expect the Texas legislature to pay for the process, but failing to disclose any further details, or a reason why the audit is necessary. According to the Wall Street Journal, Trump called on Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to conduct an audit earlier on Thursday, despite the fact that Trump won the state by a sizable margin in 2020.

In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, Republican legislators in the Senate’s Intergovernmental Operations Committee voted earlier this month to subpoena voters’ personal information — including addresses, driver’s license numbers, and partial Social Security numbers — in preparation for a new review of the state’s 2020 election results.

Previous election audits, judicial determinations, and both Republican and Democratic election officials have already concluded that Biden won Pennsylvania, according to NPR.

And in Wisconsin, two separate election reviews — one by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau, and one by a pro-Trump former state Supreme Court justice who has espoused false election conspiracies — are also underway.

Previously, the Trump campaign paid about $3 million for a review of the votes in Wisconsin’s Milwaukee and Dane counties, falsely alleging that “15-20% of absentee ballots in Milwaukee County were tainted” by poll workers. That recount, which was completed in November 2020, found no evidence of Trump’s claims and confirmed Biden’s victory in the state.

In addition to these new audits, it’s possible that pro-Trump recount efforts in Arizona aren’t over yet either: On Friday, Trump-backed Arizona secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem tweeted out a call to conduct a recount in Arizona’s Pima County.

Arizona’s “audit” is bad news for US democracy

On the surface, the Arizona audit didn’t work out for Trump or the Arizona GOP — that is, it didn’t find the election fraud they’ve alleged exists, contrary to all evidence. On another level, however, as the Washington Post’s Philip Bump pointed out Friday, Trump and company got exactly what they wanted.

“The Cyber Ninjas appear to have done exactly what they were hired to do,” Bump wrote ahead of the release of the final report. “They were not hired to recount ballots that had already been counted. They were, instead, hired to slather some semblance of authority on top of conspiracy theories. To anchor irrational assumptions about fraud to something resembling rationality.”

The problems with that are obvious — despite the complete lack of evidence, claims of voter fraud have taken root with a broad portion of the Republican electorate, election workers are facing a barrage of death threats and harassment, and a CNN/SSRS poll conducted earlier this month found that a slight majority of Americans, 56 percent, now feel that American democracy is “under attack.”

The prospect of more recounts to come in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Texas also means that problem isn’t likely to abate any time soon — and as the immediate calls for more “audits” by pro-Trump officials in Arizona underscore, the goal isn’t so much to confirm the accuracy of the 2020 election as to confirm a preconceived, false belief that the election was stolen from Trump.

“Though many may experience a short burst of schadenfreude at the Republicans’ failure here, the result isn’t really funny,” the Atlantic’s David Graham wrote on Friday. “All is not well that ends well. Faith in elections is essential to a functioning democracy, and Trump and his allies have sought to undercut the belief that the election system is accurate.”