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What’s behind Arizona’s bizarre, haphazard, and highly partisan “audit” of the 2020 election

No one can figure out why Republicans are shining UV lights on ballots, among other things.

Cyber Ninjas owner Doug Logan, left, talks about overseeing a 2020 election ballot audit ordered by the Republican-led Arizona Senate at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
Ross D. Franklin/AP
Ian Millhiser is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he focuses on the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the decline of liberal democracy in the United States. He received a JD from Duke University and is the author of two books on the Supreme Court.

Donald Trump’s effort to overturn his loss in the 2020 election was a cocktail of equal parts ridiculousness and menace. On the one hand, a sitting president actively encouraged efforts to destroy American democracy — including an attack on the US Capitol. On the other hand, the Four Seasons Total Landscaping press conference was a thing that happened.

So it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that, months after Joe Biden won the 2020 election and was sworn in as president, Trump loyalists in Arizona are engaged in the same kind of absurdist anti-democracy that drove the final weeks of Trump’s term in office by auditing all ballots cast in the state’s largest county.

Arizona’s Republican-controlled Senate does not have the power to overturn the 2020 election — indeed, the Constitution provides no mechanism whatsoever to contest a presidential election once the victor has taken office. But the state Senate is able to subpoena the 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa County, which Biden won by more than 2 percentage points in 2020.

The terms of this “audit” appear designed to destroy confidence in the process. The lead company conducting the GOP’s audit is a Florida security company called Cyber Ninjas, which has no experience with elections. Cyber Ninjas’ CEO, Doug Logan, however, does have a history of spreading pro-Trump conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.

A screenshot of a tweet from Doug Logan’s since-deleted Twitter account.
AZ Mirror via

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.”

And then there’s a giant mystery involving ultraviolet lights.

As part of the audit, according to a document laying out the process for examining ballots, workers are required to place ballots “under UV-B and UV-A source” to compare the illuminated ballots to “representative specimens.” It’s not at all clear what exposing the ballots to UV light is supposed to accomplish — a coalition of election experts wrote the Justice Department asking it to send observers to monitor this quizzical audit, and one of their concerns is that “ultraviolet light causes not only paper to deteriorate, but also leads to the deterioration of marks on paper ballots.”

Nevertheless, Trump reportedly talks “constantly” about how these UV lights might reveal — something — that will undercut Biden’s victory.

It’s all nonsensical if you’re the kind of person who is inclined to ask critical questions like “Are these Cyber Ninjas guys really on the level?” or “So what is the UV light supposed to accomplish?” But if you’re the sort of person who asks such questions, you also aren’t the target audience for this audit.

Pro-Trump outlets like One America News Network (OAN) and Newsmax feature breathless coverage of how, in Arizona GOP chair Kelli Ward’s words, this audit will be “the first domino that will fall and then other states will look into irregularities, abnormalities, mistakes and potentially outright fraud that happened.” Trump himself touts the audit, claiming that Democrats are trying to stop it because “it won’t be good for the Dems.”

The real purpose of the audit, in other words, appears to be feeding Trump’s big lie — the false idea that the 2020 election results are fraudulent.

How is this “audit” being conducted?

Nothing about the processes used during this GOP-led audit inspires confidence that it will achieve reliable results, including the fact that the audit is occurring in the first place. There is simply no reason to suspect widespread fraud in the 2020 election, and even many high-ranking Trump administration officials admit as much. In the words of former Attorney General Bill Barr, there’s no evidence of “fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election”

While the state Senate contributed $150,000 to help pay for the audit, much of the funding comes from unknown sources, or from fundraising drives led by right-wing organizations. OAN has raised money for the effort.

This dubiously funded audit, moreover, comes after Maricopa County conducted its own hand recount of all ballots cast in 2020, and after the county hired two independent firms to examine its voting machines. These nonpartisan investigations found no evidence of fraud or other serious problems in the 2020 election.

A significant portion of the GOP audit involves weighing ballots, examining them under microscopes and under UV light, observing the “feel” of individual ballots, and examining whether the ballots are folded in a way that might be suspicious. A document laying out how to identify suspicious ballots, for example, tells ballot screeners to “note the presence of a visible fold” on any ballot cast on Election Day and to “note the absence of visible fold” on ballots cast on a different day.

The idea appears to be that people casting their ballots in person will not fold the ballot, while people who cast their ballot by mail will do so.

In addition to identifying “questionable ballots” based on such rigorous criteria such as how much the ballot weighs or whether it is folded, the audit also includes a recount of Maricopa County’s ballots — though it is not clear whether ballots deemed “questionable” are included in this recount.

Under the recounting process used by the GOP audit, three different “counters” are assigned to each ballot. Each ballot is shown to a team of three counters, who then make their own tallies of how many votes were cast for each candidate. Once 100 such ballots have been counted in this way, the three counters’ tallies are compared to see if they match.

If the three counters agree, then the stack of 100 ballots is counted. But if one counter disagrees with the other two, the ballots apparently will still be counted so long as the dissenting counter doesn’t disagree with the other two counters by three or more votes.

For example, if two counters agree that 48 of the 100 votes cast in a particular stack of ballots were cast for Trump, then Trump will apparently be credited for 48 votes even if a third counter thought that he received only 46 votes — though, in fairness, ballot stacks where one of the three counters disagreed with the other two are marked to indicate this disagreement.

The press has, at various points, been excluded altogether from observing this so-called audit — though the pro-Trump OAN is allowed to livestream the process. At other points, reporters were allowed in and then kicked out after revealing information that embarrassed the GOP.

Ryan Randazzo, a reporter for the Arizona Republic, tweeted out a picture showing a former Republican state representative reviewing ballots. Shortly thereafter, he was told that his press privileges were revoked — audit organizers claimed that Randazzo was kicked out because his picture also included the image of a ballot.

But Randazzo’s tweet revealed a serious problem with the audit. The former lawmaker captured by Randazzo, Republican Anthony Kern, lost his seat in the 2020 election, and he was slated to be a member of the Electoral College if Trump had won Arizona.

Kern, in other words, is participating in an audit of an election in which he ran for two separate public offices. That’s a conflict of interest. A candidate who was rejected by voters in 2020 has a fairly obvious stake in undermining confidence in the 2020 election.

In a separate incident, a reporting team from CNN was confronted by three men in outfits that resembled police uniforms as another man wearing a badge from Cyber Ninjas accused the CNN crew of “trespassing.” The three uniformed men were not, in fact, police.

The audit, in other words, relies on dark money to fund a dubious recount where ballots can be deemed “questionable” for the thinnest of reasons. Reporters, meanwhile, have limited access to the whole process. And they can apparently be kicked out for revealing information that makes the audit appear even more suspicious.

What’s up with the UV lights?

Perhaps the biggest mystery surrounding this whole circus is why, exactly, people in the audit are shining UV lights on individual ballots.

At a press conference last week, a reporter asked Ken Bennett, a Republican former secretary of state who is the Arizona Senate’s liaison to the auditing process, what the UV lights are being used for. His answer was far from edifying.

“The UV lights are looking at the paper. And is part of several teams that are involved in the paper evaluation,” Bennett initially told reporters. When he was asked to explain what purpose this process serves, he responded, “I personally don’t know.”

One possibility is that the UV lights may be tied to the QAnon conspiracy theory. According to the Arizona Republic’s Jen Fifield, QAnon supporters “claimed that former President Donald Trump and others secretly watermarked mail-in ballots to prove fraud” shortly after the November elections — so the UV lights may be intended to look for these secret watermarks, which do not actually exist.

Another theory is that the UV lights might be used to scan for fingerprints — some conspiracy theorists claim that, if fake machine-printed ballots were cast in 2020, those ballots would not have fingerprints like a ballot that was handled by an actual voter.

A third theory, also floated by Fifield, is that the UV light may be used to scan for signs that a ballot was folded.

In any event, the whole thing is bizarre. It’s unlikely that Republicans are exposing these ballots to UV light for no reason at all. But no one has, at least as of yet, been able to get a clear answer as to why they are doing so.

This is all very silly, but it’s also very scary

The GOP’s audit is such a clown show that it is tempting to dismiss it as the kind of Trumpian spectacle that garners a lot of press attention but ultimately accomplishes nothing.

While Republican leaders can’t answer very basic questions about their audit — such as what the UV lights are for — one leading Republican has been fairly clear about what she hopes to accomplish once the audit is over.

“How do we put election integrity back into our system, and that’s only what this has been about,” state Senate president Karen Fann told a local radio host last week. She added that the purpose of the audit is to “get answers so that if we have any problems, we can fix them and we make sure that the next election is safer, cleaner and run smoothly.”

The apparent purpose of this audit, in other words, appears to be to find “problems” with the state's electoral process that the GOP can “fix” with legislation — legislation that may resemble voter suppression laws that Republicans already passed in Georgia or Florida.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, Arizona lawmakers have introduced nearly two dozen bills that seek to make it harder to vote in the state. That includes 14 bills targeting absentee voting and a strict voter ID bill.

No reasonable person could take the Arizona GOP’s audit of the 2020 election seriously. But the target audience for this audit isn’t reasonable people. It’s Trump’s most unquestioning supporters — both inside and outside of the Arizona state legislature.