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The Arizona “audit” finally seems to be wrapping up. Prepare for a blizzard of disinformation.

Fittingly, the proceedings are ending with an investigation of a bizarre Trump conspiracy theory.

A person carrying a cardboard box. The background is blurred.
A contractor working for Cyber Ninjas transports ballots in Maricopa County on May 1.
Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images

Cyber Ninjas — the company running the GOP’s so-called “audit” of the 2020 election results in Maricopa County, Arizona — is expected to finally release a report summarizing its findings sometime in the next few weeks. But if past is precedent, the document will likely leave people in a fog of confusion.

That’s because the “audit,” which began in April at the behest of the state’s GOP-controlled Senate and is being paid for by a variety of far-right, pro-Trump sources, was never intended to be a good-faith investigation of election practices. On the contrary, it’s always been about bolstering Donald Trump’s lies about the election with false and misleading claims, then using them as a pretext to impose new voting restrictions aimed at giving Republicans an edge in future elections, including a possible Trump 2024 presidential run.

Inevitably, that means Cyber Ninjas will make claims just plausible enough to get credulous coverage from pro-Trump media, even if the claims can’t withstand scrutiny from impartial fact-checkers. Those claims can then be amplified by elected Republicans who won’t let facts get in the way of their narrative. Consider the dynamic at work in Tucker Carlson’s recent attempts to blame the FBI for the January 6 insurrection — a claim that was quickly debunked but was nonetheless touted by members of Congress like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz.

Comments made last month by Doug Logan, CEO of Cyber Ninjas, gave up the game. During a briefing that took place after most “audit” operations were completed, Logan, who is running the Maricopa County operation even though last winter he posted conspiracy theories about the election being stolen from Trump, claimed, “We have 74,243 mail-in ballots where there is no clear record of them being sent.” That’s a big-if-true allegation that would constitute significant evidence of malfeasance of the sort Trump claimed enabled Joe Biden to beat him in Arizona and other states.

But within days of Logan making those comments, CNN published a lengthy fact-check with a straightforward explanation for the 74,000-plus ballots Logan mentioned. It turns out Logan either didn’t understand or was intentionally trying to mislead people about the fact that the “submitted-ballots list” he cited included ballots cast via in-person early voting as well as by mail. In short, when you understand what the number is actually supposed to represent, it’s not the case that there was a significant number of unexplainable votes.

On Twitter, Arizona elections analyst Garrett Archer broke down what Logan missed and described the CEO’s conspiracy-mongering about the ballots as either “grossly negligent” or “deliberately misleading.” But as the old saying goes, a lie travels halfway around the world while the truth is lacing up its boots.

As CNN detailed, even though the claim that tens of thousands of mail-in ballots appeared out of nowhere is false, prominent Republicans ranging from Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) to Trump himself made hay out of it, with Trump claiming it was evidence of “magically appearing ballots.”

And that wasn’t even the only false claim Logan made during that briefing. He also lied about Maricopa County’s signature verification processes. But for Logan and company, the truth or falsity of claims is unimportant compared to their usefulness in advancing a narrative about Democratic cheating.

The partisan “audit” is actually a transparent fishing expedition

As my colleague Ian Millhiser detailed in May, Trump supporters haven’t been shy about framing the proceedings in Arizona as the first step in discrediting the 2020 election as part of a half-baked effort to reinstate Trump and other Republicans who lost in 2020.

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.

Let’s take a moment to consider what we already know about the 2020 presidential election in Arizona, which Biden won by 10,457 votes over Trump, and in Maricopa County, the most populous county in the state, which Biden won by just over 45,000 votes.

The Maricopa County result has already been audited four times, with each of them confirming Biden’s margin there. Republicans ranging from Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey to the four on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors (only one Democrat sits on it) to federal officials from Trump’s own administration have affirmed that no funny business took place. A study published by the Associated Press last month found that “Arizona county election officials have identified fewer than 200 cases of potential voter fraud out of more than 3 million ballots cast in last year’s presidential election, further discrediting former President Donald Trump’s claims of a stolen election as his allies continue a disputed ballot review in the state’s most populous county.”

Simply put, not only is there no evidence of widespread election fraud, everything we know points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that Biden’s victory was the result of a free and fair process.

Nonetheless, the Maricopa County “audit” includes a full hand recount of ballots. Cyber Ninjas has been criticized for its sloppy recount procedures — at one point, counters were spotted marking ballots with blue pens even though that sort of ink can affect how they’re read by machines — and the results haven’t been released yet. But there are indications Cyber Ninjas is spending just as much time trying to chase down wild conspiracies as it is taking yet another look at ballot tabulations that have already been confirmed time and time again.

For instance, Cyber Ninjas used UV lights to examine ballots for reasons that remain unclear but may have something to do with their efforts to substantiate a conspiracy theory that bamboo fibers in ballots could serve as proof some were smuggled from Asia.

Then Republicans in the Arizona state Senate subpoenaed the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and Dominion Voting Systems, demanding they turn over routers used in the election. (They refused.) This interest in routers appears to be connected to a conspiracy theory pushed by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell that Trump alluded to during a speech in Arizona on July 24.

In a statement explaining why the board won’t comply with the subpoenas, Jack Sellers, the Republican chair of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, said it’s already been established that voting machines weren’t tampered with.

“For months, the Senate’s audit team has had access to the items they need to confirm Maricopa County’s tabulators were not connected to the internet and thus were not hacked during the November General Election,” Sellers said. “The certified auditors hired by the County needed just two weeks with the machines and logs that we turned over to the Senate to make such a determination. They have what they need.”

What’s happening in Arizona is best understood as a disinformation campaign

As clownish and rife with conflicts of interest as it has been — one of the “auditors” was a former Republican state representative who lost his seat in 2020 — the proceedings in Arizona illustrate how Republicans are sowing doubt about America’s elections to advance their political interests.

As Jane Mayer explained for the New Yorker, the “audit” can’t be understood on its own — it’s part of a national effort “fed by sophisticated, well-funded national organizations whose boards of directors include some of the country’s wealthiest and highest-profile conservatives”:

One of the movement’s leaders is the Heritage Foundation, the prominent conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. It has been working with the American Legislative Exchange Council (alec)—a corporate-funded nonprofit that generates model laws for state legislators—on ways to impose new voting restrictions. Among those deep in the fight is Leonard Leo, a chairman of the Federalist Society, the legal organization known for its decades-long campaign to fill the courts with conservative judges. In February, 2020, the Judicial Education Project, a group tied to Leo, quietly rebranded itself as the Honest Elections Project, which subsequently filed briefs at the Supreme Court, and in numerous states, opposing mail-in ballots and other reforms that have made it easier for people to vote.

Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania — another state Biden won — recently expressed interest in a similarly partisan, privately funded “audit” of the 2020 results. Republicans in Texas and Georgia have gone a step further and adopted new legislation aimed at curtailing mail voting and enabling Republicans to take control of elections boards in blue cities, respectively. Arizona Republicans, meanwhile, didn’t wait for the “audit” to conclude to pass a new law restricting mail voting.

These measures are potential solutions to the problem of losing elections, not to the problem of fraud. And since fraud is so exceedingly rare not only in Arizona but nationally — the Washington Post reported in May that there was one case of fraud prosecuted for every 10 million votes last year — Republicans invested in convincing people it’s actually a real problem are increasingly resorting to conspiracy theories about bamboo fibers and hacked routers.

So when the Arizona “audit” report finally drops, know in advance it’ll almost certainly contain flimsy claims of fraud and nods to wild conspiracy theories. Fact-checkers will just as surely get busy debunking it, but in the increasingly shameless environment of Trump’s Republican Party, their findings will either be ignored or summarily dismissed as the product of media outlets that were in on the plot.

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