In May 2022, American Oversight distributed a digital e-course on the Arizona Senate’s partisan review of the 2020 election results in Maricopa County. Each day, subscribers received an email newsletter that focused on key elements of the sham review: its partisan origins, predetermined conclusions, justifications for voter suppression, and connections to similar efforts nationwide. Here, we have reposted this e-course to make it more accessible to readers.
What You Need to Know About the Arizona “Audit”
The Partisanship and Predetermined Conclusions of the “Audit”
Threats to Voting Rights
A Dangerous Model
It has been more than a year and a half since the 2020 presidential election, yet efforts to cast doubt on the election’s results are still going on in states across the country. Arizona has played a central part in elevating the false claim that the election was stolen as the result of widespread fraud. (To be very clear: It wasn’t.)
The Arizona Senate’s widely discredited “audit” of the 2020 election results in Maricopa County exemplifies why these election reviews are so dangerous. From the beginning, the “audit” was connected with former President Donald Trump’s team, and its leaders were determined to find evidence that Trump supporters hoped could be used to overturn the public’s will. In addition, the unfounded allegations of fraud that motivated the “audit” have been used to push legislation aimed at making it harder to vote or potentially even easier to overturn a future election in the state. Finally, Trump allies in other states have sought to replicate Arizona’s partisan review — and the cycle of lies.
For the past year, American Oversight has been fighting in court to uncover the facts about the Arizona sham “audit,” the people behind it, and the partisan interests funding and promoting it. While records are still being concealed from the public, we’ve created this four-day newsletter e-course to review our findings, explain what happened, and discuss why it matters.
Each day we will tackle a different topic. Today, we will explain the origins of the “audit” and provide some background on our ongoing investigation into it. Tuesday’s newsletter will focus on the ways officials pushed the “audit” to uncover fraud — evidence they were never able to find. On Wednesday, we will examine how Arizona legislators have made the state a national leader in advancing voter-suppression legislation. Finally, Thursday’s newsletter will explore how the sham review has laid the groundwork for increasing attacks on democracy across the country.
So, let’s get started.
President Joe Biden won Arizona’s 11 electoral votes in the 2020 presidential election. In the weeks that followed Biden’s victory, Trump and his allies tried to cast doubt on these results. Some Arizona legislators demanded investigations into their state’s election. Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, and several Arizona lawmakers held an unofficial “hearing” in Phoenix in late November in which participants made wild and unsubstantiated allegations about the election’s integrity. And in December, a group of Trump supporters in Arizona tried to replace the valid presidential electors from their state with a bogus slate of pro-Trump electors.
Around that same time, Arizona Senate President Karen Fann was communicating with Trump and Giuliani as she prepared to launch an investigation into Maricopa County’s election results, according to records we obtained. On Dec. 15, 2020, Fann and then-Arizona Sen. Eddie Farnsworth issued subpoenas to Maricopa County for the 2.1 million ballots cast in the 2020 election as well as election machines and other materials. Although Maricopa County officials argued that releasing the materials would violate state law, a judge ruled in late February 2021 that the county must turn them over.
Fann announced in March 2021 that the sham “audit” team would be led by the firm Cyber Ninjas, a group with no prior experience conducting election audits. Doug Logan, the firm’s founder and CEO, had repeatedly circulated lies that the 2020 election was rigged and supported the “Stop the Steal” movement.
That month, we filed public records requests in Arizona for the related communications of top legislators involved in the “audit” — including with Trump attorneys, Maricopa elections officials, and contractors like Cyber Ninjas — as well as for copies of any contracts with companies to provide services.
As the “audit” got underway in April, the process was beset by embarrassing and alarming issues, such as serious security breaches, a deference to outlandish conspiracy theories, and error-prone methods.
After the Arizona Senate failed to release many of the requested records, we filed a lawsuit on May 19, 2021. In the ensuing months, multiple courts ruled in our favor and ordered the Senate to release documents — including files in the possession of Cyber Ninjas — to the public.
Cyber Ninjas’ long-awaited final report on the Arizona Senate’s election “audit” was released in September and offered no new evidence to contradict what independent audits had found months before: that Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in Maricopa County. But the report still attempted to cast doubt on the integrity of the election. “Unfortunately, the report is also littered with errors & faulty conclusions about how Maricopa County conducted the 2020 General Election,” said the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.
Our investigation into the “audit” is ongoing. While tens of thousands of pages have been produced in compliance with the court orders, others are being withheld from the public. We are continuing to pursue the release of all of the requested records. Just last week, the Arizona Supreme Court heard oral arguments in our ongoing lawsuit.
Tomorrow, we’ll discuss what we’ve learned in the more than 90,000 pages of records we’ve obtained so far.
The Arizona Senate’s election “audit” was led and encouraged by people with a political interest in finding evidence of wrongdoing or voting irregularities. That predetermined conclusion — that fraud or security issues might call into question President Joe Biden’s electoral victory in Arizona — was the goal, and the “audit” was tainted by that bias.
Partisan actors operating under the (false) assumption that voter fraud occurred in Maricopa County and elsewhere have been involved at nearly every stage of the process. Early communications obtained by American Oversight reveal that Senate President Karen Fann and others were in frequent contact with these individuals, and messages suggest that Fann was sympathetic to calls from both constituents and former President Donald Trump himself for the election to be overturned because of alleged fraud, even as she has claimed that the goal of the “audit” was not to rewrite Biden’s win.
For example, in emails to constituents who complained that the election had been compromised, Fann often referred to the Trump legal team’s efforts and the hunt for evidence of significant fraud. In an email sent Nov. 29, 2020, Fann wrote, “We have to show some credible evidence for ‘fraud’ before the courts or anyone else can do anything. I have asked the Trump legal team MANY times to please bring us their proof of fraud so we may act on it.”
On Nov. 30, she wrote, “We have asked the Trump team to please supply the information to us and to please file a lawsuit so we can address this properly according to state laws. To date this information or lawsuit has not been provided in writing.”
On Dec. 13, 2020, in response to a constituent who demanded that the state Legislature “decertify” the election results, Fann said that she had met with a “nationally accredited constitutional attorney” and that lawmakers needed evidence of “clear fraud.” “With respect to the US Constitution Article 2 and 3 provisions,” Fann wrote, “we spent an hour and a half with a nationally accredited constitutional attorney which was extremely interesting and I learned a lot. He stated that the ‘plenary clause’ allowing us to convene ourselves with a simple majority applies ‘when there is no clear winner of an election.’”
The records do not indicate the name of the attorney who spoke with Fann, but the idea that state legislatures, rather than the popular vote, could determine the winner of the election was frequently espoused by Trump allies. In a now-famous memo prepared around that time, Trump-allied lawyer John Eastman outlined a plan for Pence to reject the results from states with “dual slates of electors,” writing that Article II granted state legislatures “the plenary power to determine the manner for choosing presidential electors.”
In her email, Fann added that there had “been no proof provided to the courts” of significant voter fraud, but that the Senate was “committed to pursuing these claims” through an “audit” of Maricopa County, and referred to Jan. 6 as a deadline for altering the election’s results. “We are hoping any substantiated information from any state regarding voter fraud can be brought and verified by January 6th, 2021 when congress [sic] convenes to give the final ‘blessing’ on the election. That would be one of our last options to make a difference in the outcome of the 2020 election.”
On Dec. 28, 2020, Fann responded to a constituent’s email by writing that she had “been in numerous conversations” with Rudy Giuliani “over the past weeks trying to get the forensic audit done,” adding that she had Giuliani’s “full support” and had received a “personal call from President Trump thanking us for pushing to prove any fraud.” (This contradicts a publicly released June 15 email from Fann to a reporter in which she claimed that Trump and Giuliani “did not push for the audit.”)
In May 2021, a constituent complained via email that Fann wouldn’t say that the “audit” would result in the election’s decertification. “Our only goal is to get this audit finished before they try to shut us down again,” Fann said in an email we uncovered. “Sometimes honey does better than vinegar when you want to get something done. The vinegar will come at the end.”
Fann wasn’t the only Arizona official who was determined to prove baseless allegations of fraud or who undertook the process with preconceived conclusions in place. Emails we obtained show other state senators “begging” for “court-ready evidence” and proclaiming their determination to make sure “that President Trump is still president.” At one point, Randy Pullen, who served as “audit” spokesman, responded to a text from someone saying they found it “concerning” that the count was proving to be accurate by seemingly reassuring them that fraud could still be found.
Recent news suggests that Fann wasn’t joking about the “vinegar.” An audio recording released last month reveals that, in March of this year, Fann said that if the state attorney general verifies the review’s final report and therefore finds the election “uncertifiable,” then he will need to take the matter to court — a far cry from her earlier claim that the “audit” was undertaken merely to improve future elections.
Ultimately, despite five months of work and millions of dollars spent, the “audit” was unable to uncover any evidence that the election was anything other than free, fair, and accurate. This has not stopped legislators in Arizona, however, from using claims of fraud to push legislation that would make it harder to vote. Tomorrow, we’ll examine these efforts and the harm they’ve already caused.
Despite a deadly pandemic, the 2020 election saw record turnout — thanks to greater access to absentee voting. But instead of embracing this civic victory, some state legislators have since cited false claims of fraud to advance legislation that could make it harder for Americans to vote. We’ve seen for months — years, in fact — how misinformation of the kind perpetuated by the Maricopa County “audit” has fueled calls for new voting restrictions.
This year, the onslaught of efforts in Arizona to make voting harder has continued. State lawmakers put forward a huge number of election-related bills seeking to impose new restrictions on voting. CNN called Arizona “ground zero” for election changes. This February, the Arizona Republic compiled a list of the roughly 100 bills submitted in the state Legislature relating to election security and voting rights.
Many of the bills were put forward under the guise of making elections more secure, with some taking direct aim at measures that had facilitated voting and others directly influenced by the “audit”:
Even though most of these bills didn’t pass, others did. In 2021, Arizona lawmakers proposed bills to restrict early and mail-in voting. That May, Gov. Doug Ducey signed S.B. 1485, a law that dramatically curtailed Arizona’s popular vote-by-mail program. Under the new law, voters are purged from the state’s early voting list if they do not cast a ballot at least once every two years.
As numerous lawmakers and advocacy groups have indicated, those who will be disenfranchised are disproportionately people of color, young people, and women. Of the 150,000 people who are at risk of being removed from the voter rolls because of SB 1485, as many as one-third are Latino.
Gov. Ducey also signed legislation this spring that will require Arizonans to provide proof of residency and citizenship to vote. According to voting rights advocates and local officials, H.B. 2492 will purge thousands — one estimate put the number as high as 192,000 — from voter rolls. This will most impact voters who don’t have a valid state driver’s license or identification card, such as the elderly, students, and tribal communities.
This past February, the Arizona Republican Party filed a case in the state Supreme Court seeking to end early voting. This November, a new ballot measure will ask Arizona voters whether to institute more ID requirements for early ballots.
To investigate, we’ve filed public records requests seeking documents from more than a dozen Arizona lawmakers connected to such anti-democratic proposals, including impact analyses of new bills and communications between bill sponsors and external parties likes True the Vote and the Public Interest Legal Foundation that are tied to voting-restriction efforts.
The sham “audit” added fuel to this movement, but years of fear-mongering about voter fraud under the guise of “election integrity” have contributed to this current push to erect more barriers to voting. Tomorrow, we’ll examine how other counties and states have used Arizona’s partisan review as a model.
As other state legislatures — namely Pennsylvania’s and Wisconsin’s — have initiated their own sham election investigations, proponents of the Big Lie are increasingly looking to replicate the Arizona “audit” in their own states. Records we’ve obtained show that those election-denying activists were frequently in touch with those involved in the Arizona effort.
In June 2021, Randy Pullen, who served as “audit” spokesman, received a text message from William “Sparky” Smith, who was from a group called the Election Integrity Project. Smith said that he was seeking information for an audit of 13 counties that his organization was looking to conduct in California. “We would like for our 4-6 member team to meet with Az Audit officials who can give details of the logistics of a major audit,” Smith wrote. Pullen responded by asking how he could help.
A few days later, a reporter texted Pullen to ask, “Do you know if your folks have been in touch with Sen. Dave Argall from PA? He says he wants to do an audit too.” Pullen replied, “I think so.” Other communications between Pennsylvania elected officials and Arizona leaders were also obtained by American Oversight.
Over the summer of 2021, conservative lawmakers from several states, including Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, visited the Arizona “audit” to assess replicating a similar operation in their home states. A partisan majority in the Wisconsin State Assembly launched an election review that summer, and in early September, Republican state lawmakers in Pennsylvania launched their own investigation of the state’s 2020 election results, led by Dush.
The investigation in Wisconsin — records from which American Oversight has also filed several lawsuits for — has been overseen by Michael Gableman, a conservative former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice. Records we obtained from Arizona indicate that last summer, Christina Bobb — a right-wing news host and prominent election denier who communicated regularly with Senate leaders and helped fund the “audit” — had put Gableman in touch with Fann. “WI Supreme Court Justice (Retired) has been appointed to oversee an audit in WI,” Bobb texted on Aug, 1, 2021. “He has asked for your number. Do you mind if I share it with him? His name is Michael Gableman.” Fann replied, “Absolutely of course.”
Gableman emailed Fann that same day, writing, “As I am in the early stages of designing that procedure, it would be invaluable if I could speak with you and/or the process implemented in Arizona and any lessons learned therefrom.”
Multiple exchanges between Gableman and Randy Pullen have also surfaced in records we’ve obtained. On Aug. 7, 2021, Pullen texted a “Justice Michael G” with “Three big political points.” In response, the recipient wrote, “these are helpful.”
Records we’ve obtained also point to Big Lie proponents coordinating their efforts across state lines. Among the long list of invitees on a calendar entry for an “Election Integrity Call” on July 3 are Wisconsin Rep. Janel Brandtjen, who as chair of the Assembly’s elections committee sought to pursue her own “investigation” of fraud; Arizona Rep. Mark Finchem, another key figure in the effort to undermine the election; and Catherine Engelbrecht, the founder of voting-restriction organization True the Vote.
The agenda for the call includes updates on 13 states, with Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin listed as “Tier 1.” Other invitees include Michael Flynn Jr., Lin Wood, John Eastman, and Phil Waldron — all of whom have been connected to the effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election. It’s unclear whose calendar this appears on or whether all of the listed invitees took part in each call, but a similar invitation for an earlier call was sent to Borrelli.
The instances uncovered through our public records litigation make it clear: The widely discredited “audit” has played a central part in elevating the Big Lie of widespread voter fraud and has inspired similar partisan election reviews. The unfounded claims about fraud have also inspired other states to push measures that will make it harder for people to vote and could make it easier to overturn an election. “This is an effort to undermine people’s faith in American elections and American democracy based on essentially nothing,” Sara Chimene-Weiss, a counsel with Protect Democracy, told Vanity Fair in April. “Arizona and Wisconsin are really a microcosm for what we’re seeing everywhere in the country,” Chimene-Weiss added. “I think it’s definitely aimed at 2022 and 2024.”
The stakes are high. That’s why the American people deserve transparency about the Arizona “audit.” While tens of thousands of pages have been produced in compliance with court orders in our litigation, other documents are still being withheld from the public. We are continuing to pursue the release of all of the requested records, and we’re also working to uncover records related to partisan election reviews in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
Thank you for being a part of this Arizona “audit” e-course. We hope you’ll continue to follow our work.
Today — a year to the day after we first filed our lawsuit seeking records from the Arizona “audit” — we released an in depth report on what we’ve found and the questions that still remain unanswered. You can read the new report here, and more information on the investigation and records uncovered to date can be found here. Legal filings related to the case against the Senate and Cyber Ninjas can be found here.
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