Efforts to undermine the 2020 presidential election results in Arizona have culminated in a partisan election “audit” of votes cast in Maricopa County, instigated by the state Senate’s Republican majority. Officials have indicated that results of this recount and review will be announced in late July or early August. Despite the Senate’s secrecy, enough is already known about the operation’s biased origins, the involvement of conspiracy theorists, and problematic voter outreach to call into question any purported “findings.”
On July 15, observers got a preview of what any final pronouncements of “audit” results will look like during a hearing that was heavy on insinuation and light on actual evidence. That dynamic has been in play from the beginning, from the earliest fear-mongering about voter fraud and the post-election attempts to cast doubt on the veracity of vote totals to officials’ ongoing and unconvincing promises of the audit’s credibility.
Besides the total lack of any evidence of widespread voter fraud in Arizona or elsewhere — an absence that, of course, continues to this day — an early signal of the audit’s untrustworthiness and bias was the hiring of the cybersecurity firm Cyber Ninjas to oversee the operation. Led by CEO Doug Logan, a vocal supporter of the “Stop the Steal” movement who repeatedly circulated lies that the 2020 election had been rigged, the firm has no experience conducting election audits. The months that have followed showed the consequences of this inexperience, with the process beset by embarrassing and alarming issues, such as serious security breaches, a deference to outlandish conspiracy theories, and error-prone methods.
These publicly reported issues are just what is known so far about the “audit,” thanks to the Arizona Senate’s secrecy and its refusal to turn over records that could provide important information, including about its funding. American Oversight has sued the Senate for records, with a Maricopa County Superior Court judge having ruled on July 15 that the case’s “compelling public interest demand[ed] public disclosure and public scrutiny.”
But while more transparency is on the way, American Oversight has already obtained hundreds of pages of documents and emails through public records requests, which not only add color to the picture already painted by those news reports, but also further attest to the audit’s lack of unbiased credibility. In this report, American Oversight outlines the records it has obtained as of mid-July, which demonstrate that top officials began the process with predetermined conclusions in mind; sought out or allowed the involvement of conspiracy theorists who peddle in destabilizing lies; and knew of worrying and potentially voter-intimidating actions undertaken by allies — all factors that, along with the operation’s secrecy, undercut “findings” that might be announced by audit leaders.
The Arizona Senate’s election “audit” was begun and encouraged by people with a political interest in finding (or inventing) evidence — or things that could be twisted into appearing to be evidence — of voter 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 any post-“audit” findings are necessarily tainted by that bias.
By selecting non-credible and biased contractors over experienced auditors who had also submitted bids — and by casting aside the independent audits of Maricopa ballots that had already verified the results — Senate President Karen Fann, the leader of the “audit,” sent a clear message that the Senate believed accredited election authorities had been unable or unwilling to find fraud.
Moreover, partisan actors and conspiracy theorists operating under the assumption that voter fraud occurred in Maricopa County and elsewhere have been involved at nearly every stage of the process. Early communications reveal that 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 Trump himself for the election to be overturned because of alleged fraud, even as she has claimed that the goal of the “audit” is not to rewrite Biden’s win.
In late November, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani held an unofficial “hearing” in Phoenix in which participants made unsubstantiated allegations about the election’s integrity. Fann’s communications with Giuliani and the Trump campaign — and even Trump himself — during this time, when the campaign and its allies were launching dozens of long-shot election-undermining lawsuits across the country, reveal the early partisan orientation of the operation.
On Dec. 28, 2020, Fann responded to a constituent’s email by writing that she had “been in numerous conversations” with Giuliani “over the past weeks trying to get this [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.”)
During those same weeks, Trump and Giuliani were also attempting to exert pressure on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. Text messages and voicemails obtained by the Arizona Republic in early July revealed a concerted effort by Giuliani and state Republican Party Chair Kelli Ward in the weeks after the election to get the county supervisors on board with the Trump campaign’s unfounded allegations of serious voting irregularities. And in late December and early January, the president himself attempted to call the board’s then chair, Clint Hickman, who declined to take the calls.
The records obtained by American Oversight reveal that many of Fann’s contacts with Giuliani had occurred through Christina Bobb, a reporter for the right-wing, conspiracy-elevating One America News Network who has been raising money for the operation through a website called Voices and Votes. The emails reveal Bobb supplying Fann with purported “evidence” of fraud. “Mayor Giuliani asked me to send you these declarations,” Bobb wrote on Dec. 4. “He will follow up with you as well.” She also sent Fann a “witness list.” Fann said she forwarded the documents to Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers and both their chiefs of staff. This supposed “evidence” has yet to be shown to be credible in any reputable forum.
While the prior independent audits completed by Maricopa County had been conducted by experienced firms accredited by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, Fann and the Arizona Senate chose to contract with Cyber Ninjas. An email from Fann containing a proposal from Intersec Worldwide indicates that she had interviewed the firm on March 6, 2021; ABC News reported that Fann had determined their cost to be too high. The records also contain a proposal from Clear Ballot, sent on March 9, though the records do not contain any response from Fann.
Allied Security Operations Group, a firm that was behind a discredited report claiming irregularities in Michigan’s Antrim County, was reportedly nearly hired by Fann in early February before the Senate eventually went with Cyber Ninjas. Nevertheless, Allied Security’s Phil Waldron — who was on the witness list Bobb sent to Fann on Dec. 4, and who spoke at Giuliani’s Nov. 30 hearing — appears to have played a role in the procurement process. In a Feb. 2 email to Steve Davis of Digital Discovery, Fann said that their firm had been recommended to perform the audit. Davis’ reply was forwarded to Waldron, who forwarded it back to Fann, suggesting that Waldron may have been involved in the selection of Digital Discovery. (In late May, Digital Discovery indicated that it hadn’t worked on the audit.)
On Jan. 28, the day after the county selected contractors Pro V&V and SLI Compliance to conduct its independent audit, Waldron sent an email to Fann and state Sen. Warren Petersen accusing Pro V&V of having conflicts of interest and saying that SLI Compliance had “indicated a hesitancy to talk about working” with Allied Security. Pro V&V and SLI Compliance are the only two companies accredited by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to certify voting machines.
American Oversight also obtained a memo from an unidentified author that indicates that any auditor accredited by the EAC would be unable to detect fraud — thus taking the existence of such fraud as a given. The memo, which appears to be hand-marked by Fann and recommends the hiring of Allied Security as well as conspiracy theorist Jovan Hutton Pulitzer, is undated, but mentions Giuliani’s Nov. 30 hearing and precedes the selection of auditors.
Other records evince the clearly partisan and political goals of those involved — including the overturning of election results. One failed scheme for subverting the certification of Biden’s win involved the appointment of new, pro-Trump electors. American Oversight previously obtained copies of phony electoral vote certificates from Arizona and other states that were submitted to Congress; in the spring, the Arizona Republic reported that former state Rep. Anthony Kern, who was at the Capitol on the day of the Jan. 6 attack and whose signature appears on Arizona’s fake certificate, was helping count Maricopa County ballots.
The elector-replacement scheme was floated in a Nov. 12 letter to Fann from members of the Oklahoma Senate. In the letter, Majority Whip Rob Standridge wrote: “If a legislature were to decide that as a result of fraud, or some other reason that undermined the validity of the election, that the results will not be trusted, they would be obligated to appoint Electors that would represent the will of the people.” The letter does not point to any evidence of fraud.
The partisan orientation of the “audit” is also evident, and not just from the fact that the state Senate’s Republican majority initiated the operation along party lines. On April 22, 2021, Bruce Ash, the former national committeeman of the Arizona Republican Party, emailed Tommy Hicks, the co-chair of the Republican National Committee, to ask that the RNC help finance the defense against Democrats’ legal challenges to the “audit.” Ash wrote that he was contacting Hicks “at the behest of” Fann and Randy Pullen, a spokesperson for the audit and a former chair of the Arizona Republican Party.
Finally, American Oversight also obtained the service agreement with the Arizona Rangers, the armed volunteer group that provided security at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, the site of the recount operation. The agreement says that the buyer is Guardian Defense Fund — the same organization set up as a legal defense fund for Kern, state Rep. Mark Finchem, and U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar following their attendance at the “Stop the Steal” rally and march that preceded the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
The involvement of external groups and individuals with dubious motivations, including those who advance dangerous conspiracy theories, is another reason to be mistrustful of any “findings.” While the operation’s funding has been largely shielded from the public, outside supporters have raised money for it, including OAN’s Christina Bobb and Trump ally Patrick Byrne, who produced a conspiracy theory film that features appearances by “audit” spokesperson and former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett as well as by Doug Logan.
Other conspiracy theorists have been more directly involved in the recount’s actual work, to varying and sometimes unknown degrees. American Oversight has obtained a number of communications pointing to this close involvement.
In the spring, Jovan Hutton Pulitzer — whose reported idea that ballots had been smuggled in from Asia was behind workers’ hunt for bamboo fibers in the ballots — claimed that technology he had developed was being used in the recount. Among the records American Oversight has uncovered is a Jan. 25 email from Pulitzer, which was forwarded by Fann to Petersen and Eddie Farnsworth, a former state senator who prior to leaving office in January had issued the original subpoenas to Maricopa County for the ballots and election materials. The email from Pulitzer appears to be a follow-up from a call with Fann, and Pulitzer outlined what his team would do with the ballots: “All that my team does is high-speed scan in all ballots in their native state … and allow machines to inspect without bias and produce a report.”
American Oversight also obtained undated text messages exchanged by Randy Pullen (before he became officially involved in the “audit”) and Liz Harris, a former Republican state legislative candidate who has been organizing some of the questionable direct canvassing operations. In one message, Harris said that she had “just learned” that Waldron and Pulitzer would not be on the audit team. “What happened?????” she asked.
Another prominent voice among those spreading lies about the election is that of Bobby Piton, who spoke at Giuliani’s Nov. 30 “hearing” in Phoenix. While the records uncovered by American Oversight contain emails in which both Bennett and Pullen respond to outside inquiries by saying that they didn’t know who Piton was or whether he was involved (Pullen’s inquiry came from conservative activist Christine Bauserman), the records also contain a December email from Piton to Arizona legislators, including Fann, Farnsworth, and Petersen.
“It is my hope that ALL of you do the right thing, DE-Certify and Do a Re-count and Rightfully Respect the Will of the People of the Great State of Arizona and Ensure that President Donald J. Trump receives the 11 electoral college votes,” wrote Piton on Dec. 11. “He earned, and over 90 Million Americans have his back!” Piton attached “evidence” to the email, including notes from Harris regarding her and volunteers’ work “to prove the widespread FRAUD in Arizona.”
On April 6, the nonpartisan accountability group Protect Democracy sent a letter to Cyber Ninjas and other contractors, demanding that the groups cease any planned direct outreach to voters — including door-knocking and other potentially intimidating actions — that was mentioned in Cyber Ninjas’ statement of work. Fann forwarded the letter to Josh Barnett, a candidate for U.S. Congress who has posted frequently about the Q Anon conspiracy theory. “Now I know they are worried,” Fann wrote.
The next month, Fann shared with Logan, Bennett, and others the Senate’s May 12 letter to the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, which contained allegations that county officials later refuted as being “outrageous” and “completely baseless.” Bennett forwarded the Senate’s letter to Kelli Ward, to “audit” consultant John Brakey (a Democrat, who in a May interview had told a reporter that auditors were looking for bamboo fibers), and to Bennie Smith, a Democratic elections commissioner from Shelby County, Tenn., who visited the operation in May reportedly to “advise.” Smith’s official role is unclear, but he has voiced skepticism about the integrity of voting machines on his social media.
The auditors’ stated plans to engage in door-knocking and other direct outreach to Arizona voters drew scrutiny early on. On May 5, a month after Protect Democracy’s demand letter, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to Fann, warning about potential violations of federal law, including the planned canvassing of voters as well as the holding of ballots and other materials outside the custody of election officials. Fann’s reply to the letter said that the plans to canvass had been dropped; during the July 15 hearing, Logan of Cyber Ninjas recommended that those plans be revived.
In mid-June, the Arizona Republic reported that people impersonating election officials were knocking on doors in Yavapai County and asking people about their 2020 vote. The article quoted Liz Harris as saying she had organized canvassers, “some within the group I’m heading up and some outside the group,” to check voter-registration information over multiple months.
American Oversight’s investigation has uncovered records that point to top officials being aware of the occurrence of in-person canvassing, even if those door-to-door activities were not officially sanctioned by the Senate. In addition to the text messages exchanged between Harris and Pullen around the end of February, seemingly prior to Pullen becoming officially involved with the “audit,” another text conversation, likely from late April, between Pullen and activist Christine Bauserman indicates that Harris was still collecting affidavits.
American Oversight also obtained a report, dated March 1, pertaining to Harris’ canvassing efforts. The report, which had also been published on Harris’ “Crime of the Century” website, says that a group called the Citizens’ Non-Partisan Grassroots Project had canvassed more than 3,000 homes in Maricopa and Pima Counties “to verify the integrity of the voter rolls.” It also alleges that “52% of those canvassed addresses required an affidavit for an irregularity.”
What has already been revealed, both in public reporting and in the documents detailed above, is significant reason to doubt the integrity of any purported findings that emerge at the conclusion of the Arizona Senate’s stunt. Moreover, the Senate’s secrecy and aversion to transparency reflect a process that has failed to keep the public interest foremost in mind.
More documents are yet to be released, and there are still important questions that need to be answered. Among them:
Aside from the obvious biases and the worrying involvement of uncredible actors, the “audit” itself has proven to be a poorly run operation that renders its findings suspect. In addition to the frequent reports of errors, delays, or security failures, there have also been a number of indications of poor coordination and communication issues. For example, in April and May, the audit’s Twitter account drew criticism for its unprofessional and inflammatory posts, with Bennett reportedly having trouble regaining control of the account from volunteers. (American Oversight obtained a note that appears to have been handwritten by Fann around this time, indicating that the account was “not under the authority of the AZ Senate.”) Another email from May shows Bennett not being able to provide a reporter with contact information for a Cyber Ninjas press contact.
Election experts have also warned against taking any results of the ballot recount seriously, pointing to the lead contractors’ inexperience and error-prone methods. In early July, the Arizona Republic spoke to four national election consultants who said the final report on the hand count “will be incomplete at best and inaccurate at worst,” with one expert saying there was a “zero percent chance” of accuracy.
This lack of credibility is underscored by the Arizona Senate’s aversion to transparency, the concurrent and problematic direct outreach to voters, and the willingness of top officials to accept baseless claims at face value and to work with people who trade in dangerous conspiracy theories — all with a dubious conclusion already fixed in place. As those responsible for the “audit” tease the public about an upcoming release of “findings,” the true results of the partisan exercise can already be seen. Those results are apparent in the attempts by those in other states to initiate their own illegitimately partisan election reviews, in the flurry of new voting restrictions being passed and proposed across the country, in the increasing number of threats to election workers, and in the perpetuation of the “big lie” that threatens to undermine our democracy.
American Oversight’s investigation is ongoing. Records requests, litigation filings, and documents uncovered are available here, and more details on the watchdog group’s investigations into other threats to democracy can be found here.