Arizona's Criticized Election Review Nears End, but Copycats Are Just Getting Started

·6 min read
Cleta Mitchell, attorney and former member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, speaks at the White House in Washington, Aug. 18, 2020, as President Donald Trump looks on. (Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times)
Cleta Mitchell, attorney and former member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, speaks at the White House in Washington, Aug. 18, 2020, as President Donald Trump looks on. (Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — Republicans in the Arizona Senate are expected on Friday to unveil the results of the deeply flawed review they ordered into Democratic election victories last November in the state’s largest county.

The study, conducted by Republican loyalists and conspiracy theorists, some of whom previously had called the election rigged, has long since lost any pretense of being an objective review of the 2020 election. It focuses on the votes that saw President Joe Biden narrowly win the state and elected a Democrat, Mark Kelly, to the U.S. Senate, and its origins reflect the baseless Republican claims of a stolen election.

But regardless of the outcome, the effort in Arizona has already inspired copycat efforts in other states still poring over the results from an election nearly a year old. And it has become a way to keep alive false claims of fraud and undermine faith in the 2020 election and democracy itself.

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In Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, for example, Republican-dominated Legislatures have ordered Arizona-style reviews of the 2020 vote in their states, sometimes in consultation with the same conspiracy theorists behind the Arizona investigation.

The speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly, Robin Vos, ordered the inquiry in June, days after former President Donald Trump denounced the Legislature for not pursuing fraud claims. He expanded it in August, allotting $680,000 in tax dollars, a week after a meeting with Trump. The Pennsylvania inquiry, announced in July, began in earnest last week with a demand for information on every voter in the state.

David Deininger, a former Republican state representative and judge in Wisconsin who served on the state’s Government Accountability Board, said the stakes extended well beyond the 2020 election. “Because of the fanfare and notoriety of these investigations, people are beginning to lose confidence in the fairness and accuracy of election results,” he said.

“I hate to point to the Jan. 6 riot in the Capitol,” he added, “but if people lose confidence in our elections, there will be more events like that.”

An Arizona Senate spokesperson, Mike Philipsen, said that a public briefing on the findings would be held Friday at 1 p.m. Pacific time, and that a link to the full report would be posted on the Senate Republican caucus website.

Biden carried Maricopa County, home to Phoenix and 6 in 10 Arizona voters, last November, by some 45,000 votes out of roughly 2.1 million cast. He won Arizona by 10,457 votes. Legitimate audits of the vote ordered by the Republican-controlled Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, which oversaw the election, have found no evidence of fraud that could have tainted the results.

“We’re at an inflection point,” said Chuck Coughlin, a Phoenix pollster and Republican political consultant who has been skeptical of the Arizona investigation. “When the results drop, I’ll be curious to see how the Legislature’s Republican leaders react to this, including the state Senate itself.”

The 16 Republicans in the 30-member Senate unanimously supported the review in December. But at least two Republican senators have publicly renounced their backing, one using Twitter in July to accuse the Senate president, Karen Fann, also a Republican, of a “total lack of competence” in overseeing the inquiry.

The inquiry has been dogged from its start by slipshod and sometimes bizarre conduct. The firms conducting it had essentially no prior experience in election work, and experts said their haphazard recounting of ballots guaranteed unreliable results. Election officials said security lapses raised the risk that voting equipment had been compromised. And some aspects of the investigation — checking ballots for secret watermarks, and for bamboo fibers that would suggest they were printed in Asia — were based on outlandish conspiracy theories.

Recent developments have only heightened skepticism about the election review.

In July, officials said the vote review had been largely financed by nearly $5.7 million in donations from nonprofits run by far-right figures and allies of Trump. But in late August, a court-ordered release of documents related to the inquiry disclosed that another $1 million had come from an escrow account controlled by Cleta Mitchell, a Republican lawyer who advised Trump as he sought to subvert the election results.

Mitchell was a participant in an infamous telephone conversation in January during which Trump urged Georgia’s secretary of state to “find” enough votes to overturn Biden’s win there, suggesting he could be guilty of “a criminal offense” if he did not.

Although officials said Trump did not contribute to the escrow account, it remains unclear who did. An email among the released documents indicates that it came from a previously unknown group called the American Voting Rights Foundation, whose only known officer is an accountant who has managed money for Republican congressional campaigns and conservative political action committees.

Other documents show that the Arizona Senate signed two $50,000 contracts — to inspect voter signatures on mail ballot envelopes and images of all 2.1 million ballots in Maricopa County — with Shiva Ayyadurai, an election conspiracy theorist who is against vaccines and known in far-right circles as “Dr. Shiva.”

And this week, The Arizona Republic reported that Doug Logan, the head of Cyber Ninjas, the firm the state Senate hired to oversee the investigation, had worked with allies and lawyers for Trump last winter as they sought to overturn Biden’s election victory.

Citing emails, texts and videos, The Republic wrote that Logan was supposed to attend a meeting in mid-November with a group that included Sidney Powell, then a lawyer for Trump. It also indicated that Logan, identified in documents as “Doug Patriot,” worked with Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and the election conspiracy theorist Patrick Byrne on efforts to gain access to voting machines nationwide. A spokesperson for Logan, Rod Thomson, did not immediately reply to an email requesting comment.

In December, long before he was hired, Logan repeated on his Twitter account a baseless theory that Dominion Voting Systems, a favorite target of the right, had robbed Trump of 200,000 votes in Arizona. Dominion, which has sued other prominent advocates of similar theories for defamation, says Cyber Ninjas is “led by conspiracy theorists and QAnon supporters.”

Arizona already has proved instructive to Republicans in other states that are seeking to autopsy their own 2020 results. Michael Gableman, a retired Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who is leading a Republican inquiry there, traveled to Arizona to review its investigation, and The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported this month that he had frequently consulted with Ayyadurai.

Gableman, a former Republican county chairman known as a hard-line conservative, has drawn criticism for telling a postelection rally of Trump loyalists that “your elected leaders have allowed unelected bureaucrats at the Wisconsin Elections Commission to steal our vote.”

In Pennsylvania, which Biden carried by 81,660 votes, the head of the state Senate committee overseeing the election investigation also traveled to Arizona to review its inquiry.

As in Arizona, Republicans in those states say their goal is to increase voters’ confidence in election results. Most political experts — and privately, many Republicans — say that is baloney.

“What’s going on here is fear — fear of Donald Trump,” said Dale Schultz, a former Republican state senator in Wisconsin. “We have to appear to be doing something, or we’re going to be punished by Donald Trump and his followers. It’s appalling.”

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