Last month—nearly five months after Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 election— Arizona Republicans began an “audit” of millions of ballots in Arizona’s largest county, which President Biden won by 45,109 votes. The state Senate hired a little known cybersecurity firm called Cyber Ninjas to conduct the audit. Cyber Ninjas has no experience conducting elections, and its CEO has repeated false claims that the election was stolen. The audit has repeatedly come under fire for its partisanship, its lack of proper cybersecurity protocols and transparency, and its alleged violation of state and federal laws.
ASD Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine, who previously served as Elections Director of Ada County, Idaho, answers questions about the Arizona audit and explains why it could do more harm than good to U.S. democracy.
It seems as though we’ve heard more about this problem-plagued “audit” in Arizona than well-run audits. Can you take a step back and explain the purpose of a post-election audit and how it should work?
The post-election audit is usually done to help ensure that the processes and equipment used to tabulate the results during the election worked properly, and that the election results are, in fact, accurate. One common way to audit the results is review a portion of the paper ballots against the results produce by the voting machine to ensure accuracy. Sometimes voting systems make errors, so one of the things that election officials can do is go back through some of the paper ballots that were tabulated and review those paper ballots and the choices that were made by the voters by hand, and compare the hand-counted results to the way in which the machines recorded them. If in fact there is a match, then that validates the results. If there is not a match, then the election officials have the opportunity to then dig a little deeper to try to make sure that there weren’t any problems that might have impacted the outcome of the election. But more generally, a post-election audit is an effort to make sure that voting procedures were followed and worked properly and that election workers did what they were supposed to do to ensure that the will of the voters was reflected properly.
Earlier this week news broke that the IT company in charge of running the hand recount of Maricopa County ballots is no longer involved in the process and has been replaced by a new IT company. This is just the latest change to the review process, which was recently paused for over a week and has been accused of violating state and federal laws. How do these changes impact the integrity of the audit?
Good post-election audits are consistent, and they’re durable. They generally involve procedures that are established ahead of when the audit is conducted, and they generally involve people who are experienced, who are going to be present to conduct the audit from beginning to end. That’s certainly not what happened in Arizona. The issue of the IT company that helped administer the audit leaving is just the latest example of why the Arizona audit is a sham. This is an audit that has varying procedures from day to day; it’s had different personnel on a regular basis, and there’s been a failure to engage in some basic checks and balances to ensure the integrity of the audit. One example of that is that it’s very clear that those conducting the audit are not making sure that the equipment is being maintained in a manner that arguably complies with federal law. That not only reflects on whether this audit can be conducted properly, but as we learned recently, it also raises questions about whether or not Maricopa County election officials will even be able to get the equipment back afterwards. Because if Maricopa County election officials cannot guarantee that the equipment is returned back in a safe and secure manner, then they don’t know whether or not they can use it for subsequent elections, and that has real financial and legal implications.
This entire review process is largely a response to the false claim that the election was “stolen”—a narrative that has been spread by influential figures including former President Trump and the CEO of the firm conducting the audit. The U.S. Justice Department, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, MITRE Corporation, and others have all debunked these claims. What does the audit in Arizona tell us about the role of disinformation in future elections?
In short, what it tells us is that disinformation could continue to be a tremendous problem in our elections. We had, according to CISA, the most secure election we’ve ever had, and yet there’s a large portion of our country that does not believe in the legitimacy of those election results. Our election officials, like the state and local election administrators and their partners, the vendors, the folks at CISA, the FBI, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, performed remarkably! When you consider all the challenges they faced, like the pandemic, the ongoing violence and upheaval stemming from what happened to George Floyd, as well as the threat of foreign interference, our election officials did a remarkable job. It is unfortunate that “The Big Lie” has resulted in just such a large portion of this country being unwilling to recognize the good election that was run in 2020. Disinformation has been a problem at least as far back as the 2016 election, it was a problem through the 2020 election cycle, and it continues to be a big issue now. We’re going to continue to have significant issues conducting our elections if we can’t nip that issue in the bud.
You recently wrote that audits are meant to build trust in the electoral system, not legitimize baseless conspiracies. What does a trust-building audit look like, and how does that compare to what we’re seeing in Arizona?
Arizona’s faux audit is theoretically an attempt to be a forensic audit, though it’s certainly not in reality. But New Hampshire is running a real forensic audit of a state representative race. I think there are a number of things there that we need to be looking at when we conduct real forensic audits. Number one, you have authorizing legislation that creates a process, so that you’re actually bringing on experienced, established experts, not people who believe in “The Big Lie” and have no experience conducting audits. Number two, you make sure you create procedures ahead of time that are based on best practices for how an audit should be run. Any post-election audit should involve uniform procedures that look at how all of the ballots are tabulated through the voting equipment and compare that with how those ballots are tabulated when they are counted by hand. Also, there should be an opportunity to try and test and look at the other pieces of the voting equipment that were involved in helping tabulate the results to make sure that the tabulation of results on election day and thereafter was conducted well. So, in New Hampshire, that means hand counting paper ballots and seeing how those paper ballots are tabulated. But it also means looking at the chain of custody that existed, so when you’re auditing those ballots afterwards, you can make sure that there was nothing that occurred from when those ballots were counted on Election Day to the election audit. Because at the end of the day, what we’re thinking about when we talk about an audit is a process that validates the results and ensures confidence with the public. The process should be accessible, transparent, and easily understood, so that when people have questions, they can be answered, or when they try to spread misinformation or disinformation, that can be easily debunked.
This type of politically motivated “audit” seems to be spreading to other states. Are you concerned we will see similar efforts to the one taking place in Arizona?
The short answer is yes. Whether we see another audit exactly like Arizona, I’m not sure, but I think we’ve entered a phase where we’re seeing real covert and overt efforts to subvert our elections process. We’ve seen efforts by folks to try and engage in faux “post-election audits” in Michigan. After Georgia election officials counted its ballots three times with no evidence of widespread fraud, skeptics want to review the ballots in Fulton County again. And while they aren’t likely to gain access the original paper ballots, like in Arizona, Fulton County election officials may be forced to create high-resolution digital images of the ballots for the plaintiff to scrutinize, which is unprecedented and certainly not envisioned by Georgia election law. These efforts are part of a broader effort to undermine confidence in the election process and continually relitigate the 2020 election in perpetuity. We should call this out for what it is: an effort to subvert our election process until some folks get a result that they are satisfied with. For many of them that would be former President Trump being reinstalled in office. Because that’s not going to happen, I fully expect that there are going to continue to be efforts that unfold across the country until they are effectively snuffed out. These efforts are not about validating the results of the election; they are about sowing discord and undermining confidence in our body politic.
How have state and local election officials reacted to the false claim that the election results are incorrect?
While there are efforts afoot in many states to pass legislation that targets election workers, election policies, and election procedures, like the integrity of vote counting, we continue to see most state and local election officials defending the democratic process, regardless of party affiliation. They defended it with integrity in 2020 and are continuing to do so. So, I think that it’s incumbent upon us as a country to try to make sure that they have the support that they need so that we can continue to have democratic elections. I am confident and do believe that if we can provide our state and local election officials and those on the front lines with the support and funding they need, we will continue to see well-run democratic elections.