Arizona ballot review commissioned by Republicans reaffirms Biden’s victory
Caitlin O’Hara for The Washington Post
A Republican-commissioned review of nearly 2.1 million ballots cast last year in Arizona confirmed the accuracy of the official results and President Biden’s win in Maricopa County, according to a final report released Friday, striking a blow to former president Donald Trump’s efforts to undermine confidence in the 2020 election.
The report, which was prepared by private contractors and submitted to Republican leaders of the state Senate, went even further than an earlier draft that confirmed Biden’s victory.
In a letter describing the findings, Senate President Karen Fann (R) — who commissioned the process — stressed the importance of the ballot count showing Biden’s winning margin and noted that it “matches Maricopa County’s official machine count”
“This is the most important and encouraging finding of the audit,” she wrote, adding: “This finding therefore addresses the sharpest concerns about the integrity of the certified results in the 2020 general election.”
The final report echoed that in a passage that had not appeared in the earlier draft, emphasizing that finding over sections of the report that suggested some ballots could have been improperly counted.
“The paper ballots are the best evidence of voter intent and there is no reliable evidence that the paper ballots were altered to any material degree,” the report stated.
Still, the conclusion of the recount, which was launched earlier this year by the GOP-led state Senate, is unlikely to quiet Trump’s false claims that the election was rigged and his attempts to pressure Republicans around the country to pursue their own 2020 recounts.
The former president reacted with fury to coverage about the Arizona report’s findings, asserting without evidence Friday that the ballot review uncovered “a major criminal event” and calling for Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich (R) to investigate. He fired off a series of false statements about the Arizona recount throughout Friday evening, including one demanding that the state “immediately decertify their 2020 Presidential Election Results.”
Even before the final report was released, Brnovich, who has announced he is running for the U.S. Senate, indicated a willingness to potentially pursue a case, a sign of Trump’s ongoing power in the party.
“I will take all necessary actions that are supported by the evidence and where I have legal authority. Arizonans deserve to have their votes accurately counted and protected,” the attorney general said in a statement.
In her letter to Brnovich flagging the report’s findings, Fann said that they “suggest less-than-perfect adherence to Arizona’s standards and best practices.”
The release of the report Friday capped a costly and drawn-out recount that kept alive false claims that fraud tainted the election in the state’s most populous county. The process was pilloried by election experts who warned that the methods used by the firm hired to run the review were sloppy and biased and cost almost $6 million — most of it given by groups that cast doubt on the election results.
In the end, the final report concluded that 45,469 more ballots were cast for Biden in Maricopa County than for Trump — widening Biden’s margin by 360 more votes than certified results.
The report found the count to have “no substantial differences” from the county’s certified tallies.
A chart shows the vote totals of the ballot review in the draft report obtained by The Post.
The finding punctures unsubstantiated claims made by Trump and his allies that vote tabulating machines had miscounted paper ballots or been hacked to flip thousands of Trump votes to Biden.
Still, the report also suggested that some ballots could have been improperly accepted and counted by the county, a notion strongly disputed by election experts.
Trump on Friday sought to turn attention away from the document’s finding that the vote count was accurate, falsely claiming that the review vindicated his baseless allegation that the election was stolen.
In a statement, the former president said that the recount “conclusively shows there were enough fraudulent votes, mystery votes, and fake votes to change the outcome of the election 4 or 5 times over.”
In fact, the report does not assert that any ballots were cast or counted due to fraud — only that further investigation may be warranted. It cautions in multiple places that its own findings may include errors and that there could be reasonable and lawful explanations for them.
And the final version of the report included new language that had not been in an earlier draft noting that many of the ballots flagged as possibly problematic by the contractors were cast by registered Republicans, as well as registered Democrats.
“If you actually read the report, they give themselves a million outs with these numbers,” said Elizabeth Howard, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice and a former election administrator in Virginia. “They’re desperately trying to suggest that what are routine procedures are suspicious, because they don’t have election administration experience or knowledge.”
The report included numerous recommendations of changes to Arizona election law. Some, however, reflected what is already standard practice in the state. For instance, it recommended a paper backup for all votes cast by machine — even though Arizona voters already cast their votes on paper ballots.
Biden’s win in Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, helped him earn a narrow victory in Arizona and become the first Democrat to win the state since 1996. The state’s results were upheld by state and federal courts.
The state Senate’s ballot review began in April over the objections of the Republican-led county leadership. Lawmakers used a subpoena to obtain Maricopa County’s ballots and tabulating machines, which were handed over to private contractors for review.
The findings were unveiled at a more than three-hour public presentation that was held on the floor of the Arizona Senate. Democrats were not allowed to attend and no public comment or questions were permitted.
Fann said Friday — as she has repeatedly stated publicly in the past — that the goal was not to revisit Biden’s win but instead to look for ways to improve the state’s election laws. “This has never been about overturning an election. This has never been about decertification,” she said.
But she said too that the report and supporting materials would be turned over to Brnovich for further review and insisted that the report contained some findings that reflected “why people questioned the ballots and the election.”
The Florida-based firm that led the review, Cyber Ninjas, had never before been involved in administering an election or recount, and its chief executive, Doug Logan, publicly embraced Trump’s false claims of fraud before getting the job.
After his firm was selected to conduct the review, Logan did not deny his potential bias but said that it is “the most skeptical person” who makes the best auditor, “not the person who thinks it is impossible to find anything.”
Democratic lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee, which is investigating the Arizona recount, sent Logan a letter Thursday requesting his testimony at an Oct. 7 hearing.
for The Washington Post
Hand-painted rocks on display at an outdoor viewing in Phoenix of the recount results.
Election experts criticized the process Logan’s firm ran as opaque, insecure and frequently changing, and said the recount followed few best practices established over decades for conducting unbiased and accurate election audits.
In May, all of Maricopa’s seven elected officials — including five Republicans — joined to demand the Senate put an end to the review, calling it a “con” and a “sham.”
“Our democracy is imperiled,” they wrote in a letter to Fann.
The Justice Department also warned in the spring that the recount risked violating federal law, which requires that ballots be securely maintained for 22 months following a federal election.
After the leak of the draft report late Thursday, Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jack Sellers (R) said in a statement that the findings mean “the tabulation equipment counted the ballots as they were designed to do, and the results reflect the will of the voters. That should be the end of the story. Everything else is just noise.”
He added: “Board members told the truth in the face of angry phone calls and emails fueled by a coordinated campaign to shake Americans’ faith in the power of their vote. Will they accept the truth now?”
Election experts said that the potential issues with ballots described by Cyber Ninjas in its report were based on flawed analysis and weak evidence.
For example, the report claims that more than 23,000 mail ballots were submitted by voters who moved before the election — a group Trump described Friday as “phantom voters.”
But the report itself included important caveats about the finding, noting that there are “potential ways” that the ballots were cast that “would not violate the law.” And it found that a third of those ballots were cast by registered Republicans. What’s more, Cyber Ninjas acknowledged that the ballots were identified by comparing voter registration rolls to information maintained by a commercially available address validation tool, adding that “some error is expected.”
Chris Sautter, a political strategist who teaches election law at American University and has participated in dozens of election recounts, said such databases are not typically accurate enough to be used to confirm addresses for voter registration purposes. “These commercial data companies have a long history of producing flawed lists which have resulted in the disenfranchisement eligible voters,” he said.
Election experts said the Arizona experience should serve as a warning sign to other Republican legislators who have in recent weeks responded to pressure from Trump and agreed to embark on their own reviews of the 2020 election, including in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Texas.
“It is a huge defeat for Donald Trump,” Ben Ginsberg, a longtime Republican campaign attorney, told reporters Friday. “This was a swing and a miss at what he thought was a sure thing, and they missed by a mile. That should have repercussions down the road.”
He added: “This was an audit in which they absolutely cooked the procedures, they took funding from sources that should delegitimize, automatically, the finding. This was Donald Trump’s best chance to prove his cases of elections being rigged and fraudulent, and they failed.”
Elise Viebeck contributed to this report.