With Joe Biden inaugurated as president more than two months ago, Donald Trump and most of his supporters long ago gave up on efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. But in Arizona, the dream of a Trump victory lives on, drawing in a bizarre cast of characters intent on rooting out nonexistent fraud.
As the Republican-held state Senate prepares to recount 2.1 million ballots cast in Democratic-leaning Maricopa County, Arizona has become a hotbed for election “fraud” vigilantes.
The motley crew leading the charge includes a failed treasure hunter, a Trumpist pillow magnate, a self-proclaimed expert on satanic forces, and roving bands of amateur ballot sleuths who climb into dumpsters and investigate chicken coop fires. While the recount can’t change the results of the election, the anger and passions surrounding it offer a window into the future of a Republican Party that still widely insists that Trump legally won re-election, long after his loss has become clear.
“Arizona is always, unfortunately, on the leading edge of conspiracy theories and craziness,” said former Maricopa County Democratic Party chairman Steven Slugocki.
The months-long ballot fight centers on an effort by Arizona’s state Senate Republicans, led by Senate President Karen Fann, to obtain Maricopa’s ballots through a subpoena. After a court win in late February, the Republicans won the right to inspect the county’s ballots.
One of the most prominent boosters of the senate’s recount effort has been the We the People AZ Alliance, a coalition of conservative activists that emerged after the election. On March 10, the group organized a rally featuring Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) and “MAGA Hulk,” a muscular pro-Trump personality.
MyPillow founder and staunch Trump ally Mike Lindell, who has become one of the most visible backers of pro-Trump groups and media outlets, declared in a video played at the event that the group’s work “should be heard around the world” and claimed that Trump would be back in office by this summer.
Lindell told The Daily Beast on Saturday that he’s funding several conservative groups working on Arizona recall efforts, and also said that he separately wants to see an audit of the state’s voting machines. “All of my evidence is going to the Supreme Court, we keep gathering and gathering, but anything that could come from this kind of audit will also be included in my lawsuit before the Supreme Court, I have lawyers for that,” he said.
“Arizona is a hotbed,” Lindell added. “We’re gonna get to the machines.”
We the People AZ’s membership roster includes Dr. Lyle Rapacki, a far-right activist who has claimed “demonic” forces are afoot in the fight over the Maricopa ballots and who has now become one of the recount’s most vocal boosters.
“It’s been unfair, it’s been unreal, it’s been demonic,” Rapacki said on March 8 in an interview with We the People AZ chairwoman Shelby Busch.
Rapacki knows about demons. Amidst the satanic panic in the 1980s, in which law enforcement, the media, and parents across the country became convinced of fictitious tales about children being abused by satanic cults that often centered around schools or daycares, Rapacki held himself out to law enforcement as an expert on satanism.
The author of a book called Satanism: The Not So New Problem, Rapacki claimed in a 1988 interview with The Oregonian that satanic forces are all around us, worshipped by doctors, lawyers, and other seemingly upstanding people in a generational satanic pact for power.
“True Satanism is a secret, serious, totally committed movement that has gone on for thousands of years,'' Rapacki said at the time. “They worship a deity called Lucifer like the Christians worship Jesus Christ.''
Despite his outlandish views, Rapacki has managed to gain some sway with Arizona Republicans. The Phoenix New Times has called him “both a conservative political operative with influence on some Republican state lawmakers and an irrelevant crackpot.” Much of Rapacki’s clout in Arizona has come from “priority communications” he distributes to activists that purport to draw on intelligence sources, though critics have countered that they’re often repackaged articles from fringe websites like WorldNetDaily.
He’s still keeping up with the satanists, though, promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory on his blog and backing a Trump-endorsed theory from a controversial falconer that claims Biden murdered Navy SEALs to help Osama Bin Laden escape justice. After a conservative blog questioned his rights to use the title “Dr.,” Rapacki claimed he was being targeted for fighting devil worshipers.
“I was among a handful of individuals who dared to stand and expose Witchcraft and the Occult in America,” Rapacki wrote.
More recently, Rapacki has aligned himself with anti-government ranchers like the Bundy family. He served as the second-in-command of a radical pro-rancher land group alongside then-Washington state Rep. Matt Shea. An independent investigation funded by the Washington legislature found in 2019 that Shea, a Republican who shared operational advice with Rapacki and others during the 2016 Malheur standoff in Oregon that involved members of Bundy’s family, committed domestic terrorism for his role in the plotting.
Rapacki didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Now that Arizona Senate Republicans have the ballots, it’s not clear who will handle the recount. Fann initially planned to spend $10,000 to hire Allied Security Operations Group, a pro-Trump organization whose supposed findings about election misdeeds have been embraced by Trump supporters but widely disputed by experts. That deal fell through.
One potential candidate for the recount: Jovan Hutton Pulitzer, an inventor who claims to have invented a mysterious technology to detect voter fraud. After the election, Pulitzer was heralded by Trump supporters who saw earlier, more conventional recounts fail to produce any evidence of voter fraud. Instead, they want a “Pulitzer audit,” a ballot inspection premised on Pulitzer’s little-understood technology.
Pulitzer didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Pulitzer originally gained notoriety during the dot-com boom as the inventor of the much-mocked CueCat, a cat-shaped barcode scanner that was meant to let people reading magazines scan barcodes in ads, taking them to related websites. Pulitzer, then using the name J. Jovan Philyaw, took in more than $185 million in investments in his feline-themed scanner, but the product flopped. In 2006, PC World ranked Pulitzer’s invention—dubbed “one of the most ridiculed products of the internet era”—as the 20th worst tech product of all time.
Pulitzer resurfaced as an amateur treasure hunter in 2015 on a History Channel show, styling himself as the “COMMANDER of TreasureForce” and positing that a Roman sword ostensibly found on a Canadian island proved that ancient Romans had visited Canada. Scientific analysis showed that the sword was, in fact, a modern replica.
Pulitzer returned to notoriety in the weeks after Trump’s defeat, claiming he had developed a technology that could detect “kinematic artifacts”—essentially, folds in paper—that would prove whether or not the ballots were legitimate. As Pulitzer’s mystery technology was heralded by MAGA fans, it also came in for ridicule from elections officials, with the Georgia secretary of state dubbing Pulitzer a “failed treasure hunter.”
Right-wing blog The Gateway Pundit, which has breathlessly covered the twists of the Arizona ballot saga, has called for Pulitzer to audit Maricopa County’s ballots. Rasmussen Reports has promoted his proposal for a “kinematic” audits. Pulitzer himself has retweeted calls for a “Pulitzer audit” in the county, which would rely on Pulitzer deciding whether ballots are legitimate based on a supposed technology that few, if any, people aside from Pulitzer understand.
“We want the best people to perform the audit, and if what Jovan has is going to give us what we need is the best, then we want Jovan,” Busch, the chairwoman of We the People AZ Alliance, told The Daily Beast.
Lindell, whose deep pockets make him a powerful player among Trump 2020 deadenders, is also a fan.
“His methods are very good,” Lindell said. “I’ve studied what he does, and it’s great. He’s got technology that is similar to technology that checks counterfeit money; it’s the best in the world, I think. I met him a couple months ago. His technology is really good. I think Jovan is the best one out there who I have done due diligence on to audit the paper ballots, specifically, in any audit.”
Maricopa County became a focus for Republican voter fraud allegations in the state after the county’s Republican chair failed to show up to a bipartisan inspection of voting machines ahead of the election. Slugocki, who attended the inspection as the county’s Democratic chairman, said he knew Republicans’ failure to attend the inspection would create suspicions among conservative activists that the machines had somehow been tampered with.
After Trump lost what has long been a red state, conspiracy theories exploded, centered on the Maricopa County machines. The GOP county chairman later resigned amid criticism for skipping the inspection.
Even as the state Senate recount inches towards a start, the state has become rife with amateur election detectives. On March 5, a handful of Trump supporters organized around activist Staci Burk visited Maricopa’s election office and claimed, without evidence, that the ballots could easily be accessed in the back of a warehouse. Then, one of Burk’s associates—an elderly man identified in right-wing blogs as “Earl S.”—was caught on security cameras heaving his body into a dumpster.
“Wrapped up physical evidence collection with a Purple Heart Vet willing to dumpster dive for his Country,” Burk posted on Facebook.
In the dumpster, they claim, they found a yellow trash bag filled with shredded ballots. Burk posted pictures of the shredded papers, including massive piles of paper spread out on a home in front of Earl S. on Facebook. Her allegations quickly went viral in the right-wing media, earning mentions on The Gateway Pundit, One America News, the Twitter account of conservative game show host Chuck Woolery. On her Facebook page, Burk claims former Trump NAational Security dviser Michael Flynn and pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell provided her with security amid her explosive revelations.
This isn’t Burk’s first brush with a niche sort of fame in the months after the election. She sued Arizona’s secretary of state in an attempt to overturn the result, only to have her case tossed out by a judge when it was revealed that she hadn’t registered to vote, much less actually voted, in the election. She has also been a key player in a conspiracy theory claiming that fraudulent ballots were brought to Arizona via a Korean Air flight.
Maricopa officials have a less monumental explanation, with critics of the dumpster theory citing the possibility that the ballots could be sample ballots either left over from the election or printed off of the internet. In a statement, Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, a Republican, said the ballots are securely stored. Richer suggested that Burk’s associates broke the law, though, saying that three people related to the dumpster case were caught on camera trying to break into the election warehouse.
"Camera footage shows that those three attempted to unlawfully pry open our warehouse doors, but were unsuccessful," Richard said. "They did, however, climb into the dumpster outside the building and remove trash."
Burk and her associates have so far refused to provide the state senate with the shredded ballots, making even other activists like Busch unwilling to sign onto their allegations. Burk didn’t respond to a request for comment.
A day after the dumpster-diving incident, ballot-hunters had a new conspiracy theory: the ballots were burned in barns holding chickens. On March 6, a fire broke out at a Maricopa County chicken farm owned by Hickman Family Farms, burning 160,000 chickens alive. Hickman’s vice president, Clint Hickman, is also a Republican member of the Maricopa Board of Supervisors who has repeatedly shot down the idea that the election was fraudulent.
Hickman’s connection to the farm fire prompted insinuations that the fire had been used to destroy incriminating ballots, with The Gateway Pundit dubbing it a “mysterious fire.”
“The Arizona Maricopa County election coverup continues,” one Gateway Pundit blog post about the “mysterious fire” read. “These crooks are doing all they can to obstruct justice and tamper with evidence because they know they can get away with it.”
Members of the Arizona Patriot Party, a far-right group in the state, drove out to the scene of the farm, reporting ominously in their newsletter that the air smelled less like burned chicken flesh and more like burned paper, like ballots.
“At the site it is rather peculiar that there is no rancid burning smells of animals or feathers,” the newsletter notes. “The most predominate odor is that of burned wood or paper.”
It’s unclear who the Arizona Republicans plan to hire to recount the ballots. Fann has proposed a volunteer, bipartisan effort, though it’s unclear how many Democrats would volunteer for an unpaid effort investigating an election that Democrats clearly won. Slugocki, the former top Democrat in the county, says the process will draw in Republican activists dead-set on election fraud.
“You have these keyboard warriors who are hellbent on finding something,” Slugocki said. “Does anybody trust these people to do this process? They’re delegitimizing this election and it’s dangerous.”