At long last, after weeks of absurd allegations, election auditors in Arizona suggested they’d finally found evidence of foul play in Maricopa County’s 2020 vote tallies.
“Breaking Update: Maricopa County deleted a directory full of election databases from the 2020 election cycle days before the election equipment was delivered to the audit,” the audit’s official Twitter announced last Wednesday. “This is spoliation of evidence!”
Actually, auditors conceded in a meeting with state officials Tuesday night, the directory had not been deleted. The auditors had just copied the files incorrectly. Nevertheless!
Maricopa County’s ongoing election audit is a disaster, even by the low, low standards of “Stop the Steal” mythology. Led by an out-of-state tech company with a conspiracy-minded CEO, the audit has been plagued from its conception by questions about auditors’ expertise and impartiality as they seek evidence that former President Donald Trump actually won the county in 2020. (He did not.)
But as new audit blunders come to light, the recount is widening an already gaping rift between Republican officials in the state, with some of them saying the audit is dangerous nonsense and others calling for the arrests of their anti-audit peers.
Maricopa County’s audit emerged from a conspiratorial crowd that cried foul when Joe Biden won Arizona in November. Seeking to challenge Biden’s victory, Trump supporters championed a series of quickly debunked theories, falsely claiming that Trump supporters’ votes had been invalidated with Sharpie markers, or that Maricopa County Republicans had placed ballots in a chicken barn and burned the barn to the ground. Many of those claims have originated in fringe chat groups, including those associated with the QAnon conspiracy theory. Still, state-level Republicans gave the claims a veneer of credibility when they ordered an independent audit earlier this year, in a move applauded by “Stop the Steal” diehards seeking to hold their own audits in other states.
The allegation that Maricopa County deleted voter data was the latest in a series of dubious claims to emerge from the byzantine process. But for some local Republicans, that allegation was a final blow to a fraying relationship with other members of their party.
Especially after Trump promoted the claim.
“The entire Database of Maricopa County in Arizona has been DELETED! This is illegal and the Arizona State Senate, who is leading the Forensic Audit, is up in arms,” Trump wrote in a long statement posted to his website last week. He also claimed that “many Radical Left Democrats and weak Republicans are very worried about the fact that this has been exposed” and that “the story is only getting bigger and at some point it will be impossible for the weak and/or corrupt media not to cover.”
Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer—a Republican, and one of several who’s battled with far-right foes in the state in recent days—shared Trump’s statement with disbelief earlier this week.
“Wow. This is unhinged. I’m literally looking at our voter registration database on my other screen. Right now,” Richer tweeted. “We can’t indulge these insane lies any longer. As a party. As a state. As a country. This is as readily falsifiable as 2+2=5. If we don’t call this out…”
By now, Maricopa County’s GOP-majority leadership has grown accustomed to attacks from state and national-level Republicans after their hotly contested county voted for Biden last November. Those county officials oversaw multiple audits that confirmed Biden’s victory, despite persistent conspiracy theories that claimed Trump had won the area.
But those audits didn’t satisfy Trump fans around the country, who demanded another search for election oddities. This spring, Arizona’s Republican-majority state Senate mandated the current audit, this time overseen by the Florida-based company Cyber Ninjas, which has no elections experience and is helmed by a CEO who promoted voter fraud conspiracy theories on Twitter.
Auditors reported conducting bizarre tests, like checking ballots for bamboo fibers, on the basis of a conspiracy theory that claimed fake ballots had been shipped from Asia. In an essay for The Washington Post, an experienced elections expert who observed part of the audit reported procedures that changed “almost daily” and that their methods of counting votes “allowed for a shocking amount of error.”
Those audit issues—and the simmering feud between state and local Republicans—came to the fore in a Monday letter from the GOP-run Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. The letter, addressed to the head of the state Senate, objected to allegations that the county had deleted voter data.
“These accusations are false, defamatory, and beneath the dignity of the Senate,” the letter read, noting that the files still existed and that auditors had transferred them improperly, leading to a computer error.
“That the Senate would launch such a grave accusation via Twitter not only before waiting for an answer to your questions, but also before your so called ‘audit’ demonstrates to the world that the Arizona Senate is not acting in good faith, has no intention of learning anything about the November 2020 General Election, but is only interested in feeding the various festering conspiracy theories that fuel the fundraising schemes of those pulling your strings,” they wrote.
“You have rented out the once good name of the Arizona State Senate to grifters and con-artists, who are fundraising hard-earned money from our fellow citizens even as your contractors parade around the Coliseum,” the letter continued, “hunting for bamboo and something they call ‘kinematic artifacts’ while shining purple lights for effect.”
That same day, however, prominent elected Arizona Republicans were doubling down on conspiracy claims. One state senator appeared on a conservative talk show on Monday to promote the bamboo fiber theory. “There’s a rumor out there that ballots were shipped in from overseas that were made of bamboo,” she said. “This process can determine that."
Kelli Ward, chair of the Arizona Republican Party, appeared on One America News, a far-right news network whose anchors launched a fundraiser for the audit, to imply that local officials might be arrested if they did not comply with legislators’ demands.
“There have to be consequences,” Ward said. “There could be arrests of people who are refusing to comply." (Ward did not return a request for comment.)
It wouldn’t even be the first time state-level Republicans threatened Maricopa County’s Board of Commissioners—again, dominated by their own party—with arrest. While the county was arguing against the audit in court earlier this year, Senate Republicans co-sponsored a resolution calling for the arrest of the commissioners on contempt of court charges.
On Tuesday, Maricopa County officials referenced the arrest threats in a Twitter missive.
“The Senate President says the dispute over elections isn’t personal,” read a tweet from the official county Twitter account. “The subpoena, the attempt to hold the Board in contempt w/ possible jail time, and the @ArizonaAudit lie that the county deleted files all suggest otherwise.”
Ward quote-tweeted the county to accuse its commissioners of being the real bullies. “FYI: Personal: name calling & falsely attributing motives to state senators & voters,” she wrote. “Not personal: legislative subpoenas, consequences for contempt, asking questions about irregularities in election & post election processes.”
By Tuesday evening, however, even the audit’s backers conceded that Maricopa County officials had not secretly deleted files. In a meeting that night, a state Senate contractor testified that the files existed after all, on at least four computers that he examined.
Maricopa County’s apparently fed up social media manager was not impressed.
“Just want to underscore that AZ Senate’s @ArizonaAudit account accused Maricopa County of deleting files- which would be a crime- then a day after our technical letter explained they were just looking in the wrong place- all of a sudden ‘auditors’ have recovered the files,” the county tweeted Tuesday night, “🤔.”
The audit is scheduled to continue into next month. If the process so far is any indication, the GOP rift in the state will proceed right along with it.