The Maricopa County election review hit a crescendo Friday when its results were presented to the Arizona Senate Republicans who ordered it in the heated aftermath of last year's presidential election.
It was a major milestone – if not the end – of the nearly 10-month odyssey pushed largely by election conspiracists loyal to former President Donald Trump, who believed a thorough review would show county elections officials didn't get it right.
But any hopes for such a conclusion were dashed early by Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, who confirmed in her opening remarks what draft versions of the reports leaked to journalists the day before said: The hand recount of ballots showed little change in the vote totals reported by Maricopa County that cemented Joe Biden's win in Arizona.
“That is a true statement," Fann said as a packed audience in the Senate gallery listened quietly. To critics who have called the audit a sham, she responded, "Truth is truth, numbers are numbers." She added, though, that she believed there were "broken statutes" and flawed election procedures – issues that she would turn over to Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a Republican, to investigate.
Fann had said from the start of the effort that the goal was only to further election integrity, not overturn the outcome from last November.
The presentations made to Fann and Senate Judiciary Chairman Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, treaded lightly on the actual vote counts and instead focused on issues that the auditors said raised questions about the election process and voter integrity.
Instead of creating any kind of proof that Trump actually won in Maricopa County, the Cyber Ninjas report showed the margin for Biden was actually slightly larger than in the county’s official election results. The data in the report also confirms that U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, a Democrat, won in the county.
Friday's presentations came nearly 11 months after voters cast ballots in the November 2020 election and follows a five-month ballot review that included a hand count of all 2.1 million Maricopa County ballots, a separate check on those results, and disclosures of questionable tactics, such as a search for bamboo threads in the ballots.
It trailed in the aftermath of lawsuits and investigations after initial hopes for a cooperative effort between the Senate Republicans and the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors fell apart. The process tested the extent of Senate subpoena power as well as the reach of public records laws for legislative communications.
As the presentations rolled out Friday, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge was again ordering Fann and the audit contractor, the Cyber Ninjas, to release additional documents that he ruled must be disclosed under the state's open-records law.
What was presented to the Senate
Before the presentation of the first of the multiple reports was finished, Fann outlined several “urgent issues” that she said needed attention in a letter to Attorney General Mark Brnovich.
However, it was unclear how some of those issues would qualify for an investigation into legal wrongdoing, as many of them appeared to suggest system improvements. She added that lawmakers already are at work on legislation to address many of the issues identified by their contractors.
Later, Fann pointed to issues with duplicate ballots and chain of custody identified by Senate liaison and former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, a Republican, as matters the attorney general should take up.
Friday's presentations ran more than three hours, with no questions allowed from the handful of Republican senators who attended in person. Questions will be addressed at future meetings of the Senate's Judiciary and Government committees, Fann said.
In his presentation, Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan highlighted problems that he said his review found with Maricopa County's voter rolls, such as 5,047 voters who may have cast ballots in more than one county; voters with incomplete names, and 198 people who registered to vote after the Oct. 15 cutoff date but nonetheless cast a ballot.
In his wrap-up, Logan recommended the Legislature pass new laws that "clean" voter rolls to ensure only valid voters can receive and mail-in ballots, as well as to beef up the security systems and procedures used with election-related computers.
He also recommended an "election audit department" that would regularly conduct audits in each of Arizona's counties.
County officials followed the livestream of the proceedings and aired rebuttals on Twitter in real time. Chairman Jack Sellers, a Republican, urged the public to review their responses on the social media site.
In a statement, Sellers called the auditors' presentations "irresponsible and dangerous" and charged the Senate amplified their reckless claims.
"The Cyber Ninjas’ opinions come from a misuse and misunderstanding of the data provided by the county and are twisted to fit the narrative that something went wrong," Sellers said in the statement.
"Again, these 'auditors' threw out wild, damaging, false claims in the middle of their audit and Senate leadership provided them the platform to present their opinions, suspicions, and faulty conclusions unquestioned and unchallenged.
"Today these 'auditors' falsely and recklessly accused Maricopa County of potential crimes and Senate leadership amplified those lies," Sellers said.
Reports on signatures, computers
Another portion of the election review looked at signatures on envelopes voters used to return mail-in ballots.
That effort found a number of anomalies, according to a presentation from Shiva Ayyadurai, who was hired by the by the Arizona Senate because of his expertise conducting signature reviews for banks and has promoted election conspiracy theories. He displayed several images of "scribbles" that he said were qualified as valid, allowing the ballot in the envelope to be counted.
"I'm sure there's an explanation for that," he said after displaying several such signatures, drawing muted laughter from the audience.
Ben Cotton, founder of CyFIR, a digital-security firm that was a subcontractor on the review effort, claimed Maricopa County purged voter data the day before two independent reviews ordered by county officials.
Cotton drew the only applause up to that point in the presentation when he claimed to have found screenshots of county employees at computer terminals while that election data was being deleted.
Bennett, who served as the Senate’s liaison throughout the five months of the actual audit, detailed several state laws that he said were not followed by county officials, including 2,500 duplicate ballots that he said lacked “discernable” serial numbers to tie them back to the original ballot a voter cast.
As for election experts in both Arizona and beyond who disparaged the Cyber Ninjas’ tactics, Bennett said they were out of line.
He suggested Logan had created perhaps “the most accurate hand-counting process in the country.”
Up next: More hearings, investigations
Senate leaders said more work is left to do.
Under a settlement reached last week, the Senate will review whether the county used routers to connect its vote-counting machines to the internet, something county officials have repeatedly denied.
That work will start soon, with Cotton guiding the Senate on which technology experts to suggest that special master John Shadegg hire to explore the router issue. Cotton will operate independently, not as a Cyber Ninja subcontractor, said Randy Pullen, the audit spokesman.
Petersen, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, listed eight items that he said need either enforcement or legislation. They include oversight of ballot security and what he said was a failure to preserve data files.
“It appears they broke the law with duplicate ballots,” Petersen said of county elections officials. Elections officials have said repeatedly that the Senate and its auditors did not have an understanding of election procedures, leading to baseless claims.
Fann said the county will be invited to respond to the audit findings in the yet-to-be-scheduled Senate hearings. But she again criticized county leaders for refusing to cooperate with the Senate.
“They’re always invited,” she said of those officials.
Earlier Friday, Attorney General Brnovich issued a statement saying his office's Election Integrity Unit would handle any complaints that qualify for state review.
“I will take all necessary actions that are supported by the evidence and where I have legal authority," he said.
Besides Fann and Petersen, seven of the 16 Republican senators attended Friday’s hearing, sitting at their desks and taking notes. U.S. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., was in attendance, along with former state lawmakers David Farnsworth of Mesa and Anthony Kern of Glendale.
Kern got a shoutout of sorts when Logan was explaining the hand-count process and noted that “one individual” was removed from the volunteer corps because it is improper to have a person whose name was on the ballot be part of the review. Kern had sought reelection to his House seat but lost.
A history of the election review
The hand count of ballots kicked off April 23 inside Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the state fairgrounds.
To lead the effort, the Senate chose a Florida-based Cyber Ninjas, which had no election experience outside of the "Stop the Steal" movement and whose CEO had promoted conspiracy theories about the outcome of the presidential race.
Logan worked closely with Trump allies for months after the election and before the audit began. He and others who know him say that will not influence the results.
The inexperience of the Cyber Ninjas was apparent almost immediately, and procedures for processing ballots changed throughout the counting. Elections officials in Arizona and across the country said over the course of the monthslong endeavor that the results would have fatal flaws because of haphazard procedures.
The methods were sloppy, insecure, lacked bipartisan oversight and were unlikely to produce accurate results, according to those nonpartisan election and auditing experts who watched the audit unfold from both inside the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix and from afar.
Additionally, the effort itself was largely paid for by those promoting election conspiracies about the outcome.
Volunteers – many of them Trump supporters, including one former GOP lawmaker who was on the ballot himself – tallied the votes as the ballots spun by on Lazy Susans. Other volunteers examined the ballots with ultraviolet light to check for impermissible watermarks and possibly even bamboo fibers for a short time.
The Cyber Ninjas enlisted subcontractors to examine the vote-tabulation machines, prompting Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, to call for their decertification.
The work continued until late July, despite early expectations of a mid-May completion date.
Along the way, Fann ordered two more reviews as part of the endeavor: a machine count of all the ballots and a digital review of the signatures on mail-in ballot envelopes. Fann said early findings from the hand count showed the Cyber Ninjas' tally did not match the official results, so she wanted a third count as a "check" on their work.
It took the Cyber Ninjas two more months after they vacated the fairgrounds to compile their findings.
Contributing: Ray Stern
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona audit: Senate confirms Biden win, but more review to come