Fact check: False claim from Trump about Maricopa County election database

·9 min read

The claim: "The entire Database of Maricopa County in Arizona has been DELETED!"

Arizona officials are refuting a claim from former President Donald Trump that they deleted an entire election-related database amid an ongoing audit of Maricopa County's 2020 presidential election results.

In late April, auditors began a hand recount of 2.1 million ballots in the county, home to Phoenix, where President Joe Biden won by more than 45,100 votes. State Senate Republicans say the audit, overseen by a private company called Cyber Ninjas, is aimed at ensuring the integrity of Arizona's election system – despite the fact that Maricopa County has already audited its 2020 results and found no malfeasance.

Fact check: No evidence election audit in Maricopa County has found widespread election fraud

In a May 15 statement on his website, Trump said corruption has plagued the recount and that "presidential election fraud" should be "one of the biggest stories of our time."

"The entire Database of Maricopa County in Arizona has been DELETED!" the statement says. "This is illegal and the Arizona State Senate, who is leading the Forensic Audit, is up in arms."

The statement was published on a website Trump launched in early May to communicate with his followers outside social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, where the former president has been banned since shortly after the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. However, links to and copies of Trump's statement have been shared thousands of times on both platforms, according to CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool.

Since it began, the audit in Maricopa County has been plagued by misinformation. Claims on social media have falsely alleged the recount uncovered tens of thousands of fraudulent votes, that lawyers for Dominion Voting Systems tried to stop the audit, and that officials found evidence of watermarked ballots, a conspiracy theory related to QAnon.

More: County recorder speaks out against Trump; other GOP leaders call out 'fantasy,' 'madness'

Trump's claim about a deleted database is the latest example of that misinformation. And it's equally wrong.

That claim stems from a letter written by the Arizona Senate president, who said auditors found what appeared to be deleted files on one machine in the county. But Republican officials in Maricopa County have refuted the allegations, saying no database has been deleted.

USA TODAY reached out to Trump through his website and his press office for comment and received no response.

Claim stems from Senate letter

Trump's statement traces back to a letter sent to Maricopa County officials from Karen Fann, president of Arizona's Republican-controlled Senate.

Three days before Trump published his statement, audit officials posted a tweet saying Maricopa County had deleted a "directory full of election databases."

"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," says the May 12 tweet, which has more than 12,000 shares. "This is spoliation of evidence!"

Maricopa County ballots from the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors hired by the Arizona Senate in an audit at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix on May 11, 2021.
Maricopa County ballots from the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors hired by the Arizona Senate in an audit at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix on May 11, 2021.

The tweet was published the same day that Fann sent a letter to the Maricopa Board of Supervisors outlining three "serious issues" with the ongoing recount. One of Fann's concerns: "deleted databases."

According to the letter, "the main database for all election-related data for the November 2020 General Election" was removed from one of Maricopa County's machines. Fann included a screenshot of what appear to be more than 28 missing directories or files. Contractors from Cyber Ninjas, which has no known experience performing election audits, say the information should be provided under subpoenas issued by the Senate.

But on May 14, Ken Bennett, former Arizona secretary of state and the Senate's liaison to the audit, walked back the claim that Maricopa County spoiled evidence by deleting election databases and other files. Bennett told the Arizona Republic there could be a reasonable explanation for the purportedly deleted files.

More: Arizona Senate considers expanding audit of Maricopa County ballots to all races

"The tweet could have been worded differently but I thought it was correct that there was deleted files," he told the newspaper. "We didn't say there was anything malicious. Maybe it was deleted because it was a duplicate of something that was elsewhere."

That's not how social media users interpreted the tweet. USA TODAY found several widely shared Facebook posts that say Maricopa County officials "deleted the whole election database," as well as posts that say "the 2020 election was rigged in Arizona."

USA TODAY reached out to Fann and Bennett's office for comment.

Officials refute database claim

Republican officials who oversee elections in Maricopa County say no database was deleted related to the 2020 presidential contest.

In a May 15 tweet, Maricopa County recorder Stephen Richer said Trump's statement was "unhinged."

"I’m literally looking at our voter registration database on my other screen. Right now," he said. "We can’t indulge these insane lies any longer. As a party. As a state. As a country."

Former Secretary of State Ken Bennett, serving as the  Arizona Senate's liaison, looks on as Maricopa County ballots from the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors hired by the Arizona Senate in an audit at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix on May 11, 2021.
Former Secretary of State Ken Bennett, serving as the Arizona Senate's liaison, looks on as Maricopa County ballots from the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors hired by the Arizona Senate in an audit at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix on May 11, 2021.

Officials have also pushed back against Fann's letter. In a May 13 statement, Jack Sellers, the Republican chairman of Maricopa County's Board of Supervisors, said the allegations are among the "lies and half-truths" that have circulated since the election.

"After reviewing the letter with county election and IT experts, I can say the allegations are false and ill-informed," he said in the statement. "Moreover, the claim that our employees deleted election files and destroyed evidence is outrageous, completely baseless and beneath the dignity of the Arizona Senate."

Jason Berry, a Maricopa County spokesperson, said in a May 16 email to USA TODAY the county has asked for a retraction and "will present evidence refuting this and other claims in a public meeting."

That happened during the May 17 meeting, when the Maricopa County supervisors unanimously approved a letter addressing Fann's concerns. The supervisors, as well as Richer and Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone, wrote in the letter that the database identified by auditors was "was not deleted from the server."

"On April 12, 2021, the Elections Department shut down the server to be packed up and made ready for delivery to the Senate," the letter says. "At no point was any data deleted when shutting down the server and packing up the equipment."

County elections and IT officials told the Arizona Republic the auditors probably couldn't locate the files pictured in the screenshot because they downloaded the data incorrectly or incorrectly searched for them.

"All the databases are there — there has never been a deleted database," Richer said during the meeting. "All of the election files that contain any election results are all still intact, and the Cyber Ninjas have every single one of them."

No evidence of election fraud

As USA TODAY has previously reported, there's no evidence the audit in Maricopa County has found widespread election fraud — or that fraud otherwise affected the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.

In Arizona, Biden beat Trump by more than 10,400 votes, and the state certified its results in December. Since then, no credible evidence of fraud has emerged.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and its election partners called the 2020 election the "most secure in American history." Trump's own attorney general, William Barr, repeatedly said there was no widespread voter fraud. Courts rejected dozens of lawsuits filed by Trump and his allies to dispute the election results. Even the Supreme Court weighed in.

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In Maricopa County, two independent auditors found that votes were counted properly.

"The 2020 elections were run w/ integrity, the results certified by the county & state were accurate, & the 2 independent audits conducted by the County are the true final word on the subject," wrote Maricopa County's Twitter account in a May 14 tweet.

Our rating: False

The claim that "the entire Database of Maricopa County in Arizona has been DELETED!" is FALSE, based on our research. State Senate Republicans have raised concerns about what they say appear to be deleted files on one of Maricopa County's machines. But county officials have refuted those claims, and Fann's letter only mentions one machine – not the deletion of the county's entire election database. Trump's statement rehashes the debunked claim that there was widespread voter fraud affecting the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: False claim from Trump about Maricopa County election data