Arizona state Senate Republicans’ “audit” of 2020 election results in Maricopa County is so unprofessional and illegitimate that many election officials won’t even refer to it as an audit.
But the GOP’s audit fever is spreading nevertheless: Driven by the same lies about election fraud that underpin the Arizona audit, Republican lawmakers and conservative activists in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are clamoring for their states to launch their own sham reviews. Another so-called forensic audit ― a term veteran election officials have not used before ― could soon begin in Georgia’s largest county. Embattled Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz (R) visited Arizona last week with dreams of convincing his state ― which, unlike the others, former President Donald Trump won ― and others to replicate the process. Other GOP lawmakers, including several with plans to seek higher office next year, have flocked to Phoenix too.
Not all Republicans are on board with the push to continue conducting conspiratorial reviews of the election. But those behind the Arizona audit, and the conservatives seeking to bring them to other states, are preying on a general misunderstanding of how election audits and reviews typically work to promote their own cynical political goals, undermining democracy and American elections in the process.
“The fact of the matter is that in most states, there is already some sort of process in place post-election to ensure the accuracy and fairness of the results before those results are certified,” Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D) told HuffPost this week. “People screaming for this kind of audit don’t understand how those things work, and the systems that are already in place to ensure that there are checks and balances.”
“We cannot continue to have people questioning these processes just because they don’t like the result,” she said.
Independent observers and election officials from both parties and across multiple states have repeatedly said that the 2020 election was safer, more secure, and more audited than any contest in American history, thanks in part to increased reliance on mail-in ballots because of the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been numerous audits that follow typical standards and best practices in states and counties. None have turned up evidence of the sort of widespread fraud that Trump and his Republican supporters have insisted took place; neither did the New Hampshire audit to which Trump had pinned his hopes of surfacing evidence of the sort of malfeasance he claimed occurred.
The Arizona audit, meanwhile, is being conducted by a firm that has no experience reviewing an election and has faced allegations that it has violated even the most basic standards and practices of typical audits. Observers have alleged that reviewers have improperly handled ballots; broken the chain of custody for how ballots should be reviewed, stored and transported; and potentially compromised voting machines and election integrity by having active Wi-Fi connections in the location of the audit. It is unclear who is paying for the process, a clear violation of normal standards of transparency for election reviews. And it has possibly compromised Maricopa County’s electronic voting machines, potentially costing local taxpayers the millions of dollars it will take to replace them.
“Every single day there’s a new, ‘Oh my god, you can’t make this stuff up,’” Hobbs said.
But none of that has swayed the Republican Party’s most zealous anti-democratic members. Instead, it seems to have made them even more giddy to copy the process.
In late May, a Georgia judge authorized an “audit” of 147,000 absentee ballots in Fulton County, where Atlanta is. County officials have since sought to block the review from occurring.
The claims behind the Fulton County review are no less conspiratorial than the Arizona GOP’s: Groups seeking the audit have asserted that Fulton County was home to “10,000 to 20,000 probably false ballots,” after a handful of poll watchers reported that many mail-in ballots appeared Xeroxed instead of filled out by hand.
Both Republican and Democratic election officials have argued that Fulton County’s ballots have already been hand recounted, hand audited and re-scanned since the election. None of those typical audit practices revealed any evidence of fraud, much less enough to alter Biden’s 12,000-vote victory in Georgia. But Georgia politicians have also made the pilgrimage to Phoenix in the hopes of conducting an even more aggressive election review. Vernon Jones, a Republican running for governor in Georgia, visited the audit site this week and called on Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) to immediately “bring the Arizona playbook back home to Georgia.”
In Pennsylvania, state Sen. Doug Mastriano and other Republican lawmakers are pushing GOP majorities to conduct a similar audit of the state’s elections, which Trump lost in November. Mastriano, who was at the Washington, D.C., rally that precipitated the U.S. Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, called the Arizona review “the most comprehensive election audit in the history of the United States” after visiting the audit site. State Sen. Chris Dush (R), who traveled to Arizona with Mastriano, told The Associated Press that he “absolutely” wanted Pennsylvania to conduct a similar audit.
Pennsylvania officials have stressed that the state’s election has already been audited twice, and neither review turned up any evidence of widespread fraud.
Two Michigan GOP officials are hoping to pressure Republican legislative leaders there to launch their own “forensic audit” of election results: “I know this takes a bit of time and a bit of money – but this is what worked in AZ!” Tami Carlone, the Michigan GOP’s grassroots chair, wrote in a recent email to party delegates, the Lansing Journal reported this week.
In April, the Michigan Bureau of Elections said that more than 250 post-election audits had taken place across the state, more than after any previous election.
“The audits are concrete evidence that November’s election was fair, secure and accurate, and that the results reflect the will of Michigan voters,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) said in a statement accompanying a report on the audits.
Mastriano and Jones are not the only Republican officials who were in Washington on the day of the insurrection to travel to Arizona. Virginia state Sen. Amanda Chase, Colorado state Rep. Ron Hanks and Alaska state Rep. David Eastman were all in D.C. on Jan. 6 for the Trump rally, and have all since traveled to Arizona to observe the current audit. Chase, who lost her bid to win the GOP gubernatorial nomination in Virginia last month, tweeted that Republicans should ”#auditeverystate” after her trip to Phoenix.
The Republican Party has coalesced around efforts to restrict voting rights in the wake of Trump’s election loss. But it is more divided over the push to replicate the Arizona audit: GOP leaders in Pennsylvania have resisted Mastriano’s push for a review and said that no new audits will take place. Michigan Republican leaders have not fully embraced the idea. (A Michigan state judge last month dismissed a lawsuit that sought an audit of one rural county’s ballots.) It’s unclear how many Georgia Republicans, who rammed through a sweeping package of voting restrictions in April, favor the push for an Arizona-style audit in that state, which Trump also lost.
The Arizona Senate GOP’s audit effort caught officials there a little off guard, Hobbs said, because they had prepared for nearly every post-election challenge scenario but didn’t have an existing legal or statutory framework for how to combat such an unprecedented and obviously conspiratorial challenge. In retrospect, Hobbs said that local election officials in Arizona probably missed opportunities to try to stop the audit from proceeding, and that officials in other states should heed the warnings coming from Arizona.
“My advice to other states is to take every legal opportunity you have to fight this from the start,” Hobbs said.
There is no chance the Arizona audit will overturn the results of the state’s election, and none that audits will reverse the outcome anywhere else they might take place. But they are clearly meant to undermine faith in American democracy. The Arizona audit will have that effect no matter the outcome, election officials say, and no one will have learned much of anything about how elections or audits are supposed to work.
“This is going to continue to undermine people’s trust in our democracy and our elections, and undermining confidence in our election system is in and of itself a tool of voter suppression,” Hobbs said. “It’s also a way to justify some of the really terrible laws that we’re seeing that severely hamper and restrict access to voting.”
Hobbs is particularly concerned about Republican voters who have bought into Trump’s reported assertions that the Arizona audit will start a domino effect that culminates with his reinstatement to office in August, a scenario that is not possible — with or without the audits.
“This misinformation is dangerous,” Hobbs said, “and the rhetoric is ramping up the same way it did after the November election.”
But for many Republicans, using the audits to further erode faith in democratic institutions and elections seems to be the point. Several of the conservative lawmakers backing Arizona-inspired audit pushes are aiming to play an increasingly large role in the party’s future, and are betting that mimicking Trump and pushing baseless, anti-democratic conspiracies is the key to their political fortunes.
Mastriano is considering a run for governor of Pennsylvania in 2022, and has also been mentioned as a potential candidate in next year’s GOP primary for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat. Jones, the GOP gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, this week blasted Kemp for not traveling to Arizona and endorsing the state’s audit. GOP lawmakers who attempted to overturn the election are pursuing secretary of state jobs in Georgia, Arizona, Michigan and Nevada.
The audit’s ability to attract intrigue from ambitious conservative lawmakers like Mastriano and Jones has generated concerns among election officials that the Arizona audit could pave the way for even more zealous charades to become a normal feature of future elections. They worry that normal audits, which are common and follow set procedures based on best practices and state laws, will be replaced by shambolic efforts to overturn results losing candidates refuse to accept.
“Since the 2020 election, we’ve seen local candidates in some states call for a Maricopa-style forensic audit because they don’t believe that they lost,” Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser for Democracy Fund, said during a recent press call. “If this is the precedent that we’re setting, that in any election someone who loses can drag the election through the mud for months after the fact, it’s going to taint the process, and turn people off on it.”