The Arizona election audit.

Plus, a question about a viral meme 'proving' fraud.
Isaac Saul Jun 15, 2021
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 12 minutes.

An update on Arizona’s election audit. Plus, a question about a viral meme claiming fraud.

Karen Fann, the Arizona Republican who is leading the audit. Photo: Flickr / Gage Skidmore

Welcome.

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Reader feedback.

A reader named Robert wrote in about “my take” on the IRS leaks and said “you defend Michael Bloomberg by observing that he donates a substantial fraction of his income to charity, and you kind of hint at a similar defense for Warren Buffett in your numbers section (where you observe without comment that Buffett has pledged to donate 99.5% of his wealth to charity). However, what you fail to comment on is that in many cases these donations are made to charities controlled by the donors or by close friends of the donors. In Bloomberg's case, for example, many of those donations are likely to the Bloomberg Family Foundation, which apparently has accumulated assets of over 7 billion dollars.”


Quick hits.

  1. The Biden administration laid out its plan to tackle domestic terrorism, including increased funding for the FBI and digital literacy programs. (The Wall Street Journal, subscription)
  2. A study of more than two million coronavirus patients has found that nearly a quarter have sought out medical help for new, post-Covid health problems. (The New York Times)
  3. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) apologized after using the word “retarded” during a podcast interview (Politico) and House Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) apologized for comparing COVID-19 masks to the Holocaust after visiting a Holocaust museum (Reuters).
  4. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) vowed to kick Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) off the Foreign Affairs Committee if Republicans take back the chamber in the midterm elections. (Axios)
  5. House Republicans posted their third straight month of record fundraising in a drive to raise money for midterm elections. (Fox News)

What D.C. is talking about.

The Arizona election audit. Yesterday, CNN reported that auditors are nearing the finish line of their hand recount of 2.1 million ballots in Maricopa County. The only remaining ballots are about 50,000 braille ballots, which state Senate Republicans are currently seeking out a lawyer to read.

Maricopa’s audit has been a flashpoint in post-election accusations of fraud that began with former President Donald Trump and spread throughout the country. Immediately after the election, Maricopa underwent several recounts that reaffirmed Joe Biden’s victory. Encompassing the entire Phoenix metro area, it’s the most populous county in the state and the fourth most populous in the U.S. The Republican-controlled Maricopa County Board of Supervisors affirmed that the machine count was accurate, courts in the state dismissed a lawsuit calling the results into question, and county supervisors authorized an audit of election machines that found no irregularities in January. In total, two separate independent firms performed forensic audits of voting equipment, and two hand recounts of a statistically significant number of ballots were conducted immediately after the election.

But Arizona’s Republican-controlled Senate sued to audit the 2.1 million ballots a final time, and after a lengthy legal battle, won (they also won the right to reexamine 400 voting machines). Crucially, Arizona Republicans who have led calls for the audit are not claiming it would overturn the election or change the outcome in the race — but instead say it will restore voter confidence and reveal any mistakes for future elections.

The audit began on April 23 and was scheduled to be completed by May 14, but several delays have taken place because the ballots are being recounted in Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum, where several high school graduation ceremonies have also been held. The firm conducting the audit is Cyber Ninjas, a Florida cybersecurity firm. This is the most controversial aspect of the audit, as Cyber Ninjas has never conducted an election audit before, and its CEO Doug Logan vocal Donald Trump supporter who repeatedly claimed the 2020 election was fraudulent before the audit even began.

Since the audit began, it has been a non-stop stream of odd stories. First, an Arizona Republic reporter saw auditors using pens with blue ink, which is strictly prohibited because of the potential for ballot tampering. Logan apologized, saying he didn’t know blue ink wasn’t allowed, and replaced the blue pens with green ones. Then auditors were seen looking at the ballots under ultraviolet light, which dumbfounded the CEO of the company that prints the ballots, and other auditors, who said they didn’t understand what they were looking for. Some supporters of the audit even said they were looking for traces of bamboo on the ballots, which they claimed would prove ballots were flown in from southeast Asia.

In recent weeks, the bizarre stories have continued. Jennifer Morrell, a Colorado election official, detailed how auditors were counting ballots as they spun by on a lazy Susan device, which would increase the odds they miscounted what they were seeing. Republican state Senate President Karen Fann, who has led the calls for the audit, then accused the county of deleting a database that contained election information, only for the auditors to concede days later the data was intact and they simply had trouble reading it accurately.

In sum, the audit has infuriated many Democrats and liberals and also divided the right — with some Republican county officials now threatening to sue for defamation over claims they hid voter fraud. Last week, Attorney General Merrick Garland hinted that the Department of Justice will be keeping its eye on states conducting audits to ensure they are following the law. With the audit coming to a close, we’ll take a look at some reactions on the right and left.


What the left is saying.

The left has said the audit is a sham, being conducted by political partisans with no experience in the field and no chance of changing anything.

In her firsthand account of the audit, Colorado election official Jennifer Morrell detailed the most “mismanaged” recount she had ever seen.

“I figured it would be unconventional. But it was so much worse than that,” she wrote. “I was stunned to see spinning conveyor wheels, whizzing hundreds of ballots past ‘counters,’ who struggled to mark, on a tally sheet, each voter’s selection for the presidential and Senate races… The volunteers recounted only if their tally sheets had three or more errors — a threshold they stuck to, no matter how many ballots a stack contained, whether 50 or 100. This allowed for a shocking amount of error.

“I also observed other auditors working on a ‘forensic paper audit,’ flagging ballots as ‘suspicious’ for a variety of reasons,” she wrote. “One was presidential selection: If someone thought the voter’s choice looked as though it had been marked by a machine, they flagged it as ‘anomalous.’ Another was ‘missing security markers.’ (It’s virtually impossible for a ballot to be missing its security markers, since voting equipment is designed to reject ballots without them.) The third was paper weight — the forensics tables had scales for weighing ballots, though I never saw anyone use them — and texture. Volunteers scrutinized ballots for, of all things, bamboo fibers. Only later, after the shift, did I learn that this was connected to groundless speculation that fake ballots had been flown in from South Korea.”

In Arizona Central, Jonathan Rauch said the audit was “an attack by Americans on other Americans.”

“What do Trump and his allies hope to accomplish? The partisan recount lacks all credibility,” he wrote. “The county’s Republican recorder and all five of its supervisors, four of them Republicans, have denounced it as a sham… The Maricopa vote had already been checked twice, then independently audited twice, then certified by the Republican governor. The investigators are reportedly pursuing laughable conspiracy theories, such as looking for bamboo fibers in case fake ballots were smuggled from China. And even if the partisan audit finds serious errors, they would not change the 2020 election result.

“The best way to think of the Arizona audit is as an example of what Russian intelligence operatives – masters of the dark arts of disinformation – call ‘active measures,’” he said. “Their goal is to manipulate the social and media environments and thereby divide, disorient and demoralize a target population… The media and the public can’t hope to keep up with the tsunami of nonsense. Trying leaves them confused, cynical and mistrustful – and thus soft targets for a dictator like Russian president Vladimir Putin or a demagogue like Trump. As Trump’s strategist Steven Bannon said, ‘The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with s---.’”

In the Arizona Republic, EJ Montini responded to questions about what he was “trying to hide” by blasting the audits.

“In order for an audit to be valid it must be conducted independently by experienced professionals,” Montini wrote. “In this case, Republican State Senate President Karen Fann hired people with no experience in the business and with a clear partisan agenda, the CEO already having expressed his belief that there has been fraud. They’re using partisan counters, including a former legislator who was at the Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection, and they are working with individuals connected to the conspiracy quacks affiliated with QAnon.

“So, yes, I believe in audits, but not an audit conducted by people with no experience or credibility,” he wrote. “If you had severe coronary problems, you’d probably believe in heart surgery. But you wouldn’t want it performed by a butcher from the local supermarket who happened to be your wife’s former boyfriend and the guy she dumped to marry you. You’d want a proven professional with no personal agenda.”


What the right is saying.

The right is split on the audit, with some who continue to support it, some who supported it initially but have now abandoned ship, and others who never supported it to begin with.

In Townhall, Rachel Alexander said Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs was “out of control” for resisting a ballot audit.

“It just doesn’t seem very plausible that Joe Biden won in Maricopa County, considering it’s a Republican stronghold (the words of CBS) with more registered Republicans than Democrats, and considering how well Republicans performed in other races here. As of February, there were just over 909,658 registered Republicans to 814,101 Democrats, a striking difference,” Alexander wrote. “In the Maricopa County Treasurer’s race, which featured two non-incumbents, the Republican handily beat the Democrat 46.65% to 42.46%. The Maricopa County Recorder, an incumbent Democrat who oversees Maricopa County Elections, lost to a Republican. In contrast, Biden supposedly beat Trump in the county by about two points.

“The Maricopa County Supervisors, who many people locally believe are extremely corrupt and composed of RINOs, have fought the audit tooth and nail,” she said. “They refused to comply with legislative subpoenas, forcing the issue into court. Senate President Karen Fann told them there was a lack of chain of custody for ballots, cut security seals and more ballot anomalies. The number of ballots listed on pink sheets in the boxes didn’t always match the number of ballots, and it was mostly a higher number (one example provided was off by 35 ballots)… Hobbs isn’t defending the law but is stonewalling just like the supervisors. She received $6 million in CARES money from Governor Doug Ducey to spend on election issues so has a lot of leeway to wreak havoc. She creates all kinds of issues, threatening lawsuits and constantly claiming there is something wrong with every bit of the audit process.”

Mike Broomhead, a pro-Trump radio personality who initially supported the audit, now says it’s time to focus on the future.

“I had no issue with the Arizona Senate performing its own audit of the 2020 elections in Maricopa County — a fair, thorough and transparent audit — based on the criteria it laid out in December,” he wrote. “Then we found out the auditors were using ultraviolet lights and special cameras apparently to chase down rumors spread on social media that there were Trump watermarks on the ‘real’ ballots (there were not) and that as many as 40,000 illegal ballots shipped in from Asia were identifiable by bamboo fibers (there were not, and none were found).

“If the Democrats in Arizona had done any, let alone all, of the same things after losing a statewide election here, I — and every Republican — would be screaming for their audit to be shut down, too,” Broomhead added. “I mentioned my respect for those Arizonans involved in the audit; the same respect should be given to those Arizonans opposing it. In order to believe that the 2020 election was stolen and is being covered up, one has to believe that the Maricopa County attorney, the Maricopa County sheriff, the current and former Maricopa County recorders and the entire Maricopa Board of Supervisors are all in on it. (They are not.)… I want what is best for my state: I am an Arizonan and an American before I am a Republican. And so I have to now oppose this audit.”

In Arizona Central, Republican attorney Benjamin Ginsberg said the audit was needed but “now it’s a farce.”

“When more than half your constituents and more than a quarter of voters nationwide don’t believe the results of the last election, the situation is a ticking time bomb for our democracy,” he wrote. “Seven months of media fact-checking and labeling Donald Trump’s charges ‘The Big Lie’ have not budged those numbers… The Arizona audit presented an opportunity to produce proof of fraud, something that Trump and his supporters have not yet done at a scale of any significance. If that evidence exists, it needs to come out and the system fixed.

“But by overstating its capabilities, the vendor Cyber Ninjas has let down Arizona Senate Republicans,” he said. “Their haphazard procedures have turned the Audit into the ‘audit’ and their findings won’t be credible, whether they deem the election flawed or not. Senator Fann and her Republican colleagues need to confront the situation as it is instead of how they wish it could be. The truth is that they are at the helm of a fatally tainted audit.”


My take.

There are so many things about this audit that are farcical. Many are documented above and worth repeating, but I won’t belabor the points. Instead, let me tell you a few things that haven’t been discussed enough:

First, Karen Fann — the Republican President of the state Senate in Arizona who is the face of the audit — has told constituents in emails that Biden won the election and the audit won’t change that. Despite this, many supporters of the former president continue to insist this will somehow result in Trump being “reinstated.” Second, many other states — like Texas and Georgia — have justified new legislation to change their election laws by noting that they were reverting to pre-pandemic rules. In Arizona, though, the pandemic didn’t actually change much. The state has had vote-by-mail in place since 1991. It is considered one of the most secure and reliable voting states in America.

In 2016, when Trump won Arizona, 76 percent of the state voted early or by mail. In 2020, that increased to about 88 percent. This is a bump, but nothing like what other states saw. The only major change was that voters were allowed five days to fix mail-in ballots soiled because they didn’t have a signature. Nothing — and I mean this literally — nothing has been found in the recounts, examinations of voting machines, or changes in election law to justify another full-scale audit.

Also: Trump lost Arizona but Republicans won lots of other state races, that’s true. The answer to how it’s possible that Trump lost a state where there are more registered Republicans than Democrats is not complicated. It’s that a lot of Republicans in Arizona didn’t like Trump. And that Democrats turned out more voters. This is not “shocking” or “unexplainable” or “anomalous.” It’s the entire story of 2020: Biden won because Trump lost some of his 2016 white voters, lost traditional Republicans, lost independents and lost moderates. Biden was a strong candidate to beat Trump because a lot of moderates (and white voters) were not threatened by his campaign.

As for Doug Logan, the CEO of Cyber Ninjas: saying he “believes the 2020 election was stolen” does not do it justice. Lots of Americans believe that. Logan believes Dominion Voting Systems has links to Hugo Chavez. He authored a document for Sidney Powell, the now-disgraced lawyer who was abandoned by Trump, full of the most ridiculous claims about the election. In one, he said Dominion was tied to Chinese investors because he confused the names of a New York firm and a China-based subsidiary of a Swiss company. In another, he claimed Dominion was tied to the voting software company Smartmatic and that the two had collaborated to commit fraud. The companies have no ties of any kind and the false claim that they do is now central to the $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit Dominion has filed against Powell.

I appreciate wanting to build confidence in elections. I appreciate reasonable debates about voting laws that keep elections secure. I appreciate audits and recounts, both of which I wholeheartedly encouraged in the weeks after the 2020 election. But this is not any of that.

As Jennifer Morrell detailed in her must-read opinion piece after observing the audit firsthand, one funny thing in all this is that Cyber Ninjas was, in some ways,actually trying to do this right. After Morrell pointed out some of the ridiculous things she witnessed, the firm actually changed its audit practices (in one example, Morrell noted that a data entry person was entering tally sheets into an Excel spreadsheet with zero oversight or quality control — weeks later, they had a station set up to monitor the entries). Of course, this too shed light on how ridiculous the whole thing was to begin with: changing your procedures for an audit in the middle of an audit is basically the primary prohibition of auditing. It’s like talking about the fight club. As a result, some of the ballots were audited in Maricopa under totally different procedures than others, and all of the procedures were out of place.

I have no idea what Cyber Ninjas will say they found. Smart money is on “hundreds of thousands” of corrupted votes that prove “Trump won in a landslide.” But whatever it is will be meaningless because the auditing practices are inconsistent and invalid, the firm running the audit is run by an actual conspiracy theorist, the audit is funded by political partisans, and the actual Republican, Trump-voting election experts who performed legal and time-tested audits and recounts found nothing unusual or that would have changed the outcome.


Your questions, answered.

Q: I saw this image on Facebook the other day and the numbers really stuck out to me. I know it might not be proof of anything, but what do you think?

— Sam, Jacksonville, Florida

Image

Tangle: I’ll take it row by row.

First: it’s true that Obama got 69 million votes, Trump got 74 million votes and Biden got 81 million votes. I’ll try to say this nicely, but there is nothing conspicuous about that at all. In fact, it’s precisely what was expected going into the election. Poll after poll showed the election had all-time interest and voters repeatedly said it “mattered a lot” compared to past elections. That, plus the fact that many states made it easier to vote, meant this past election was always going to produce all-time turnout.

And still: the actual turnout rate was just barely ahead of the previous record, set in 1908. Even by a candidate’s increased vote total, though, it wasn’t anomalous. We’ve seen candidates make huge jumps over four years many times. For instance, Ronald Reagan got about 43 million votes in 1980. In 1984, four years later, he got 54 million votes! That’s the same candidate. Another example: John Kerry got 59 million votes in 2004. Barack Obama got 69 million votes in 2008.

Fraud? No. Just… more people were eligible to vote, and more people cared enough to do it. Go back to 2020 and think about the year leading up to the election. Did anyone talk about anything but Trump? Athletes, actors, celebrities, pundits, newspapers, TV shows, comedians… Trump. Trump. Trump. It was never-ending. And then coronavirus happened, which made even more people care about the election.

Second: Biden won 477 counties and Trump won 2,497 counties. This one is, uh, pretty easy… Biden won the counties that had the most people in them. To add to that, there has been a trend since 2008 that Republicans have tended to carry rural counties. If we add Obama’s 2012 election, whose absence points to the picture the creator of this image is hoping to portray, we see he carried 689 counties. So Republicans have been winning more counties, but those counties contain far fewer voters.

Third: Biden won just one of the 19 traditional bellwether counties that have predicted past elections. This one is true! And it’s also odd! And it’s also… what a lot of people expected. Those 19 counties are overwhelmingly white and uneducated compared to the U.S. population as a whole. Previously, being white and not having a college degree did not make it easier to predict who you’d vote for. That’s no longer true.

In other words, the preferences of uneducated white voters have changed, and therefore counties where voters are overwhelmingly white and without college degrees are no longer bellwether counties. This has been explained a number of times, and is why many new counties were in the bellwether mix this year.

Fourth: Yes, Biden lost Florida, Ohio and Iowa. He also won Georgia, Arizona, New Mexico, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Which is how you win an election without Florida, Ohio and Iowa.

Finally: Yes, Democrats lost House seats and Biden won. Again: this is not evidence of how anomalous the election was, but how disliked Trump was by so many moderate voters. There was a lot of split-ticket voting and there were a lot of Democrats who didn’t bother to vote down the ballot. On top of all that was the mirage of 2018, where Democrats picked up a ton of seats because they turned out in droves for the midterms when Republicans didn’t. That raised expectations for the Democrats in the House, but when Republican turnout matched that of Democrats, their strength in House districts prevailed.


Numbers.

  • 56%. The percentage of Arizona voters informed about the audit who felt it could not be trusted, according to a new poll.
  • 56%. The percentage of Republicans who believe the 2020 election was the result of illegal voting or election rigging.
  • $71.78. The price of a barrel of crude oil on Monday, the highest price in more than two and a half years.
  • 963. The total number of newsroom job losses so far this year.
  • 10,576. The total number of newsroom job losses during the same period last year.
  • 24%. The number of New Yorkers who say Eric Adams is their top choice for mayor, the highest of any candidate.

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Have a nice day.

A giant trash wheel in Baltimore, Maryland, has picked up over 3 million pounds of trash out of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor since making its debut — and is becoming a legend in the city. Mr. Trash Wheel is equipped with giant googly eyes and even has his own Twitter feed. His rather ordinary task of cleaning Baltimore’s waterways has become an extraordinary success, and the simple technology behind how he works is beginning to win prizes and global recognition. (CNET)

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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