PHOENIX – In March, when it was clear that the Republican-controlled Arizona Senate planned to recount presidential votes in the state's most populous county, Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs sent a letter urging the Senate president to adopt strict guidelines to ensure the results could be trusted.
Instead, President Karen Fann farmed out the recount to a supporter of election conspiracy theories with no recount experience who refused to share details of how the count would be done until a court ordered the disclosure and the recount was well underway.
That decision and others, including allowing a former state GOP lawmaker who was at the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection to count ballots, seem destined to taint the results of the recount that Republicans who control the Legislature say is needed to craft election law reforms.
“When you’ve got half of the people that do not trust the electoral system anymore, rightly or wrongly so, if they have questions, who is responsible for answering these questions,” Fann said in a Tuesday interview with Phoenix radio station KTAR. “How do ... we put election integrity back into our system. And that’s only what this has been about."
However, the recount has been contentious. Cyber Ninjas, the company hired to do the audit, initially refused to release its policies and procedures for re-tallying by hand the 2.1 million ballots in Maricopa County, where President Joe Biden defeated former President Donald Trump.
Counting started on April 23, after the state Democratic Party won a court order requiring the company to follow the law on ballot and voter secrecy and to file its policies with the court. Those policies were finally released Thursday, and by Friday criticism was piling up.
For example, the policies allow counters to accept a large enough error rate to perhaps show Trump won the state. But such an outcome would not change the outcome of the election because the results were certfied months ago in the state and Congress.
If a miscount is determined, it could, however, boost the unsupported argument of Trump and his backers that election fraud and malfeasance lost him the White House.
Bo Dul, state elections director, ticked off a series of issues with the documents that were released under court order, noting they seemed haphazard, lacked specifics and left much room for interpretation — something that's never allowed in ballot counts.
“They kind of confirmed what we assumed all along, is that there aren’t established and adequate policies and procedures in place to really do this in any way that can yield reliable results,” Dul said Friday.
She noted that the training materials for vote counters was a simple PowerPoint presentation dated the day after the recount started. The guidelines for the digital examination of voting machines appeared to be a document copied and pasted from a 2020 federal document with nothing specific about the state Senate audit.
Dul also said there were no policies for determining voter intent on a ballot where it wasn't clear, something that is critical in a hand count.
Florida-based Cyber Ninjas did not initially allow journalists into Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the site of the recount where the ballots were laid out on tables. After several days, the media was allowed in but only in limited numbers under a pooling deal worked out by media attorneys.
The reporters mainly reported mundane counting procedures until Friday, when a pool reporter spotted a Republican counting ballots who lost his November re-election bid and who was at the U.S. Capitol during the insurrection in January.
Former Rep. Anthony Kern has been outspoken in his belief that Trump’s victory was stolen. He has denied entering the Capitol while participating in the rally headlined by Trump.
The Arizona Republic pool reporter who spotted Kern and tweeted his picture was later ejected for doing so.
Meanwhile, former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, who is acting as the Senate’s liaison to the recount, watched as nine machines used to count early ballots were loaded onto trucks to be sent back to Maricopa County offices. Also returned were computer servers that tell the machines how to operate and compile the vote counts, said Megan Gilbertson, spokeswoman for the county Elections Department. Still in the Senate's hands are 385 smaller machines used at Election Day polling places to count ballots.
The county does not know what Cyber Ninjas or the companies it has hired did to the machines, which were supposed to be subject to a forensic computer examination. The county leased the equipment from Dominion Voting Systems for three years at $6.1 million.