Six months after Trump’s defeat, Arizona Republicans are recounting the vote

PHOENIX – It seemed so simple in December.

Responding to angry voters who echoed former President Donald J. Assetfalse allegations of a stolen election, Arizona Republicans promise a detail vote review it showed that Mr. Trump had been the first Republican presidential candidate to lose the state since 1996. “We’re holding an audit,” State Sen. Eddie Farnsworth told a Judiciary Committee hearing. “And then we can put that to rest.”

But when a parade of flatbed trucks last week carried boxes of voting materials and 78 pallets containing Arizona’s largest county’s 2.1 million ballots to a decrepit local coliseum, it launched a seat-of-the-pants audit process that seemed more likely to amplify Republican grievances than assuage them.

Nearly six months after the election lost by Mr. Trump, the promised audit became a sniping scam hunt that spanned a court battle, death threats and calls to arrest elected leaders in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix.

In fact, three previous reviews showed no signs of significant fraud or reason to doubt President Biden’s victory. But senators now plan to recount — by hand — the 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa County, or two-thirds of the entire statewide vote.

Critics from both parties say an effort that began as a way to appease angry Trump voters has become a political embarrassment and another blow to the once-inviolable Democratic norm that losers and winners honor winners. election results.

“Do you know the dog that grabbed the car?” said Steve Gallardo, the only Democrat on the Republican-dominated Maricopa oversight board. “The dog doesn’t know what to do with it.”

After a brief break Friday ordered by a state court judge, the audit continues with no clarity on who will do the count, what it will cost and who will pay for the process, which is expected to last until the end of the day. mid-May. The One America network broadcasts it live, and Mr. Trump applauds from the sidelines.

In an emailed statement on Saturday, he praised the “brave American patriots” behind the effort and demanded that Gov. Doug Ducey, a frequent target of his displeasure, send in state police or the National Guard for their protection.

Katie Hobbs, the Arizona secretary of state, a Democrat, was less enthusiastic.

“My worry is getting worse by the hour,” she said in an email on Friday. “Clearly no one involved in this process knows what they are doing and is making it up as they go.”

Senate President Karen Fann said in December that the audit had no hidden agenda and could not change the results of the Arizona election, regardless of the outcome.

“A lot of our voters have a lot of questions about how the vote works, the electoral system, its security, its validity,” she said, and so senators needed experts to review voting processes and determine “what else could we do to verify that the votes were correct and accurate.

Other state legislatures have looked into bogus claims of voter fraud. But the Arizona audit, driven in part by conspiracy theories about rigged voting machines, is in a class of its own. Experts say that underscores the sharp rightward shift of the state’s Legislature and Republican Party even as the state moves closer to the political center.

“I understand why they’re doing it, because half the GOP thinks there’s been widespread fraud,” said Mike Noble, a Phoenix pollster who got his start in Republican politics. “The only problem is that a majority of the electorate doesn’t believe there was widespread fraud.

“The longer they push this,” he said, “the more they alienate people in the middle.”

In Arizona, the state party is led by Kelli Ward, a former state senator who rejected Mr Biden’s victory and supports the audit. Under his leadership, the party in January censured Mr. Ducey, former senator Jeff Flake and Cindy McCain for their lack of loyalty to Mr. Trump.

The 16 Republicans in the state Senate reflect the party’s rightward shift. November’s election ousted the Senate’s two most moderate Republicans, replacing one with a Democrat and the other with a Republican who claims lifelong membership in the Oath Keepers, the extremist group that helped lead the assault on the US Capitol on January 6.

Another self-appointed guardian of the oath, State Representative Mark Finchem, proposed in January to give the Legislature the power to overrule presidential election results and choose new majority voters. (The proposal was going nowhere). Since then, Mr. Finchem has become a strong advocate for auditing.

“Members of the Legislative Assembly are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories and are more likely to espouse them” than in the past, said Barrett Marson, a Phoenix campaign consultant and former Republican spokesperson for the United States. Arizona State House.

Ms. Fann, Mr. Farnsworth and Mr. Finchem did not respond to interview requests.

The Senate’s rightward drift has a simple explanation, say political analysts. Most of the Senate’s 30 precincts are so uncompetitive that the Democratic and Republican primaries effectively choose who will serve as senators. Because most voters don’t participate in primaries, those who run — for Republicans, that often means far-right Trump supporters — are key to getting elected.

Addressing claims of stolen elections, through tougher election laws or investigations, is by far the biggest problem for those voters, said Chuck Coughlin, a Republican campaign strategist in Phoenix.

“They represent their constituency,” he said. “The whole process was designed to produce that.”

Senators warmed to the idea of ​​a Maricopa County audit at the first mention of it in early December.

Soon after, they issued subpoenas to the county seeking the 2.1 million ballots, access to 385 voting machines and other equipment such as ballot books, voting machine passwords and the personal details of everyone who voted. Supervisors resisted, calling the election fraud-free, and said they wanted a court ruling on the legality of the subpoenas.

The backlash was immediate: The four Republicans and one Democrat on the oversight board were inundated with thousands of phone calls and emails from Trump supporters, many from out of state, with some promising violence.

“The five supervisors were receiving death threats,” said Mr. Gallardo, the Democratic supervisor. Two police officers were stationed outside his home.

Hoping to avoid a dispute, supervisors hired two federally licensed companies to conduct a forensic audit of the county’s voting machines. The audit concluded that the equipment had worked perfectly.

Ms Fann, who in the past was seen as a moderate conservative, said the Senate wanted tougher scrutiny. The senators said they had hired “an independent and qualified forensic audit firm” for the task.

The senators backtracked, but Jack Sellers, the chairman of Maricopa County Supervisors, accused in a Facebook post of choosing “a debunked conspiracy theorist” for the audit.

Tempers flared and all 16 Republican senators offered to despise the supervisors, potentially sending them to jail.

But that fell apart after Sen. Paul Boyer, a Republican from Phoenix, backed down after deciding he couldn’t jail supervisors for disobeying a subpoena they deemed illegal.

As he stood on the floor of the Senate to explain his position, his cell phone began buzzing with angry texts and emails. Some were threatening; some mentioned the workplace of his wife and their infant son.

“It was like, ‘You better watch your back – we’re coming to get you,'” Mr Boyer said. The family spent days in hiding before returning home with a 24-hour police guard.

Just two weeks later, on February 27, a county court ruled that the Senate subpoenas were legal.

The Senate, apparently caught off guard, initially refused to accept delivery of the subpoenaed material for lack of a safe place to store it. Officials rented a local coliseum, but the county sheriff’s office refused to provide security, calling the job out of scope.

The second firm hired to analyze the results of the audit, Cyber ​​Ninjas, says it’s an industry leader. But The Arizona Republic quickly reported that the company’s chief executive, Doug Logan, posted a litany of stolen election conspiracy theories on a Twitter account he deleted in January.

Among them was a retweeted message suggesting Dominion Voting Systems, a favorite right-wing target, stole 200,000 votes from Mr Trump in Arizona. Dominion says Cyber ​​Ninjas are “run by conspiracy theorists and QAnon supporters who helped spread the “big lie” of a rigged election.

Mr Logan, at a press conference last week, said the company was committed to a fair and transparent process. “It is really very important for us to have integrity in the way we count and in the results that come with it,” he told reporters.

Ms Fann said the company and the other people she will oversee are “well qualified and experienced”.

But unease about the audit continued to grow. Ms. Hobbs, the secretary of state, has asked state attorney general Mark Brnovich, a Republican, to investigate the Senate’s handling of proceedings, citing a lack of transparency over ballot security . She noted that some of the Legislature’s most right-wing firebrands had been granted free access to the Colosseum, though it was unclear whether journalists and unbiased election experts would be allowed to observe the proceedings.

He refused.

Greg Burton, editor of The Arizona Republic, said in a statement Friday that “Senate leaders have strangled legitimate press access and handed Arizona’s votes to conspiracy theorists.”

Amid the growing uproar, Republican senators who have endorsed and supported the audit since its inception have largely remained silent on concerns about its integrity.

Alain Delaquérière and Susan Beachy contributed to the research.

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