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A stumble to the finish line for Arizona’s partisan audit

Four workers in green T-shirts seated at a round table on the floor of an arena. One man standing before a tall stack of computer servers reaches to the top of the equipment.
Audit contractors working for Cyber Ninjas at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix in May 2021. (Courtney Pedroza for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

A version of this post was originally distributed in Votebeat’s weekly newsletter. Sign up here.

The most visible part of the Arizona Senate Republicans’ audit shut down this week. The ballot counting/scanning/inspection operation that started at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in April and moved to the state fairgrounds’ Wesley Bolin Building has finally concluded, and Maricopa County’s 2.1 million ballots were returned to the county’s possession Thursday. The Senate’s contractors continue analyzing all the data and information they collected and are expected to produce a report in the next month or so. But that largely depends on what they decide to examine next, based on a new round of subpoenas to Maricopa for additional data, records, and equipment.

This was not the smoothest possible wind-down for this phase of the audit. The public meeting between audit lead Doug Logan and Senate President Karen Fann that we told you about last week has now led to the spread of misinformation about discrepancies Cyber Ninjas claimed to have uncovered (which were authoritatively fact-checked as false). Then, Senate liaison Ken Bennett quit on Wednesday morning after being blocked from the Bolin Building. (Who blocked him? Cyber Ninjas? Senate leaders? “That’s a pretty good question,” Bennett has said.) Bennett changed his mind and re-committed to the job that night. This drama was capped by Twitter banning the two accounts officially associated with the audit for violating the platform’s rules on manipulation and spam. Meanwhile, the audit team released its court-ordered list of who has been funding the effort, and the givers of the $5.6 million in private donations are Donald Trump allies who have wrongly asserted the election was rigged, such as Michael Flynn, Sidney Powell, Patrick Byrne, and correspondents from One America News.

As a gauge of the political temperature in Arizona, look no farther than the appearance of state Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita at a Trump rally last weekend. Ugenti-Rita is a Scottsdale Republican launching a bid for secretary of state who has spoken favorably of Trump and written multiple laws to restrict voting access. Nevertheless, she is so unpopular with Trump followers that she was booed off the stage. Then she was confronted backstage by a conservative web pundit who was apparently so aggressive, police forcibly removed him. (The far right’s objection to Ugenti-Rita seems to be that she derailed a rival senator’s voting legislation.) Urgenti-Rita then said this week, “Sadly, it’s now become clear that the audit has been botched.”

It’s easy to laugh or shake your head over the mishaps around this audit, but there’s nothing funny about the ripples it is causing nationwide. Note that among the accounts Twitter banned were @AuditWarRoom and spin-off accounts for five more states. Keep reading to learn what’s happening with attempts at similar partisan audits in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Texas.

Back Then

Voting fights were quite different in Arizona 100 years ago, but they appear to have been just as fierce. One particularly determined figure was suffragette Lida Parce Robinson, who crafted a strategy in 1903 for the “first really hard fight for suffrage that was made in any legislature.” As president of the Arizona chapter of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, she teamed with a labor leader to get the suffrage bill passed through the territorial House of Representatives and the Council, though it was vetoed by Gov. Alexander Brodie. Robinson persisted with her advocacy through a Substack—er, a newspaper she published herself, and in 1912, the all-male electorate voted in favor of an Arizona ballot initiative to grant women the right to vote.

In Other Voting News

  • Tensions are ratcheting up in Pennsylvania over state Sen. Doug Mastriano’s pursuit of forensic audits in three counties. Philadelphia’s commissioners on Friday denied Mastriano’s request for access to the county’s ballots, data, and equipment, saying it would cost tens of millions of dollars, compromise security of the machines, and disrupt the May 2021 primary. It appears Mastriano doesn’t care, saying he’s confident he can get the votes on his Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee to force the counties to comply. “The subpoenas are going to have to go forth,” he said this week on a talk radio program. Republican commissioners from Tioga County, one of Mastriano’s other targets, have been subject to violent threats over their resistance to the audit request.
  • A Wisconsin assemblywoman is following Mastriano’s playbook in her bid to mount an audit. Rep. Janel Brandtjen plans to use her subpoena power as the chair of the Campaign and Elections Committee to “initiate a more intensive investigation” into her suspicions of fraud. The Republican speaker of the Assembly says there’s no need for such an audit, considering he’s already ordered two investigations into the election—one by the legislature’s auditor and one by private investigators.
  • Trump is now putting his weight behind Texas’s new bill for audits of its largest counties. And perhaps as insurance, he gave a campaign endorsement Monday to Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has signaled support for the audits.
  • While the prospect of a forensic audit in Fulton County, Georgia, is dwindling in court, a different review is under way through the state Board of Elections. Under Georgia’s new voting law, officials may seek a state takeover of a county’s election management. Republican lawmakers just initiated that process in Fulton County by requesting a review of local officials’ performance in the 2020 election. (Whether the target of the review will be the county elections board or elections director Rick Barron depends on whether you read the House’s request or the Senate’s.) As GPB’s Stephen Fowler notes, this would be a long process and is not guaranteed to actually result in a Fulton takeover.
  • In the face of these movements, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a reminder to states about federal election security and civil rights constraints on post-election reviews, essentially a warning that these partisan audits can easily violate federal law if mismanaged.
  • We’re seeing a burst of activity for federal voting rights legislation. Senate Democrats are nearly done crafting a scaled-down version of the For the People Act in the spirit of Sen. Joe Manchin’s suggested compromise, and they could introduce it next week. It supposedly would include redistricting reform. Meanwhile, House Democrats want to introduce a revised John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act on Aug. 6. This version would not only restore the preclearance authority of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and expand it to all 50 states; it would also strengthen voting protections in light of the Supreme Court’s recent Brnovich decision raising the standard for legal challenges voting restrictions. There’s also a chance Democrats could include election-administration funding in their coming budget reconciliation resolution. Democratic leaders had a big meeting with President Biden on Friday to plot all this out and presumably discuss ways to get around the filibuster.
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