The US Department of Justice has reviewed details that “raise concerns” about the integrity of the Republican-led audit in Maricopa County, telling the president of Arizona’s state senate that the effort may violate federal law.
The audit, taking place at a sports arena in Phoenix, is being conducted by a private firm, Cyber Ninjas, that has no experience in elections and is led by a man who promoted conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. The firm was chosen to lead the effort by state Sen. Karen Fann, over the objections of Maricopa County’s local Republican officials – and after two audits were already conducted last year.
President Joe Biden won the county by more than 45,000 votes.
In a May 5 letter to Sen. Fann, obtained by local news station KNXV’s Garrett Archer, the Department of Justice’s Pamela S. Karlan, principal deputy assistant attorney general with the Civil Rights Division, said Cyber Ninjas’ involvement may be illegal.
“Federal law creates a duty to safeguard and preserve federal election records,” Karlan wrote. The department is concerned that this is not happening in Maricopa County, where the records “are no longer under the ultimate control of elections officials, are not being adequately safeguarded by contractors, and are at risk of damage or loss.”
-The AZ – abc15 – Data Guru (@Garrett_Archer) May 6, 2021
The department’s second area of concern is Cyber Ninjas’ stated intent to “identify voter registrations that did not make sense, and then knock on doors to confirm if valid voters actually lived at the stated address.” This, Karlan wrote, “raises concerns regarding potential intimidation of voters,” which is prohibited by federal statutes.
The letter closes by asking for a response on what steps the Arizona Senate will take to ensure the audit does not break federal law. It comes the same day that one audit official told reporters he was attempting to find traces of “bamboo” on voters’ ballots to prove a conspiracy theory that they came from southeast Asia.
Sen. Fann did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
The Department of Justice’s letter comes about a week after a coalition of voting rights groups had requested such an intervention, as Insider reported.
In an interview last month, the head of the Arizona Democratic Party, state Rep. Raquel Terán, said that Cyber Ninjas was engaged in a “sham audit” intended to justify new restrictions on voting.
Local Democrats welcomed Wednesday’s intervention.
“We are glad that the DOJ is engaged and monitoring this sham,” Alex Alvarez, a party spokesperson, told Insider.
Voting rights groups are expressing grave concern over a Republican effort to “audit” the 2020 election in Arizona, pleading with the US Department of Justice to “deploy federal monitors” and safeguard some 2.1 million ballots in Maricopa County.
In an April 29 letter to the department’s Civil Rights Division, lawyers with Brennan Center for Justice, Protect Democracy, and The Leadership Conference allege that the audit that began last week is threatening the very right to vote.
Cyber Ninjas was selected by Arizona’s GOP-led state Senate despite not having any prior experience in elections. Its founder, Doug Logan, promoted “#StopTheSteal” conspiracy theories on his since-deleted Twitter account, suggesting he was selected not for his expertise but for his credibility with others who also believed former President Donald Trump’s debunked claims of widespread election fraud.
In their letter requesting federal intervention, the lawyers say they believe Arizona Republicans and Cyber Ninjas are breaking the law.
“Specifically,” they write, the parties “are violating their duty under federal law to retain and preserve ballots in federal elections, which are and have been in danger of being stolen, defaced, or irretrievably damaged.” They also allege that the parties are “preparing to engage in conduct which will constitute unlawful voter intimidation in violating of the Voting Rights Act and other federal laws.”
The Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Cyber Ninjas has thus far failed to divulge how exactly it plans to spot improprieties that were not detected in two previous audits by credible firms; in the first few days, its temp workers and partisan volunteers were seen holding up ballots to ultraviolet lights in an apparent effort to prove President Joe Biden’s victory in the county was the product of fraud.
That process placed ballots “in jeopardy of being irreparably damaged,” the lawyers said.
The company has also impeded access for legitimate journalists – CNN reported Thursday that its journalists had trouble getting in even as granting special access has been granted to the far-right One America News Network, which is live-streaming the spectacle.
Maricopa County’s Board of Supervisors, where Republicans hold a majority, certified Biden’s victory last fall and fought the state party’s efforts to hand ballots over to a pro-Trump third party.
Cyber Ninjas’ methods are at the heart of litigation brought by the Arizona Democratic Party, which demanded they be made public. A state court agreed and the company on Thursday released three documents outlining its security procedures.
The party’s chairman, state Rep. Raquel Terán, said in an interview with Insider earlier this week that the ballot counting is a “sham audit” intended to placate conspiracy theorists and justify new voting restrictions. The party is now reviewing the documents that were released.
Sen. Karen Fann, the Republican state Senate president who selected Cyber Ninjas, allocating it $150,000 to conduct the ballot count, has not responded to requests for comment.
It’s a “sham audit,” Raquel Terán, chair of the Arizona Democratic Party, says of the vote count underway this week in Maricopa County. Initiated by Republicans and led by a firm that has no prior experience handling ballots, the $150,000 in taxpayer is being used to perpetrate a fraud, she told Insider – “fomenting the big lie that the election was stolen.”
Last week, an Arizona judge agreed that there was something to Democrats’ arguments, ruling that Cyber Ninjas, the Florida-based company selected to lead a reexamination of the vote in Maricopa County, should hand over any documents describing its internal processes. Democrats also had a chance to suspend the process altogether, albeit at a cost: $1 million bond.
The problem, Terán said, is they did not have the money.
“It was beyond absurd for us that the bond was set so high,” Terán said. And Democrats had no confidence that Cyber Ninjas would come back with a fair and accurate reporting of the financial damages incurred by the order; ultimately, she said, the party decided it did not have a million dollars to lose.
Cyber Ninjas, meanwhile, decided it also did not want to lose its purported trade secrets: documents detailing how it plans to ensure the credibility of its audit process. It filed those documents with the court on Sunday, requesting that they be kept under seal and away from the prying eyes of the media.
The company also asked the judge who had ordered them to hand over documents to recuse himself, appearing to manufacture a conflict of interest over the weekend by hiring one of his former interns to join their legal team. A new judge, on Tuesday, will consider Democrats’ push to unseal those internal communications detailing security procedures and how it purports to know the difference between a valid and invalid ballot.
Cyber Ninjas did not respond to a voicemail requesting comment. But, Terán said, “it doesn’t seem like a coincidence to us.”
The Arizona GOP, for its part, has crowed over Democrats’ inability to come up the money to stop the audit. “We are restoring faith in our country and our elections,” the party states in a fundraising appeal.
A dubious process
From the start, Democrats and impartial observers alike have cried foul over Arizona’s selective audit of Maricopa County, which President Joe Biden last year won by more than 45,000 votes.
Last fall, the former president and his allies spread a host of quickly debunked claims of fraud in the county, which Donald Trump won in 2016. Perhaps the one that went most viral was “SharpieGate,” which alleged that Republicans in Maricopa County were being handed permanent markers at their polling stations, invalidating their ballots. In fact, permanent markers were the preferred writing utensil, as local Republicans confirmed at the time.
Another claim is that Democrats simply flooded the county with “fake” ballots. No evidence was ever presented – it was the same argument that Trump put forward after 2016 to justify his loss in the popular vote – and Maricopa County’s Republican elections officials unanimously voted to certify Biden’s win. (“In a free democracy, elections result in some people’s candidates losing,” one of them said at the time.)
But the claims of a stolen election persist, and Arizona Republicans are intent on placating the sentiment. Weeks after the January 6 insurrection, the state GOP won a legal battle over Maricopa County’s ballots, earning the right to check them again. State Sen. Karen Fann, the Republican president of Arizona’s state senate, then elected to outsource the process.
Enter Cyber Ninjas. It was not selected because of its experience auditing elections; it has none. What it does have is credibility – with Trump supporters. Doug Logan, the head of the company, is not impartial. As evidenced by a since-deleted Twitter account, he was convinced that the 2020 election was stolen long before he or his company ever examined a ballot, using his social media presence to promote the former president’s “#StopTheSteal” effort, the Arizona Mirror reported. (A former Arizona Secretary of State, Republican Ken Bennett, has been named the state Senate’s “liaison.”)
At the convention center in Phoenix, Logan has had temp workers and volunteers pour over some 2.1 million ballots using “ultra-violet lights to search for ballot watermarks and weed-out phony ballots,” according to One America News, the far-right media organization that was granted the exclusive right to stream the process.
Legitimate reporters, meanwhile, have complained of impeded access – and the potential for fraud in a process ostensibly intended to thwart it. Last Friday, a reporter at the Arizona Republic, Jen Fifield, noted the presence of blue pens inside the convention center that could be used to mark ballots and alter their reading in vote-processing machines; red pens – not any with dark ink – are the standard for auditors. She has not been allowed inside since.
Voting rights groups, including The Carter Center and the Brennan Center for Justice, have also decried what they see as a faux-audit in Arizona. In a letter to Sen. Fann, they accused Republicans of being “driven by politics rather than a search for the truth.” The Maricopa County results have already been audited, they noted: last year, by credible firms that have audited elections before. Another round, by a dubious firm, “will have little value other than to stoke conspiracy theories and partisan gamesmanship – or worse.”
Fann did not respond to Insider’s requests for comment.
For Arizona Democrats, the worst fear is not Republicans believing falsehoods about the 2020 election. “There are no amount of audits that are going to appease any of these individuals who believe in conspiracy theories,” Terán told Insider.
Rather, she said, it’s what those falsehoods could do to Democratic voters, in the form of new laws passed in the wake of whatever the Cyber Ninjas find when they are through searching next month. New ID requirements, for example, and efforts to remove people from mail-in ballot rolls if they either don’t vote or vote in person for two election cycles – all different means of what Terán terms “voter suppression.”
More wealthy Americans should be audited on a regular basis, Sen. Elizabeth Warren said Tuesday, telling Bloomberg she wants to double the IRS budget to do just that.
“The audit rate of the top one-tenth of 1% – the 100,000 families that would be affected – the audit rate will be 30%,” the Massachusetts Democrat said. “That means every three years, in effect.”
Warren made the case for more IRS auditors as part of her pitch for a 2-3% annual tax on the wealth of America’s ultra-rich. As Insider reported, her proposal calls for a $100 billion investment in IRS enforcement and a statutory requirement that no less than 3 in 10 people subject to the “ultra-millionaire tax,” on fortunes greater than $50 million, be audited each year.
Those worth more than $50 million would also be hit with a 40% “exit tax” should they try to evade the tax by renouncing their US citizenship.
As ProPublica has reported, the IRS has in recent years audited people earning less than $20,000 a year almost as often as those in the top 1%. In part, that’s because it’s easier to audit the poor: generally, they cannot afford lawyers and the savviest tax professionals.
Since 2010, the Associated Press noted, the IRS budget has also been slashed by some 20%, with nearly a third of its workforce expected to retire by the end of 2025.
As a result of that depletion, according to IRS data reviewed by ProPublica, millionaires were 80% less likely to be audited in 2018 than they were in 2011; just over 1.5% of the top 1% were audited at all.
Polling has suggested Warren’s wealth tax is broadly popular. First proposed when she was campaigning for president, in 2019 Fox News found that two-thirds of voters supported the idea.