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Arizona secretary of state slams 'highly partisan,' 'fringe' election audit

PHOENIX — Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D) is raising new concerns about the way auditors hired by the Republican-controlled state Senate have handled more than 2.1 million ballots from the 2020 election that sat for more than a week in hot and humid trailers waiting to be counted.

The auditors, overseen by a Florida firm that has no experience auditing elections, earlier this month left ballots cast in November in Maricopa County in a trailer outside Phoenix Memorial Coliseum, a few blocks from the state capital, after their count took longer than expected.  

Temperatures neared 100 degrees in Phoenix last week as auditors paused the count to allow previously scheduled high school graduation ceremonies to take place in the building. 

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“Where the ballots were being stored, it was not a facility that was suitable for storage, because everything was exposed to heat and also humidity because of the method of cooling in the building,” Hobbs said in an interview Monday, as auditors resumed their process. “Any time you’re doing any process like this, the idea of having to start and stop, that interruption, we were already concerned that there were a lot of procedures that were changing and errors that were happening, and I think this increases the chance for those errors.”

Randy Pullen, a former chairman of the Arizona Republican Party who is handling media requests for the audit team, said storing ballots in trailers had been the team’s plan from the beginning.

“The reason we had them in the trailers was because they had really good air conditioning in there,” Pullen said. “It’s water-cooled air conditioning, so that puts a little more humidity in the air than normal. But it wasn’t a lot of humidity, we were checking it.” 

President BidenJoe BidenBaltimore police chief calls for more 'boots on the ground' to handle crime wave Biden to deliver remarks at Sen. John Warner's funeral Garland dismisses broad review of politicization of DOJ under Trump MORE won Maricopa County by about 45,000 votes, and Arizona by just over 10,000 ballots.

But the Republican-controlled state Senate opened the audit after pressure from former President TrumpDonald TrumpGuardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa wins GOP primary in NYC mayor's race Garland dismisses broad review of politicization of DOJ under Trump Schumer vows next steps after 'ridiculous,' 'awful' GOP election bill filibuster MORE, who continues to spread unproven and disproven conspiracy theories about the election’s integrity. 

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Auditors have counted about 500,000 ballots so far, just under a quarter of the total cast in Maricopa County last year. They hope to complete the count by the end of June, when their rental term on the coliseum ends.

“I’m pretty confident we’ll easily be done by the end of the month. We’ll know a little bit more by the end of this week because we’ve been ramping up,” Pullen said. “There’s more volunteers coming. We got all of that worked out last week in terms of improving the system, doing the background checks.”

Pullen said auditors had more volunteers counting ballots on Monday, when the count resumed, than on any previous day.

“They don’t know what they’re doing and they didn’t have a clue how long it was going to take them to do this,” Hobbs said. “They’re not following best practices. In fact they’re doing a lot of things that make no sense if you’re trying to get a valid result.”

Observers have raised concerns over the process the auditors are following, after both the secretary’s office and the Republican-controlled county Board of Supervisors went to court to force the auditors to disclose their procedures. Volunteers and paid staff are racing through ballots, raising the potential for human error.

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“There’s really nothing going on here that gives any confidence that they’re going to produce a report that is valid. They’re not going to produce results that are going to be able to be replicated,” Hobbs said. “Their goal here is to continue to disrupt, to undermine voter confidence in our processes, and that’s going to have an impact on future elections in terms of voter confidence, and that tends to reduce voter turnout.” 

The state Senate approved the audit on a party-line vote, authorizing $150,000 to cover costs. The cost has ballooned well past that mark, and auditors are now relying on donations to a nonprofit organization set up by Patrick Byrne, a former chief executive of the online retailer Overstock and an avid Trump supporter.

It will be at least a year before that nonprofit group has to disclose the money it raised and spent to the Internal Revenue Service.

“We’ll never know how much was paid, who it went to and who was paying for it,” Hobbs said. 

“There is independent fundraising going on, paying for the audit services. There are [501]c3s and [501]c4s that are donating money,” Pullen said. Pullen is the treasurer of one of those groups, which is raising money specifically to hire off-duty law enforcement officers to provide round-the-clock security. 

As money ran low, auditors increasingly turned to volunteers recruited through county Republican Party organizations. The Arizona Republic reported that a top assistant to Ken Bennett, the former Republican secretary of state who is now acting as the liaison between the state Senate and the audit team, emailed more than two dozen state and county Republican Party officials in search of new volunteers to help with the count. 

The audit team has not included any Democratic representatives among the counters, though Pullen said the audit team had sent an email to the state Democratic Party seeking help.

“If they were conducting a real audit, there would be willingness for bipartisan participation, but they’re not. Now that they’re blatantly recruiting partisans, there’s no confidence in this at all. It is not independent, it is completely biased, being run by people who have already said that Donald Trump won Arizona with no evidence to back that up,” Hobbs said. “These are folks with a highly partisan agenda who aren’t based in reality.”