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Arizona election audit draws Republican tourists

The hottest new destination for political tourists this summer is a barren and crumbling arena surrounded by an empty parking lot, where off-duty law enforcement officials providing security lounge under a flimsy plastic tent to escape the punishing sun and triple-digit heat radiating off the cracked asphalt.

Inside Phoenix Memorial Coliseum, a parade of Republican legislators from across the nation have come to observe an audit of the more than 2.1 million votes cast last year in Maricopa County, an examination ordered by the Republican-controlled Arizona state Senate.

On Friday, Arizona legislators hosted colleagues from Georgia, Utah, Michigan, Washington and Oklahoma. Legislators from Pennsylvania, Alaska, Nevada and Virginia have already stopped in town to observe. A team of Wisconsin legislators will visit Saturday.

"They just want to see the audit and see what we're doing, how we're doing it, what procedures we're using. They want to understand it, what the process is," said Randy Pullen, a former Arizona Republican Party chairman who is acting as a spokesman for the audit team. "Everybody who's seen the process has been pretty surprised about how totally secure it is."

The legislators watch volunteers clad in bright-colored T-shirts who sit before makeshift lazy Susans atop round card tables. Those in red, blue and green shirts are tabulating votes cast for president from a stack of ballots that whirl between them. Those in white and gray are inspecting the ballots themselves for signs that they have been shipped in from overseas - different conspiracy theories, none with a shred of evidence backing them up, hold different countries accountable for the fanciful allegations of widespread fraud.

The so-called audit is being overseen by Cyber Ninjas, a Florida-based cyber security company that has never audited an election before. Election administration experts, Democratic elected officials and the Republican Board of Supervisors in Maricopa County have objected to what they call a sham process marred by murkiness, procedural errors and security lapses that will cast a pall on whatever report eventually comes out.

Even some of the Arizona senators who initially backed the audit are rethinking their votes. State Sen. Paul Boyer (R) criticized the partisan nature of an audit team that has actively sought help recruiting volunteers from Republican party organizations throughout the state.

"By definition, an auditor is independent. And they're not independent," Boyer said in an interview with The Hill last month. "It makes me embarrassed to be a state senator at this point."

In spite of the objections, Arizona's Republican senators have hosted regular delegations of legislators from other states. Some of those legislators are backing audits of elections President Biden won in 2020, raising concerns that Republicans will continue to embrace former President Trump's big lie that the election was marred by widespread fraud and abuse despite evidence to the contrary.

"This isn't about a fringe part of their party. It's just become their party," said Heather Williams, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. "It has truly become a part of their agenda."

Trump has enthusiastically cheered on the Arizona audit, citing it as a model for other states. After three Pennsylvania Republicans visited Phoenix last week, Trump issued a statement through his political action committee urging Pennsylvania Senate President Jake Corman (R) to conduct "a full Forensic Audit [sic.]"

"The people of Pennsylvania and America deserve to know the truth. If the Pennsylvania Senate leadership doesn't act, there is no way they will ever get re-elected!" Trump wrote.

Biden won Pennsylvania by more than 70,000 votes in 2020, a bigger margin of victory than the 44,000 votes by which Trump won in 2016.

Arizona Republicans have offered varying answers about what they expect to come from the audit. State Senate President Karen Fann (R) has said she does not expect the audit to overturn President Biden's 10,000-vote win in Arizona last year - but at the same time she has implied that the audit is part of the Senate's effort "pushing to prove any fraud."

The Republicans who are visiting Arizona say their mission is to learn from the audit, and to bring those lessons back to their states. In a letter requesting permission to make the trip, Wisconsin state Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R) said she hoped to learn lessons she could bring back to her state.

"The point of the trip is to observe a large-scale recounting process using volunteers and contracted vendors to determine ballot integrity and possible reconstruction of the Dominion machine programming," Brandtjen wrote to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R). "I believe such a large-scale recount may prove insightful as it was for members of the Pennsylvania and Georgia legislature have also seen this process."

Vos approved the trip, though two of the six legislators initially scheduled to travel to Arizona told The Hill they had other commitments that would keep them in Wisconsin.

One who will attend, state Rep. Dave Murphy (R), said he wanted to observe methods of investigating the results of the 2020 elections.

"My duty as a legislator is to ensure Wisconsin laws are the best possible to provide for fair and transparent elections. I've heard from tens of thousands of people that they have lost faith in our elections," he told The Hill in an email. "It's critical that we do everything possible to restore the public's faith in the electoral process."

President Biden carried Wisconsin by 20,682 votes in November, a margin only slightly smaller than the 22,748 votes by which Trump won the state in 2016. Biden won more votes in Wisconsin than any presidential candidate other than Barack Obama in 2008.

Several of the political tourists who have tramped through the coliseum also attended Trump's Stop the Steal rally outside the White House on Jan. 6, and were later present at the attack on the Capitol later that day. 

Virginia Sen. Amanda Chase (R), Pennsylvania Sen. Doug Mastriano (R), Georgia Rep. Vernon Jones (R), Alaska Rep. David Eastman (R) and Colorado Rep. Ron Hanks (R), all of whom were present at the rally and all but one of whom were photographed at or said later they marched to the Capitol, have toured the Arizona audit.

Two others who traveled to Washington for the Jan. 6 rally that led to the insurrection have played a more hands-on role in the Arizona audit. State Rep. Mark Finchem (R), who is running for secretary of state, has become a regular spokesman on behalf of the audit, appearing regularly on far-right networks like OANN and Newsmax. Former state Rep. Anthony Kern (R), who lost his bid for reelection in November, has been photographed participating in the audit himself. Both Finchem and Kern were photographed at the Capitol in the midst of the Trump-fueled riot.

The audit, and the prospect that other states will mirror Arizona's post-election actions, is worrying to Democrats who see an ongoing effort to undermine the integrity of Biden's victory in the name of restoring faith in the electoral process that Republicans themselves have spent months denigrating.

"There is an honest and true threat to our democracy and it is happening now inside our state houses," Williams said. "The insurrection isn't over. It wasn't a one time event. It's still very real and very present."

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