Five takeaways from Arizona's audit results

The Arizona Senate on Friday heard testimony from the firm it hired to conduct a so-called audit of more than 2 million votes cast in Maricopa County during the 2020 elections, the latest in a cavalcade of election disinformation spread at the behest of former President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package Trump calls Milley a 'f---ing idiot' over Afghanistan withdrawal First rally for far-right French candidate Zemmour prompts protests, violence MORE.

The audit has cost Arizona taxpayers and private donors millions of dollars, and even some of the Republicans who voted to authorize it in the first place began to raise concerns over its handling by Cyber Ninjas, the firm at the heart of the audit.

“They wasted nearly $6 million to tell us what we already knew, meanwhile exacerbating an already unhealthy political environment,” state Sen. Paul Boyer (R), an audit opponent, told The Hill in a text message.

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Here are five takeaways from the report and the testimony delivered Friday before the state Senate, which underscored what were already the results of the election: President BidenJoe BidenChina eyes military base on Africa's Atlantic coast: report Biden orders flags be flown at half-staff through Dec. 9 to honor Dole Biden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package MORE won both Arizona and the Electoral College.

Maricopa’s count was correct 

The main event of the so-called audit was a hand recount of the roughly 2,089,000 ballots voters in Maricopa County cast in 2020. 

Those ballots broke for President Biden by a 45,000-vote margin, about four times his winning margin statewide, making him the first Democrat to carry Arizona since former President Clinton.

In the words of the auditors themselves: “[T]here were no substantial differences between the hand count of the ballots provided and the official canvass results for the County. This is an important finding because the paper ballots are the best evidence of voter intent and there is no reliable evidence that the paper ballots were altered to any material degree.”

In fact, the Cyber Ninjas-led team found Biden’s margin of victory in Maricopa County was 360 votes wider than the official canvass had been.

The count raises more questions about Cyber Ninjas than Maricopa

About that misleading statistic: The information Cyber Ninjas include in its report shows that human error was present in its hand count.

The Florida-based firm recounted ballots cast in both the race for president and the race for a U.S. Senate seat, in which Democrat Mark KellyMark KellyKoch Industries buys solar power company from GOP Senate candidate Conservative group targeting Kelly, Hassan, Cortez Masto in multi-million-dollar ad blitz No deal in sight as Congress nears debt limit deadline MORE ousted Republican Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyBusiness groups, sensing victory, keep up pressure over tax hikes Kelly raises million in third quarter Ruben Gallego is left's favorite to take on Sinema MORE. If everything went according to plan, the same number of ballots should have been counted in both elections — ballots cast for the Democratic candidate, ballots cast for the Republican candidate, ballots cast for any third-party candidates and ballots that either did not record a vote, recorded too many votes or recorded a write-in vote.

The Maricopa County canvass count reflects that reality: It recorded 2,089,563 votes cast in both the presidential contest and the Senate contest — including 21,419 non-votes or write-ins in the presidential contest and 40,964 non-votes or write-ins in the Senate contest.

But the Cyber Ninjas count is different. The hand recount, a multistep process that included manual data entry from volunteers who were not professionally trained by election administrators, found 2,088,569 votes in the presidential contest and 2,088,396 votes in the Senate race — a difference of 175 ballots.

It’s not a statistically massive difference, but it is a difference. In its first data point, Cyber Ninjas showed its count was marred by human error.

The report is full of made-for-TV misleading numbers

The Cyber Ninjas report includes several recommended areas that the firm suggests warrant further scrutiny, broken down by level of severity — critical, high, medium, low and unknown (or, in its term, “informational”).

The top priority — one that Trump seized on even before the final report came out — is mail-in ballots cast from a voter’s prior address. The Cyber Ninjas report suggests 23,344 ballots were cast by voters who no longer live at the address at which they are registered.

“Phantom voters!” Trump said in a context-free statement released Friday.

But election analysts and experts said that figure is meaningless without more context. Cyber Ninjas matched voters with commercial data, rather than official data maintained by county elections office. Those who cast ballots but now live in different areas may have moved since the election, or moved out of a parent’s house around Election Day. 

Just over 1 percent of voters who cast a ballot in the 2020 elections may have moved since — a figure well within the normal range of the share of people who change residences in a given year.

Garrett Archer, a former top aide in the Arizona secretary of state’s office who now reports for Phoenix’s ABC affiliate, told The Hill that the official data maintained by the county would have answered questions raised by the commercial data — but that Cyber Ninjas did not take that step.

“They didn’t go far enough,” Archer said.

Cyber Ninjas undercuts some of the most egregious conspiracy theories

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In the weeks after November’s election, a particularly bizarre conspiracy theory floated around Facebook and other social media networks: Arizona ballots cast with a Sharpie marker were allegedly disqualified. 

Those allegations were false, but it didn’t stop some Trump voters from claiming their votes had been disproportionately thrown out. 

In its report, Cyber Ninjas dedicates a 158-word paragraph to a description of how ink bleeding through paper might affect a ballot — but really, only the last eight words of that paragraph matter: “No images that were reviewed met these conditions.”

At the same time, some conspiracy theorists suggested that ballots had been imported from overseas. Inspectors spent days looking closely at the paper on which those ballots were printed, looking for evidence of impropriety — some suggested that ballots might have bamboo fibers, evidence of foreign interference.

Cyber Ninjas dedicates a section of its report to the paper on which ballots were printed. Its conclusion: Election administrators used different paper weights. Not a word about bamboo.

“The large number of papers utilized during this election and the lack of official reporting about what paper stocks were utilized made it difficult to identify any potential counterfeit ballots. Standardization on these details would more greatly facilitate future audits,” the report says.

The report won’t mollify election deniers

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Some Republicans seeking to align themselves with Trump raced to perpetuate the former president’s wrong claims despite the audit results.

In a statement released even before the official report was delivered, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich (R), who is running in a crowded Republican primary to face Kelly in next year’s elections, promised action.

“I will take all necessary actions that are supported by the evidence and where I have legal authority,” Brnovich said. “Arizonans deserve to have their votes accurately counted and protected.”

Brnovich, pointedly, did not cite any evidence offered by Cyber Ninjas.

“The purpose of this audit was to overturn the result of Arizona’s presidential election, prove fraud and expose flaws in our election system. The audit went 0-3,” said Mike Noble, a Phoenix-based pollster and political strategist. “Its one potential true impact is the lasting damage to our trust in our electoral process.”