Untrained citizens are trying to find traces of bamboo on last year’s ballots, seemingly trying to prove a conspiracy theory that the election was tainted by fake votes from Asia. Thousands of ballots are left unattended and unsecured. People with open partisan bias, including a man who was photographed on the Capitol steps during the Jan. 6 riot, are doing the recounting.
All of these issues with the Republican-backed re-examination of the November election results from Arizona’s most populous county were laid out this week by Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s Democratic secretary of state, in a scathing six-page letter.
Ms. Hobbs, called the process “a significant departure from standard best practices.”
“Though conspiracy theorists are undoubtedly cheering on these types of inspections — and perhaps providing financial support because of their use — they do little other than further marginalize the professionalism and intent of this ‘audit,’” she wrote to Ken Bennett, a former Republican secretary of state and the liaison between Republicans in the State Senate and the company conducting it.
The effort has no official standing and will not change the state’s vote, whatever it finds. But it has become so troubled that the Department of Justice also expressed concerns this week in a letter saying that it might violate federal laws.
“We have a concern that Maricopa County election records, which are required by federal law to be retained and preserved, 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,” wrote Pamela Karlan, the principal deputy assistant attorney general with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
The scene playing out in Arizona is perhaps the most off-the-rails episode in the Republican Party’s escalating effort to support former President Donald J. Trump’s lie that he won the election. Four months after Congress certified the results of the presidential election, local officials around the country are continuing to provide oxygen for Mr. Trump’s obsession that he beat Joseph R. Biden Jr. last fall.
In Arizona, the review is proving to be every bit as problematic as skeptics had imagined.
Last month, the Arizona Republic editorial board called for the state’s G.O.P. Senate majority to stop “abusing its authority.”
“Republicans in the Arizona Legislature have set aside dollars, hired consultants, procured the hardware and software to conduct what they call ‘an audit’ of the 2020 presidential election in Maricopa County,” the editorial said. “What they don’t have is the moral authority to make it credible.”
Republican state senators ordered a review of the election in Maricopa County, whose 2.1 million ballots accounted for two-thirds of the entire vote statewide, in December, after some supporters of Mr. Trump refused to accept his 10,457-vote loss in Arizona. Democrats had flipped the county, giving Mr. Biden more than enough votes to ensure his victory statewide.
The senators later assigned oversight of the effort to a Florida-based company, Cyber Ninjas, whose chief executive had publicly embraced conspiracy theories claiming that voting machines had been rigged to deliver the state to Mr. Biden. Since then, supporters of Mr. Trump’s stolen-election story line have been given broad access to the site of the review, while election experts, the press and independent observers have struggled to gain access, sometimes resorting to going to court.
In one much-noted instance, Anthony Kern, a former state representative photographed on the Capitol steps on the day of the insurrection — and who was on the Maricopa ballot both as a legislative candidate and as a presidential elector — was hired to help recount ballots.
Among other concerns, Ms. Hobbs’s letter contended that stacks of ballots were not properly protected and that there was no apparent procedure for preventing the commingling of tallied and untallied ballots.
The security violations spotted by observers, the letter stated, included ballots left unattended on tables and ballots counted using scrap paper instead of official tally sheets. Counters receive “on the fly” training. Ballots from separate stacks are mixed together. Software problems cause ballot images to get lost.
The letter also noted that some aspects of the process “appear better suited for chasing conspiracy theories than as a part of a professional audit.”
For instance, some ballots are receiving microscope and ultraviolet-light examinations, apparently to address unfounded claims that fraudulent ballots contained watermarks that were visible under UV light — or that thousands of fraudulent ballots were flown in from Southeast Asia using paper with bamboo fibers.
John Brakey, an official helping supervise the effort, said high-powered microscopes were being used to search for evidence of fake ballots, according to a video interview with the CBS News affiliate in Phoenix.
“There’s accusations that 40,000 ballots were flown in, to Arizona, and it was stuffed into the box,” he said in a taped interview. “And it came from the southeast part of the world, Asia, OK. And what they’re doing is to find out if there’s bamboo in the paper.”
“I don’t believe any of that,” he added. “I’m just saying it’s part of the mystery that we want to un-gaslight people about.”
Republicans in the Senate signed a contract agreeing to pay $150,000 for the vote review, a figure that many said then would not cover its cost. A variety of outside groups later started fund-raisers to offset extra expenses, including the right-wing One America News cable channel and an Arizona state representative, Mark Finchem, who argues the election was stolen. How much in outside donations has been collected — and who the donors are — is unclear.
The letter from the secretary of state also said that equipment and software being used to display images of ballots had not been tested by a federal laboratory or certified by the federal Election Assistance Commission, as state law requires. That left open the possibility, the letter said, that the systems could have been preloaded with false images of ballots or that the software had been designed to manipulate ballot images — concerns similar to those that believers in a stolen election had themselves raised.
Ms. Hobbs also said the procedures for checking the accuracy of the effort included no “reliable process for ensuring consistency and resolving discrepancies” among the three separate counts of ballots.
It also appeared that the task of entering recount results into an electronic spreadsheet was performed by a single person rather than a team of people from both political parties, the letter stated.
Mr. Bennett, the liaison between Republicans in the State Senate and the company conducting the vote review, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But Ms. Hobbs concluded her letter to him by saying, “you know that our elections are governed by a complex framework of laws and procedures designed to ensure accuracy, security, and transparency. You also must therefore know that the procedures governing this audit ensure none of those things.
“I’m not sure what compelled you to oversee this audit, but I’d like to assume you took this role with the best of intentions. It is those intentions I appeal to now: either do it right, or don’t do it at all.”