The Arizona "audit" results could come out soon. The damage is already done.
The audit quickly devolved into conspiracy central, threatening to destabilize democratic elections and lobbing harassment at people who run them.
The results of the Arizona Senate’s audit, promised to be released this week from an ill-experienced team that has blown deadline after deadline, scarcely matter anymore.
The damage from the audit has already been done, and the precedent it set will reverberate for years.
True believers and grifters with no election auditing experience convinced the Arizona Senate to put them in charge of an aimless expedition for fraud that left real election experts playing a game of conspiracy whack-a-mole. Election workers and politicians suffered harassment because of absurd claims about bamboo ballots and chicken-coop fires. Republican lawmakers changed laws to “fix” the “problems.” Sportsmanship is gone, replaced by political gamesmanship.
Elections may never be the same.
When the audit began, Arizona Senate President Karen Fann framed it as a way to look into and debunk fraud myths. Fann and her team of Cyber Ninjas instead fed half-truths and misleading, misunderstood information to the public and became a magnet for people across the country dissatisfied with an election loss.
The results will not change minds. They will satisfy no one.
“Everybody's already determined that either the election was done properly, or it was rigged,” Shane Wikfors, a Republican and former political consultant who believes his party has gone too far, said. “And I don't know how to convince the folks who feel the election was rigged to believe otherwise.”
The people who run elections spend their days figuring out how to inform the public better about how processes work, hoping to head off a redo of the disaster happening in Maricopa County -- all while they’re stuck addressing complaints based on fiction and misunderstanding.
Elections experts worry the audit, and its potential proliferation to other counties and states, will destabilize democracy as we know it.
“We know that these folks are writing the playbook in Arizona. And so we have to be writing the playbook to stop it,” said Katie Hobbs, the Arizona Secretary of State and a Democratic candidate for governor.
Maricopa County became “ground zero” for these efforts, said Ralph Neas, the special counsel on voting rights for The Century Foundation who has written extensively about the bigger picture of Arizona’s audit.
And the county’s central role in the conspiracy is undeserved, according to Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, a Republican elected in the same election that he’s now being attacked for defending.
“One of the frustrations with this whole process is, you have not given us any cognizable reason why Arizona, and then you haven't given us any cognizable reason why Maricopa County as opposed to any of the other counties,” Richer said.
The reason, really, boils down to taking the bait. Pressure campaigns lit up in every battleground state after former President Donald Trump lost. Arizona’s Republican lawmakers gave in to the pressure.
At first, top Republican elected officials in the state defended the state’s election. Attorney General Mark Brnovich dispelled the Sharpie rumor, and Gov. Doug Ducey signed off on the election results, even while Trump was calling. But they’ve been largely silent on the audit.
It has little to do with the 2020 election
Audit-curious elected officials from other states visited Arizona, liked what they saw and wanted to start something similar back home. They haven’t yet been able to convince their states to follow Arizona’s lead. Whether their desires become reality affects how far the 2020 web will reach.
“It doesn't have much to do, if anything at all, with 2020. It's all about 2022 and 2024. They want to build on Maricopa,” Neas said.
Neas sees the audit as part of a coordinated effort by the right to undermine elections, restrict voting rights and rally the base heading into the next elections.
“It is ginning up a certain part of the base to lose confidence and try to get others to lose confidence in the electoral system, not just Maricopa County and in Arizona, but all across the country,” Neas said.
“What’s more disturbing to me is when the parties now start to see that this is a way for them to exploit the situation to raise money and to invite all kinds of characters in, we've called them grifters, to come in and take advantage of the situation,” Wikfors said.
There’s now a precedent that a candidate who lost an election can rally their allies in the legislature and call for an audit, set their own rules, lock out the public and extend it for months on end. All the while promoting disinformation and asking for money.
It might not happen each cycle; eventually, fatigue would set in, Richer said. But because the Maricopa County audit was premised on dissatisfaction with results instead of identifiable issues that could be investigated, it leaves room for sore losers to ask for their own.
“Surely there will be dissatisfied candidates in future elections who would say, I want to have the same thing for mine,” Richer said.
This might not be rock bottom. It might just be the beginning.
For elections workers, a flood of harassment and worries about what comes next
Across Arizona, people who run elections are watching the audit and post-2020 legislative efforts to restrict voting access closely. They see it as their job to maintain confidence in elections and tell the public how everything works.
In the past year, election disinformation spread far and wide. In Cochise County, elections director Lisa Marra got a phone call from a voter claiming they’d been deprived of the right to vote because they were forced to use a Sharpie, an offshoot of voters in the Phoenix area claiming the same.
“I was like, stop lying. Because we have all electronic voting machines (on Election Day). There are no pre-printed paper ballots. Everybody who votes on Election Day has to vote on a machine,” Marra said.
Since taking office, Richer has faced all manner of barbs, largely from people in his own party, for defending Maricopa County’s elections.
He recently received an orange jumpsuit in the mail, accompanied with a letter calling him guilty in the court of public opinion. The five members of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors received the same.
“Enclosed in the box are your first set of orange jumpsuits, one for each of you. Get use (sic) to it as your (sic) headed for more trouble in your lives. I hope you have a relationship with Jesus Christ, will repent and ask him for forgiveness,” the sender wrote.
Because of the harassment and threats, Marra said her colleagues across the country are leaving their posts. And it’s left her wondering who will be left to count the ballots.
“Who counts the ballots matters, and if good, fair, honest people don't do it, so that we for sure have secure, safe, accurate elections, that's kind of scary,” she said.
Election officials’ concerns extend beyond the conspiracies and the audit into the onslaught of election bills the Arizona Legislature considered this year, each of which required elections officials’ time-consuming analysis.
In Pima County, Recorder Gabriella Cázares-Kelly, a Democrat, started getting phone calls within five minutes after Gov. Doug Ducey appeared on TV announcing he signed Senate Bill 1485, which will remove voters from the Permanent Early Voting List if they haven’t voted in at least one of the last four elections. Voters wondered if they’d be booted from the PEVL, a mainstay in Arizona elections for three decades and the method by which the vast majority of voters in all parties use.
While keeping an eye on legislative action, elections officials ramped up their communication with the public in the wake of the flood of questions.
“We're having to be very proactive about it, as opposed to defensive, about being transparent about our elections process,” Cázares-Kelly said.
Election workers are holding open houses and Facebook Lives, publishing information to transparently share how election processes work, signing up new voters, training people who work at the polls, answering phone calls and dispelling myths.
They did all of that in 2020 while adapting to a global pandemic, though, and it didn’t work for a vocal contingent of Republican voters.
“I think the best thing that we can do is continue to tell the truth about the 2020 election and continue to provide that level of transparency heading into 2022,” Hobbs said.
Richer plans to start working on the stuff he ran for office to do — sharing how the process works, making videos and giving tours to the public. He’s been stuck debating the past so far, but sees the heightened interest in elections as an opportunity. People are far more interested now.
“The more information that we share, hopefully, the more confidence that people will have in the system,” he said.
Where do we go from here?
But all the proactive communication from elections officials may not be enough to overcome the destruction of norms advanced by right-wing conspiracists.
Neas has spent 50 years working on civil rights and democracy issues and calls this “one of the most dangerous situations” he’s ever seen.
“Hopefully, it will be stopped in its tracks in Maricopa County,” he said.
It takes everyone to stop the spread of Stop the Steal’s disinformation campaign, Neas said: Congress, civic organizations, religious groups, businesses, academic institutions, philanthropists.
Pro-audit activists ask Richer why he would oppose a witch hunt in the form of an audit if he isn’t a witch. But he’s seen real harm from false narratives, repeated even after proven false (the lie that 74,000 ballots were received that weren’t sent out, for instance) that show witch hunts are good for exactly no one.
Witch hunts lead to threatening mail containing a mock prison jumpsuit. They lead to honest elections officials exiting the business. They undermine our belief in fair elections.
Richer doesn’t worry much about whether most vocal proponents of the audit will give up on voting — many of them are highly engaged in the political process. They hold office or work as precinct committeemen, a testament to their faith in elections. Instead, he worries about people who are less engaged who may decide their votes don’t matter anymore or that the system is rigged.
“If it’s not a low point, I shudder to think what’s next,” he said.