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Observers of Maricopa County recount report procedural problems

On April 29, Maricopa County ballots cast in the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors working for the Florida-based company, Cyber Ninjas, who was hired by the Arizona State Senate at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix.
On April 29, Maricopa County ballots cast in the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors working for the Florida-based company, Cyber Ninjas, who was hired by the Arizona State Senate at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix.Rob Schumacher/Associated Press

Ballots have been left unattended on counting tables.

Laptop computers sit abandoned, at times open, unlocked, and unmonitored.

Procedures are constantly shifting, with untrained workers using different rules to count ballots.

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, on Wednesday sent a letter outlining a string of problems that she said observers from her office have witnessed at a Republican-led recount of the 2020 presidential election results in Arizona’s largest county.

In the six-page letter, Hobbs wrote that elections are “governed by a complex framework of laws and procedures designed to ensure accuracy, security, and transparency” but that the procedures governing the ongoing recount in Phoenix “ensure none of those things.”

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Former Arizona secretary of state Ken Bennett, a Republican who is acting as a spokesman for the audit, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But the audit’s Twitter account, @ArizonaAudit, tweeted that Hobbs’s allegations were "baseless claimes [sic]."

"The audit continues!" read the tweet.

The recount of Maricopa County’s nearly 2.1 million ballots was ordered by the GOP-led state Senate, despite the fact that county officials, as well as state and federal judges, found no merit to claims that the vote was tainted by fraud or other problems.

Republicans hired a Florida-based private contractor called Cyber Ninjas, whose chief executive has echoed former president Donald Trump’s false allegations of fraud, to handle the recount.

The company has been criticized for running an opaque process and not following state rules for elections and recounts. Its audit has been embraced by Trump and his allies as the key to overturning his election loss, and it has spawned a wave of unfounded theories about how the Maricopa vote could have been rigged.

Fueling the speculation has been the unorthodox practices of the contractors, who have been conducting physical examinations of the ballots, including inspecting their weight and thickness and examining folds on ballots under microscopes. At one point, workers were holding ballots up to ultraviolet lights.

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The purpose of such inspections has not been clear. Bennett at one point said the workers were hunting for watermarks — though county officials have said the Maricopa County ballots do not bear watermarks.

In her letter, Hobbs wrote that the paper analysis is “completely unnecessary” and does “little other than further marginalize the professionalism and intent of this ‘audit.’ "

In an interview Wednesday with a local CBS affiliate, John Brakey — an assistant to Bennett who has described himself as a Democrat who supported Senator Bernie Sanders, Independent from Vermont, in 2020 — said workers were looking for traces of bamboo.

Brakey cited unfounded accusations that 40,000 ballots were flown from Asia into Arizona. He added that he does not believe that theory.

"What they’re doing is to find out if there’s bamboo in the paper," he said, adding: "They’re doing all sorts of testing to prove if it was or wasn’t, and that’s very important, because the only way you’re going to persuade people on changing is having facts, and we’re on a mission for facts."

Bennett did not immediately respond to a question about whether workers are searching for traces of bamboo.

Independent observers had initially been barred from monitoring the recount, but they were allowed in after Hobbs and the Arizona Democratic Party filed a lawsuit against the audit, calling the process a violation of state law.

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Hobbs and the party agreed to settle that suit Wednesday.

As part of the settlement, the state Senate and Cyber Ninjas agreed in writing that they would maintain the confidentiality of voter information and the security of ballots and voting equipment, which they obtained from Maricopa County using a subpoena. They also agreed that they would continue to allow access for Hobbs’s observers, as well as the news media, which had inconsistent access to the audit.

Hobbs wrote in her letter Wednesday that she has concerns about the process, based both on what observers have seen and how Cyber Ninjas has described the process it is using.

She said it is not clear how the dozens of audit workers are going about determining voter intent to decide how they should count each ballot - a process that generally involves detailed guidelines and training for election workers.

Although each ballot is being tallied by three workers, she wrote that observers in some cases observed workers discussing how to count a ballot with one another or being instructed how to count it by a third worker - both violations of best practices.

Hobbs said observers also saw inconsistent treatment of ballots once they were unpacked from boxes, raising the possibility that counted and uncounted ballots could become intermingled.

She questioned whether procedures were in place to hire qualified, unbiased people to serve as ballot counters, noting that reporters have seen former state representative Anthony Kern, a Republican, among the ballot counters. Kern was on the November ballot and was photographed attending pro-Trump rallies in Washington on Jan. 6.

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Hobbs said the auditors were able to provide no information as to how they will go about adding up information from the tens of thousands of hand-completed tally sheets being produced by employees as they sift through ballots.

"This is not transparency," she wrote.

The Senate agreed to pay $150,000 for the audit, but funding has been supplemented by private donations being raised by Trump allies.