PHOENIX — What former president Donald Trump seems to think is his best hope to unravel the 2020 election looks a lot like an outsize board game — a game with few apparent rules and no clear endpoint.
On a recent day on the floor of a sports arena with a roof shaped like a Pringle, there were four teams of ballot-counters clad in cartoonish colors: banana yellow, Gumby green, Cookie Monster blue, and Elmo red. They were clustered in groups of three around big round tables, each outfitted with a lazy Susan that matched their T-shirts and whirled ballots past their eyes, as if on a carousel.
”Product coming in, product coming out,” said one official who would not give his name, as he pointed to the stacks of cardboard boxes of ballots — all sealed shut with tape that matched the team colors — that lined either side of the stadium floor.
“Data in the black box,” he added, pointing to a black monolith of a server in the center of the floor, with blue cords spilling out like silly string that presumably tracks the results of the ballot review.
This is the scene at the election audit ordered by the Arizona Senate of Maricopa County, the fourth-biggest county in the country, where 2.1 million ballots were cast and where Trump, to his disbelief and fury, lost to Joe Biden by a margin of 45,109 votes. Conducted not by the state’s elections officials but by a Florida-based company called Cyber Ninjas, it is widely seen as a fever dream of an effort to expose and root out the imagined voter fraud that Trump and his backers have railed about since Election Day, locking a large swath of the country in an endless cycle of relitigating the 2020 vote.
It’s easy to dismiss this as a sideshow, a weird epilogue to an election that some Trump supporters still aren’t ready to concede. But democracy experts and election administrators warn that the audit here speaks to a dark and worrisome current of distrust that has been intentionally stoked by GOP leaders. It’s a carefully cultivated atmosphere of paranoia that is eroding confidence in the country’s bedrock political processes and could lay the groundwork for fiercer challenges by losers in elections in 2024 and beyond.
”This process is undermining not just elections in Arizona, but democratic self-governance,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research. “My primary concern is that we will find ourselves in a perpetual state of half the state or the county or the country denying that those legitimately elected by the voters have the power to govern.”
Rejected by the courts and proven wrong by recounts, Trump supporters are telling themselves Arizona will be the first “domino” to fall in a series of election “investigations” that will overturn the 2020 election result — which President Biden won decisively. Trump, who has sent out statements encouraging “forensic audits” in Georgia, New Hampshire, and Arizona, has reportedly told friends he believes he will be “reinstated” to the Oval Office this summer. And while that idea seems pure delusion, the ripple effects from the audit here are already obvious as state lawmakers and other Republican officials from Pennsylvania, Georgia, Alaska, and elsewhere make their way to Phoenix and carry strands of the conspiracy theory back to their supporters at home.
”I gotta tell you, I’m impressed,” said state Senator Doug Mastriano of Pennsylvania, in an interview with the far-right blog The Gateway Pundit, after touring the Arizona site last week and before he held a rally at his own state Capitol calling for an audit there. “This is a model for any audit in any nation or the world.”
Pennsylvania has no plans to exhume the ballots of the November election, in which Biden beat Trump in the Quaker State by 80,555 votes. But Republicans are pushing efforts to reexamine the election results in several other states, a process that keeps a baseless narrative about election fraud alive, benefiting the former president.
In Wisconsin, the conservative speaker of the state House has hired three former law enforcement officers and an attorney to investigate tips about the last election, although the state’s professional election administrators completed their work months ago. Trump himself has seized on an audit of a local race in New Hampshire to make fantastical claims about broader election fraud. His supporters are trying to organize a push for an audit in Michigan, while election doubters have successfully sued for a “forensic audit” in Fulton County, Ga., although that case is currently tied up in court.
“If you’re against an audit, you’re part of the corruption,” said Garland Favorito, a prominent Georgia conspiracy theorist and a plaintiff in that case, after he visited the audit in Arizona. He spoke during a fawning interview on the right-wing news outlet One America News Network, which has taken to referring to the Maricopa spectacle as “America’s audit.”
The audit here is the latest example of how Trump-supporting Republicans have weaponized basic election machinery to pursue a fake narrative about the last election — and how much power that narrative has on the ground.
While most congressional Republicans have acknowledged that Biden is in fact president, oblique references to ”irregularities” in the voting processes pushed by the likes of House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik give way to a full embrace of conspiracy theories by state parties and local activists who are backing sham audits or even running for office themselves on a platform of finding fraud. One of Trump’s most visible allies, former national security adviser Michel Flynn, has suggested the US needs a coup, and one recent poll found nearly 30 percent of Trump supporters believe he will be “reinstated” as president this year.
Typically, audits are a standard fixture of electoral bureaucracy immediately after the vote, a dull process carried out by civil servants that barely draws any notice. In Georgia, the November ballots were audited before the election was certified. But the audit at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix is something different. It began at the behest of the Republican-controlled state Senate, which subpoenaed 2.1 million ballots from Maricopa County over the adamant objections of the Republicans who run the Board of Supervisors there, and handed them over to Cyber Ninjas, a company with no reputation for conducting election audits and whose founder has openly questioned the election. The Senate has covered a small part of the cost, but a review by the Guardian newspaper and OpenSecrets, a group that tracks money in politics, found much of the effort is being paid for by undisclosed donors, some with connections to Trump.
“I have the full support of him and a personal call from President Trump thanking us for pushing to prove any fraud,” wrote Senate President Karen Fann in an e-mail released earlier this month, according to the Arizona Republic. In another e-mail, the paper reported, she acknowledged Biden won and said the audit was to disprove people’s suspicions about the election system, or to find ways to improve it.
Seasoned observers of audits and experienced elections officials say that what is happening at the coliseum, where a sign for the WNBA basketball team the Mercury says “Mad House is our house,” can barely be called an audit. In addition to the ballot-counters, there are long tables where people in gray T-shirts examine ballots under a camera; the security presence includes the Arizona Rangers, a civilian auxiliary force with no real law enforcement power.
To critics, the goal of the exercise does not appear to include finding out who people voted for in 2020.
The ballot counting is winding down, but ballots are still being examined. Officials with the audit did not respond to e-mailed questions about when a final report might be released. While the audit report would do nothing to change the outcome of the 2020 election, there are concerns that its release could further fan the flames of anger among Trump supporters over his loss, which already sparked a violent attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6.
“With their lack of procedures and inconsistencies, and just everything they’re doing, they’re creating an atmosphere that’s prime for cooking the books, which we are fully sure that that’s what they intend to do,” said Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, who has defended the security of the state’s 2020 vote and is now running for governor.
“I don’t know if I can emphasize enough how much there’s a bloc of voters in our state, and from around the country, who actually believe that I stole the election, which equates to committing treason,” Hobbs added. “It’s very dangerous.”
Outside the stadium, in a parking lot baking in 108-degree heat, a group of demonstrators cheered on volunteers as they drove in to count the votes and unfurled a banner that called for Hobbs and the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors to be jailed.
“It’ll show that he won Arizona probably in a landslide,” said Kelly Johnson, a 60-year-old lawyer with a revolver on his hip who had traveled here from Southern California. “We also believe that Trump won California, and won big.”
Larry Grafanakis, a Glendale resident who recently showed up outside the federal courthouse in Phoenix to support the so-called QAnon Shaman who was arrested after he broke into the Capitol during the failed insurrection on Jan. 6, arrived at the demonstration with three granola bars and a couple of Trump flags.
“I just came from inside actually, counting the votes,” said Grafanakis, who said he had been trained for a couple of hours and had come six or seven times to help count. “If they don’t add up, then we do it again sometimes.”
“This is important for the world,” he said, as some of his fellow demonstrators became agitated by the presence of this reporter, whom they asked to leave.
Just down the block, a graffitied message on a sign showed what the state’s entire election apparatus has already proven. “TRUMP LOST,” it said, with a sad face.
Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.