PHOENIX — After months of delays and blistering criticism, a review of the 2020 election in Arizona’s largest county, ordered up and financed by Republicans, has failed to produce any evidence that former President Donald Trump was cheated of victory, according to a draft version of the report.
In fact, the draft report from the company Cyber Ninjas found just the opposite: It tallied 99 additional votes for President Joe Biden and 261 fewer votes for Trump in Maricopa County, the fast-growing region that includes Phoenix.
The full review is set to be released on Friday, but a draft version circulating through Arizona political circles was obtained by The New York Times from a Republican and a Democrat.
Late on Thursday night, the Twitter account for Maricopa County, whose Republican leaders have derided the review, got a jump on the official release by tweeting out its conclusions.
“The county’s canvass of the 2020 General Election was accurate and the candidates certified as the winners did, in fact, win,” the county said on Twitter. It then criticized the review as “littered with errors and faulty conclusions.”
Biden won Arizona by roughly 10,500 votes, making Maricopa County crucial to his win. Under intense pressure from Trump loyalists, the Republican majority in the state Senate had ordered an autopsy of the county’s votes for president. The review was financed largely by $5.7 million in donations from far-right groups and Trump’s defenders.
The draft report implicitly acknowledged Biden’s victory, noting that there were “no substantial differences” between its tally of votes and the official count by Maricopa County election officials. But it also claimed that other factors — most if not all contested by reputable election experts — left the results “very close to the margin of error for the election.”
Among other alleged discrepancies, the report claimed that some ballots were cast by people who had moved before the election, that election-related computer files were missing and that some computer images of ballots were missing.
One expert and critic of the review who had seen a draft report of the findings called those red herrings.
“The whole report just reflects on the Ninjas’ lack of understanding of Arizona election law and election administration procedures,” said Benny White, a Republican in Tucson who is an adviser on election law and procedures. “And instead of sorting them out with election officials, they made claims that election officials don’t do things properly.”
It was not possible to determine whether the conclusions in the final version of the report being released on Friday would differ from those in the draft. White said he had been told that some Republican Senate officials were unhappy with its findings.
But if those findings stand, they would amount to a devastating disappointment for pro-Trump Republicans nationwide who have looked to the Arizona review to vindicate their belief that the presidency was stolen from him. For many loyalists, the investigation has been seen as the first in a string of state inquiries that would, dominolike, topple claims that Biden was legitimately in the White House.
State Sen. Wendy Rogers, a Republican who is among Arizona’s most ardent advocates of the stolen-election canard, underscored that faith in a single sentence posted Thursday on Twitter: “Tomorrow we make history.”
On Thursday night, without acknowledging the findings of the draft reports that had been rippling across Arizona for half a day, the former president said in a statement, “Everybody will be watching Arizona tomorrow to see what the highly respected auditors and Arizona State Senate found out regarding the so-called Election!”
Election experts said an inquiry run by Trump partisans that was granted unrestricted access to 2.1 million ballots and election equipment failed to make even a basic case that the November vote was badly flawed, much less rigged.
Critics said that would raise the bar for Republican politicians in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania who, under pressure from Trump and his supporters, have mounted their own Arizona-style investigations.
“If Trump and his supporters can’t prove it here, with a process they designed, they can’t prove it anywhere,” David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, said at a briefing on Thursday.
In fact, the Republican inquiry may not be completely over. Senate investigators still want to examine Maricopa County computer servers for evidence of tampering, even though county officials insist they have had no connection to election machinery.
In general, however, the report was a cap-gun ending to an inquiry whose backers hinted would turn up a cannonade of fraud.
Republicans in the state Senate pushed for the inquiry in December, spurred in part by a daylong meeting with Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
The Republican president of the state Senate, Karen Fann, insisted that the review was a nonpartisan effort to reassure voters that the election had been well run, but faith in that pledge ebbed after she chose Cyber Ninjas, a firm with no prior experience in elections, to oversee the inquiry.
The firm’s chief executive, Doug Logan, soon was shown to have suggested on Twitter that Biden’s victory in Arizona was illegitimate. Other firms and consultants hired for the inquiry also proved to have pro-Trump ties or were election conspiracy theorists. And periodic suggestions by them that the inquiry had uncovered blockbuster evidence of fraud were quickly and uniformly debunked.
While the report’s authors declared that their monthslong review of votes in Maricopa County represented the “most comprehensive and complex election audit ever conducted,” the hand count of 2.1 million ballots and a review of voting machines and systems was plagued from the start by missteps and accusations of incompetence and partisan influence.
Some elections officials said the draft review offered an unlikely vindication of what they have been insisting for months: that Arizona ran a transparent, credible election in November.
“The numbers match up,” said Adrian Fontes, who as county recorder oversaw the election in Maricopa County and is now a Democratic candidate for secretary of state.
Fontes said some critiques and concerns raised in the report, such as the potential for duplicate votes, reflected a lack of knowledge about how the county conducts elections. Fontes said his office had put systems into place that reconciled in real time voter lists with records of who has voted.
“They don’t understand the system,” Fontes said. “The report reveals to me their purposeful ignorance. They decided to go forward with all of this never familiarizing themselves with how the system works.”
While the top-line results are far from what many conservatives had hoped for, Republicans in the Arizona Legislature could in the next session seize on a host of recommendations in the report — based on the same faulty data and methodology — as both justification and a road map to enact more laws that restrict voting.
The report suggests, for instance, that the Legislature should consider whether a change of address would suspend a voter’s enrollment on the widely popular Permanent Early Voting List, which automatically sends ballots to some people who vote by mail. Roughly 75% of all voters in Arizona are on the list, and enacting such a change would inevitably remove thousands of voters, especially poorer and younger voters who tend to relocate more frequently.
This suggestion to further cull voters from the Permanent Early Voting List follows a law passed in May that removed voters from the list if they do not cast a ballot at least once every two years.
During the last legislative session, Republicans in Arizona had been prolific in drafting bills that would affect elections in the state, introducing 57 total bills, 32 of which would have added new restrictions to voting or shifted the balance of power in election administration, according to the Voting Rights Lab, a liberal-leaning voting rights group. Seven of those bills became law.
The report makes further legislative suggestions that would add more restrictions to voting. They include multiple ways to further purge voters from registration rolls, including if entries are not a “direct match” with government-issued identification. Voting rights groups note that strict direct match provisions can lead to erroneously removing legal voters from the rolls.
Further undermining the findings in the report are repeated allusions to common election conspiracy theories that have percolated among right-wing news sites and social media since the election.
The report takes an extended look at marker bleed-through on ballots, which was the source of a conspiracy known as #Sharpiegate that claimed ballots marked with a felt-tipped pen could not be read by machines in Arizona, and was thoroughly debunked. It also raises the prospect of fraudulent ballots being created and mailed, similar to a false claim by Trump that foreign countries would flood the 2020 election with fake ballots.
Election experts pointed to the corrosive effect of the decision to stage a partisan review of the election results, with copycat versions in other states and further eroding trust in democratic institutions.
“Those people stormed the Capitol because they believed the election was fraudulent when it was not,” said Matt A. Barreto, a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and faculty director of the Voting Rights Project. “And had we had leaders who just accepted the results and encouraged their team to try harder next time, we could have avoided that very ugly fiasco.”
Reputable election experts have said for months that the Senate review would be wrong if it concluded that Trump won the Maricopa County vote. In fact, the explanation for Trump’s loss was available in public records of individual ballots cast in November, White said.
White joined last month with two retired executives of Clear Ballot Group, an elections consulting firm, in a point-by-point report explaining what actually happened in November.
Their analysis of the choices on each ballot cast showed that Trump lost Arizona because 74,822 Republicans, including 59,800 in Maricopa County, were unhappy enough with the former president’s performance in office that they decided not to vote for him. Roughly two-thirds of those voters cast ballots for Biden, the analysis stated, and the remaining third either voted for another candidate, such as the Libertarian Party nominee, or did not vote for president.
The Republican who is now Maricopa County’s chief election officer, Stephen Richer, published a 38-page broadside last month in which he rebutted fraud claims and excoriated Republican politicians who have remained silent in the face of efforts to undermine the November results.
“More than any moral code, philosophical agenda, interest group, or even team red vs. team blue, many politicians will simply do whatever it takes to stay in office,” he wrote. “Right now, a lot of Republican politicians have their fingers in the wind and think that conforming to Stop the Steal, or at least staying quiet about it, is necessary for reelection in their ruby red districts or a statewide Republican primary. So that’s what they’ll do.”
“It’s disgusting,” he added.