Last Monday night, a hearing took place in Maricopa County, Arizona over eye-popping accusations conveyed by Arizona Senate President Karen Fann from the "Cyber Ninjas" firm and its partners, which are conducting what purports to be an audit of the Maricopa County votes in 2020. It didn't go well for the Fann or the Ninjas.
The battle over a "deleted database" claim played out first over social media, doing widespread damage and fueling conspiracy theories and disinformation before it could be debunked.
After receiving the claim from the GOP's "auditors," Fann rushed to publish a letter claiming that "the main database for all election related data" for the 2020 election "has been removed," and demanding the board provide an explanation. Right-wing media such as Breitbart amplified the letter to its readers. The Twitter account for the GOP's audit went wide with the same claim, tweeting, "Maricopa County deleted a directory full of election databases from the 2020 election cycle days before the election equipment was delivered to the audit. This is spoliation of evidence!"
Former president Trump also picked up on this baseless claim and blasted out a false statement, which his followers then shared everywhere. "The entire Database of Maricopa County in Arizona has been DELETED! This is illegal and the Arizona State Senate, who is leading the Forensic Audit, is up in arms."
The claim was found so preposterous by the Republican Recorder of Maricopa County, Stephen Richer, that he went public with his exasperation
"Wow. This is unhinged. I'm literally looking at our voter registration database on my other screen. Right now. We can't indulge these insane lies any longer. As a party. As a state. As a country. This is as readily falsifiable as 2+2=5."
Richer and the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, which comprises four Republicans and one Democrat, issued a scathing statement criticizing the public release of Fann's letter and the Audit account's tweet about spoliation before anyone from the County had even had a chance to respond.
The 14-page response also walked through a series of errors that the auditors had made, including not properly reconstructing the storage arrays of the database when it created hard copies of the drive, which left them unable to access otherwise readily accessible data. Later in the week, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs released a statement noting that Republicans had turned over the voting machines to private companies as part of their audit of the 2020 election and that, due to chain of custody concerns, they were no longer safe for use in future elections and needed to be replaced.
The Supervisors' letter itself is notable not just for its technical takedown of the incompetence of Cyber Ninjas, but for its blistering rebuke of what the Arizona GOP is doing with the audit:
"That the Senate would launch such a grave accusation via Twitter not only before waiting for an answer to your questions, but also before your so called 'audit' demonstrates to the world that the Arizona Senate is not acting in good faith, has no intention of learning anything about the November 2020 General Election, but is only interested in feeding the various festering conspiracy theories that fuel the fundraising schemes of those pulling your strings.
They still weren't done.
"You have rented out the once good name of the Arizona State Senate to grifters and con-artists, who are fundraising hard-earned money from our fellow citizens even as your contractors parade around the Coliseum, hunting for bamboo and something they call 'kinematic artifacts' while shining purple lights for effect. None of these things are done in a serious audit. The result is that the Arizona Senate is held up to ridicule in every corner of the globe and our democracy is imperiled."
By the end of the hearing, Cyber Ninjas and the Maricopa Audit backers had to retract their claim of a deleted database and admit that they had been looking the wrong way for it. After Ben Cotton, the founder of CyFIR (one of the companies involved in the audit) admitted that the county was correct and that the auditors indeed had access to all of the data, the Maricopa Board's fury was evident.
The board tweeted:
"Just want to underscore that AZ Senate's @ArizonaAudit account accused Maricopa County of deleting files- which would be a crime- then a day after our technical letter explained they were just looking in the wrong place- all of a sudden 'auditors' have recovered the files."
This series of events is not unlike the claim made during a challenge to the election results in Michigan by a so-called "election expert" with respect to overcounts in districts which turned out to have been data from neighboring Minnesota. The initial false claim received far more attention and amplification than the careful forensics and final debunking, and many adherents to the Big Lie continue to cite the Michigan data (which was not from Michigan) as evidence of fraud. Trump himself repeated that very lie at his January 6 rally right before the insurrectionists stormed the Capitol. Audits are normally prepared by official bodies answerable to experienced civil servants who don't make premature pronouncements precisely because any wrong information can quickly undermine the public's faith in the democratic process.
There are now growing calls within the GOP to end the charade and halt the "grift disguised as an audit," as the County described the process. On top of the questionable agenda and the improper fundraising off the audit, the County Supervisors appear to have had it with the incompetence on display. "They don't know what they're doing," Board Chairman Sellers said of Cyber Ninjas. "And we wouldn't be asked to do this on-the-job training if qualified auditors had been hired to do this work."
Drawing a hard line in the sand, the County Supervisors have now agreed they will not provide the auditors any more airtime or cooperation. "This board is done explaining anything," Sellers said. "People's ballots and money are not make-believe. It's time to be done with this craziness, and get on with this county's critical business." Sellers promised to challenge in court any conclusions by the audit that pointed toward supposed improprieties. "Finish your report and be ready to defend it in a court of law," he snapped.