Trump allies’ lingering election audits spark public skepticism, concerns in Congress

DOJ attorneys sent guidance last week to state election officials, warning vague investigations could violate federal laws

By: - August 5, 2021 2:03 pm
Georgia primary election

In this file photo, long lines during Georgia’s June 9 primary were in part attributed to experienced older poll workers backing out due to coronavirus worries. But the state has also closed 214 polling places since 2012. (John McCosh/Georgia Recorder)

WASHINGTON — The months-long, Republican-led investigation in Arizona into the results of last year’s presidential election has cost millions of dollars and produced no evidence yet of major issues in tallying Maricopa County ballots.

Yet supporters of former President Donald Trump are still attempting to follow Arizona’s lead by pushing for so-called audits in several other states, including Pennsylvania, Georgia and Wisconsin. The audits don’t comply with the legal process outlined in state laws for reviewing election results and were launched months after vote tallies were certified. 

But they’re the latest sign that Trump and his allies refuse to give up on the lie that he was the winner in 2020, not President Joe Biden — in the face of public doubt, discouragement from the U.S. Department of Justice and growing questions from Congress.

“This is all about a big grift, and it’s going to continue because there’s a whole ecosystem of individuals of scam artists whose livelihood now depends on … exploiting the sincere disappointment of millions of voters who wanted Trump to win, who are victims in a scam, and trying to scam money off of them,” said David Becker, executive director and founder of the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation & Research. 

“And so I think these efforts will continue,” Becker added.

The separate audit drives share some financial ties, and some of the same attorneys have been linked to audits across states. 

But even as the Arizona audit leaders disclose some key groups involved in paying for the effort, it remains unknown who contributed much of the money to those groups, according to the Arizona Mirror.

Election experts like Becker are troubled by the trend of these election investigations lingering across the country, questioning why the methodology has not reflected conventional auditing practices. 

From state to state, those spearheading the investigations have claimed they want to reassure constituents that the election was secure. But they’ve had difficulty pointing to what exactly they believe did not work in the election process. 

The most generous depictions from election security experts are that the reviews amount to little more than expensive fishing expeditions in states that Trump lost. 

Others describe what’s going on as simply intended to raise money and degrade public faith in elections.

Defining a valid election audit

So far, public opinion polling has shown more skepticism than support for the ongoing election investigations.

A Monmouth University poll in June found 57% of Americans see the audits of the 2020 election results as primarily a partisan attempt to undermine valid election results. One in three say these are legitimate efforts to identify possible voting irregularities.

Jennifer Morrell, an election procedures expert who served as an audit observer for Arizona’s Democratic secretary of state, says a valid election audit is straightforward.

“A valid audit is the audit that your state is required to conduct,” Morrell said, describing it as one that’s prescribed in state law, with transparent procedures that were outlined before the election results were known.

Typical audits would have a set sample size and period of time in which the audit must be completed, Morrell said, adding that auditors are required to follow a code of conduct.

In the cases of Arizona’s audit and those sought in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, she said those questioning the election results have done little to demonstrate any election expertise (three retired police officers were hired to investigate in Wisconsin).

They also have been tight-lipped about practices they would abide by. The lead audit contractor in Arizona didn’t release documentation on its policies and procedures until after a court ruling. 

In the audit attempt underway in Pennsylvania by state Sen. Doug Mastriano, a staunch Trump ally, Mastriano has said he is seeking to review physical ballots and “anything associated with the hard-copy ballots.” 

He has not, however, outlined specific security procedures for those ballots. 

Becker notes that Republicans control the legislatures in the key states where the audit efforts have flourished, and those GOP officials could have changed rules prior to balloting to beef up the process for verifying election results.

“They probably would have found allies amongst the Democrats,” he said. 

The states in question also are ones that have taken extra verification steps, like a paper audit record, Morrell said. She notes that some states, such as Louisiana, don’t do any type of audit or require a paper trail — but that places like Arizona’s Maricopa County, which has more procedural safeguards in place, were the ones targeted.

Feds seek to discourage, investigate state ‘audits’ 

As the Arizona audit launched in March drags on and audit hopefuls elsewhere fight on, the federal Department of Justice and congressional Democrats have taken steps to discourage them.

DOJ attorneys sent guidance last week to state election officials, warning that the vague investigations could violate federal laws regarding how election materials must be securely stored.  

“Election audits are exceedingly rare. But the department is concerned that some jurisdictions conducting them may be using, or proposing to use, procedures that risk violating the Civil Rights Act,” the DOJ guidance states. It added that allowing any election records to leave the control of local election officials creates “significant risk” that those records could be lost or compromised.

It was already clear that complying with the demands of those seeking audits could put local election officials in a legally questionable spot. Pennsylvania’s Fulton County already had its election equipment decertified after agreeing to allow its voting machines to be inspected as part of the private audit.

The Senate also is eying the election audits as it works on a voting rights measure. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, (D-Minn.), introduced legislation Thursday that would, among other changes, strengthen security requirements for ballots and other election records, according to the Washington Post.

The U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee also has sought documents from the Cyber Ninjas firm that is spearheading the Arizona review, seeking information on the company’s ownership, funding and auditing practices. 

Top Democrats on that panel, including Rep. Jamie Raskin, (D-Md.), wrote in a letter seeking those documents that they are concerned the company’s actions “could undermine the integrity of federal elections and interfere with Americans’ constitutional right to cast their ballot freely and to have their votes counted without partisan interference.”

A spokeswoman for the House Oversight panel did not respond to questions this week about whether the company has responded, and the next steps in that investigation.

What’s next?

As for the lasting effects, 40% of respondents in the Monmouth poll said such audits will weaken American democracy, while 20% say it will strengthen it. Another 35% expect them to have no impact.

Becker said he believes the audit efforts have “lost a little bit of steam” as local election officials have pushed back on providing ballots and equipment.

In Pennsylvania, two counties — Philadelphia and Tioga — have rejected the bid to seek election materials and equipment, and a third, York County, has raised concerns about potential ramifications. 

Mastriano — who did not respond to requests for comment — has told conservative outlet NewsMax that he intends to file subpoenas in the coming weeks.

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Christina Lords
Christina Lords

Christina Lords is the editor-in-chief of the Idaho Capital Sun and has been a professional journalist covering local and state government since graduating from the University of Idaho in 2009. A Pocatello native, Lords is a fifth-generation Idahoan who served as a reporter at the Moscow-Pullman Daily News and the Post Register in Idaho Falls and served as assistant editor for the Idaho Press in Nampa. She also led the Idaho Statesman in Boise for two years before turning to nonprofit journalism.