Experts warn against ‘sham election audits’ movement

Experts warn against ‘sham election audits’ movement

Maricopa County ballots from the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors hired by the Arizona Senate in an audit at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix on May 24, 2021. Photo (via the Arizona Mirror) by David Wallace | Arizona Republic / pool photo

Experts from four national nonprofits — the Brennan Center for for Justice, Protect Democracy, Fair Fight Action and States United Action — gathered last week at an online panel discussion to examine the latest worrisome trend in undermining democracy: illegitimate election recounts.

All four warned that conspiracy theories, disinformation and outright lies can spread through social media and other means to undermine legitimate elections. Those spreading the disinformation also prey upon people who might be unfamiliar with the process of government, they warn.

Protect Democracy, Fair Fight Action and States United Action have also launched a new website (NotanAudit.com) to help people understand the differences between real election audits and “fake” or “sham” audits.

All four speakers at last week’s event agreed that the audit taking in place in Maricopa County, Ariz., is not credible — because of the lack of experience of the company conducting it, the methods that are being used, and the lack of transparency. They also said that other auditing, recounting and canvassing done through the State of Arizona long ago confirmed the election’s legitimacy.

Instead, they say the Arizona “audit” is just the beginning of what is likely going to be a growing trend that will pit career election officials against politicians and start-up companies claiming to be able to conduct forensic and large-scale audits. The speakers warned that without better public education, Americans could become confused about, and lose confidence in, what is actually a very safe, secure and — above all — accurate election process.

Moreover, the “spillover” effect from the recount in Arizona is giving momentum to groups in several states, including Georgia, Michigan, and Wisconsin to audit election results that were certified and validated months ago.

Indeed, similar efforts also appear to be underway in North Carolina. Last week, WRAL.com reported that a “group of House Republicans who call themselves the Freedom Caucus say they need to inspect voting machines so they can reassure constituents that North Carolina elections are secure.”

Meanwhile, Raleigh’s News & Observer reported that a recent post on the Freedom Caucus Facebook read: “The House Freedom Caucus is now focused on BOE officials and the specific precincts themselves. We absolutely think tampering happens in North Carolina.”

Debunking the conspiracy theories

During last week’s discussion, Joanna Lydgate, founder and chief executive of States United Action, said that the Arizona Senate audit is being led by a group called “Cyber Ninjas,” which is not accredited and lacks experience in election auditing. Moreover, the audit is only focused on Maricopa County, not other counties, and there’s been no examination of the entire ballot — for example state races — just an evaluation of the presidential tallies.

“The voters have spoken, it’s just that these politicians don’t like what the voters said,” Lydgate said.

The concern among some officials is that as the fear and disinformation spreads, it will lead others to take action that could mirror the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6.

“The specifics differ from state to state but they are all based on the lie,” Lydgate said. That lie has been that the elections were unsafe or even riddled with fraud.

The new website also has tools for tracing the individuals and groups that are behind the audit efforts in the different states, as well as the money they are raising.

“This is an intentional disinformation strategy to undermine democracy,” said Erosa Osa, the research and policy director for Fair Fight Action. “They’re weaponizing sham election reviews.”

Despite the lack of evidence of genuine voter fraud, lawmakers in Arizona have used that disinformation and the concerns to which they have given rise to pass more restrictive voter laws. The Arizona legislature has also taken power away from the Secretary of State’s office, which oversees statewide elections.

“Not since the Jim Crow era have we seen such blatant tactics,” Osa said. “The more times we hear something, even those things that have been debunked, the more likely we are to believe it. That’s why we have to repeatedly push back and debunk these.”

She said the challenge for media is to debunk the disinformation without also unintentionally amplifying the message.

“The use of even the term ‘audit’ is an attempt to make it seem legitimate,” said Gowri Ramachandran, counsel for Election Security at the Brennan Center.

She said that industry-accepted audits look much different, including a wide sampling of ballots, setting out a transparent list of auditing characteristics, like how many ballots will be sampled and from where they are taken. Also, observers and participants from many different organizations and political affiliations are asked to participate.

“This firm already claimed the 2020 election was stolen before it started conducting the audit,” Ramachandran said. “It’s totally lacking in competence and legitimacy. This doesn’t look anything like a real audit.”

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, which first published this story. Rob Schofield also contributed.