Experts warn against ‘sham audits’ movement

By: and - July 16, 2021 6:56 am
Arizona audit floor. Photo by Courtney Pedroza | Getty Images/pool photo

Arizona audit floor. Photo by Courtney Pedroza | Getty Images/pool photo

Experts for three different organizations came together this week to discuss the latest in the undermining democracy trend: illegitimate election recounts. They warned that conspiracy theories, disinformation and outright lies can spread through more than just social media, undermining legitimate elections. Those spreading the disinformation also prey upon people who may not be familiar with the process of government, they warn.

Officials from the Protect Democracy, Fair Fight Action and States United Action have launched a new website with toolkits to help people understand the differences between real election audits and “fake” or “sham” audits. All three groups agree that the audit taking in place in Arizona’s Maricopa County 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. Experts who spoke as part of the panel also said that other auditing, recounting and canvassing done through the State of Arizona long ago proved the election’s legitimacy.

The new website, Notanaudit.com, is the joint project of the three groups.

In this photo illustration, a pencil lies on a U.S. presidential election mail-in ballot received by a U.S. citizen living abroad that shows current U.S. Republican President Donald Trump and his main contender, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, among the choices.
Ballot photo illustration. Photo by Sean Gallup | Getty Images

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 do forensic and large-scale audits. They warn that without better public education, people could become more confused and lose confidence in what is otherwise a very safe, secure and — above all — accurate election process.

Moreover, the “spillover” effect from the recount in Arizona is giving some momentum to groups in Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin to begin audit election results that were certified and validated months ago. Four Wisconsin legislators were among Republicans from various states who took a field trip to Arizona to observe the ballot counting.

Wisconsin’s audit extravaganza

It is difficult to accurately count the number of “audits” and “investigations” already taking place in the Badger State. Still, some of the state’s audit tourist legislators returned from Arizona requesting Wisconsin begin a forensic-level audit to look for fake of suspicious ballots despite the plethora of investigations already conducted or in process.

As is standard procedure for accuracy, the Wisconsin Elections Commission oversaw three thorough levels of canvassing of the election to ensure accuracy and performed an audit of the voting machines and other equipment and posted all of that information and results on its website. It found no serious issues and the Elections Commission leader declared the election to have been conducted in a safe and accurate manner.

At the beginning of the legislative session in January, Speaker Robin Vos ordered the Assembly election committee perform its own investigation, and voted to allow it subpoena powers to compel people to testify. The vast majority of those testifying were Republicans and conspiracy theorists making sometimes outlandish accusations against election and local government officials at invitation-only hearings.

In February, the Legislative Audit Bureau, a nonpartisan arm of the Legislature, began conducting an audit at legislators’ request, with Republicans voting for the audit, while Democrats opposed it out of a concern that it would become a vehicle for more disinformation and mistrust regarding an election that has repeatedly been found to be fair and accurate.

A member of the Senate's election audit team demonstrates how auditors will manually tally each of the 2.1 million ballots cast in the presidential election in Maricopa County in 2020. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror
A member of the Senate’s election audit team demonstrates how auditors will manually tally each of the 2.1 million ballots cast in the presidential election in Maricopa County in 2020. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

Further audits became even more partisan, and still have failed to turn up any evidence of widespread fraud or irregularities.

In May, Vos hired three retired police officers on the taxpayers’ dime to conduct a broad investigation into the election. After being threatened by former President Donald Trump on the eve of the state Republican convention in late June for not having yet performed an Arizona-scale audit, Vos used the convention to announce he had hired former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman to oversee the former officers’ audit at the cost of $44,000 for four months, also billed to Wisconsinites. Gableman has been criticized for refusing to recuse himself from Supreme Court cases where he had received campaign donations from one of the sides. Issues being investigated, primarily by partisan Republicans, also include “double voting,” absentee ballot verification and how the largest five municipalities used private grant funds to support pandemic election operations.

These “audits” will be used to make future policy, said Vos, although Republicans have already forwarded several dozen election bills, some of which have passed and been vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers on the grounds they suppress turnout and make it more burdensome to vote.

There are even private audits being done, including one in the Green Bay area that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported had a felon convicted of fraud checking ballots.

While these audits have not received the level of analysis that nationwide groups have focused on Arizona, the resulting legislation already has progressive groups and lawyers point out how the bills are likely a violation of federal and state election law.

Cyber Ninjas

Joanna Lydgate, founder and chief executive of States United Action, said that the Arizona Senate audit, which is being led by the private company Cyber Ninjas, is not accredited and the company lacks experience in election audits. Moreover, the audit is only focused on Maricopa County, not other counties, and there’s 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 officials is that as fear and disinformation spreads, it will lead others to take action not unlike the U.S. 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 that trace what individuals and groups are behind the audit efforts in the different states and the money organizations 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.”

Screenshot from NotAnAudit.com
Screenshot from NotAnAudit.com

From those concerns, lawmakers in Arizona have also passed more restrictive voter laws in the face of no evidence of fraud. The Arizona legislature has also taken power away from the Secretary of State’s Office, which has supervision of 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 for Justice at New York University School of Law. The Brennan Center joined the other three organizations to discuss the “audit” trend.

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.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick Editor-in-chief Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. In 2016, the Veterans of Foreign Wars awarded Darrell its highest media honor for the series “Vietnam Voices.’’ Publicly available and now incorporated into the Library of Congress, “Vietnam Voices” chronicled the experiences of nearly 80 veterans from Montana. While serving as the editor of The Winona (Minn.) Daily News, Darrell was given the prestigious “Friend of Newspapers” award for successfully revamping the state’s public access and information laws. He is the winner of three Lee Enterprises President’s Awards for coverage including devastating flooding of Minnesota and Wisconsin, and he led an initiative to provide in-depth coverage of missing, murdered and indigenous women in Montana. In addition, he has won statewide awards for commentary, including best editorial and best columnist in Montana.

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Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin

Melanie Conklin is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications. She is excited to be back at the craft of journalism as Deputy Editor of the Wisconsin Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.

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