Brace for Disinformation: Here Comes the Cyber Ninjas Report

Running through the motivated reasoning and amateurish behavior of the GOP's selected Maricopa County auditors.

The company conducting an unofficial audit of 2.1 million ballots in Maricopa County, Arizona, was expected to turn in its report to the Arizona State Senate on Monday. In advance of its public release, election officials are pushing back on voter fraud claims and other conspiracies they expect to make an appearance in the report. The audit itself has been the subject of several debunked voter fraud claims.

For some background: Arizona certified its election results with President Joe Biden beating Donald Trump by more than 10,000 votes on November 30. The state conducted multiple official audits of the results, none of which found evidence of widespread voter fraud. Arizona State Senate Republicans called for a further review anyway. A judge issued subpoenas for ballots and other election materials in response to a request from Senate President Karen Fann. The unofficial, Republican-led election review of all 2.1 million Maricopa County ballots and 400 voting machines began April 23.

Senate Republicans, led by Fann, hired Cyber Ninjas, a Florida-based cybersecurity firm with a history of promoting baseless voter fraud claims, to conduct the audit. Cyber Ninjas doesn’t specialize in election security or vote counting. Earlier this year, a Michigan resident listed Cyber Ninjas CEO as an expert witness. Logan then falsely claimed there was fraud in Antrim County after the county inadvertently misreported votes in an unofficial vote tally

The election review has no official end date, but Cyber Ninjas were expected to deliver its full report to the Arizona Senate this week. That delivery date for the complete report has been delayed, however, after Fann announced that Logan and two members of the five-person audit team have contracted COVID-19. In advance of the release, election officials and experts are emphasizing that what took place was less an audit than a partisan effort to undermine election integrity.

Many of the claims from Cyber Ninjas have already been discredited or debunked.

In May of this year, for example, Cyber Ninjas falsely claimed that they had found evidence that Maricopa County deleted a “directory full of election databases from the 2020 election cycle.” This never happened.

The Dispatch Fact Check has looked into the claim of this alleged “deleted” voter base and noted that Jack Sellers, a Republican who chairs the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, said “the claim that our employees deleted election files and destroyed evidence is outrageous, completely baseless and beneath the dignity of the Arizona Senate. I demand an immediate retraction of any public statements made to the news media and spread via Twitter.” A few days after the accusation was made, the Senate liaison for the Maricopa County audit walked back claims of “deleted databases” saying: “I was able to recover the deleted databases through forensic data recovery processes.” 

Then, at a State Senate hearing in July, Logan resurfaced the false allegation that Maricopa County poll workers gave out sharpies to prevent votes from being registered. The Dispatch’s Alec Dent explained back in November that the tabulating machines can read Sharpie ink without issue and that bleed-through doesn’t affect votes, noting that Maricopa County had tweeted the following on Election Day: ​​“Did you know we use Sharpies in the Vote Centers so the ink doesn’t smudge as ballots are counted onsite? New offset columns on the ballots means bleed through won’t impact your vote!”

Election officials and election experts do not expect the forthcoming report to be credible. Several of them detailed their concerns and skepticism last week at a virtual media conference, as well as in memos, and in interviews with The Dispatch.

On August 19, during a virtual media briefing hosted by the nonpartisan nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research, Jennifer Morrell, partner at the Elections Group, explained why the so-called Cyber Ninjas “audit” should not be referred to as such. Election audits, she explained, are defined in statute, with policies and procedures documented and conducted by election officials. An official election audit, Morrell noted, has a statutory start date and a statutory end date and is conducted in a way that would be observable to the media and the public. The Maricopa County unofficial partisan election review, by contrast, has almost none of these things. 

During that same press briefing, Matt Masterson, a non-resident policy fellow with the Stanford Internet Observatory and former senior cybersecurity adviser at the Department of Homeland Security, described the Cyber Ninjas election review as a “dis- and misinformation playbook” intended to “undermine confidence in our democracy.” He also noted just how “far short this activity has fallen from the expectations of both professional election officials and auditors.” 

For many, this partisan review is bigger than Maricopa County. Stephen Richer, the Republican Maricopa county recorder, says the Maricopa review can be understood as “a willingness to completely tear down institutions and a complete loss of confidence in our governing institutions.”

Election officials have adopted a bipartisan strategy for maintaining voter confidence and preparing the public for what will likely be a conspiracy-theory-filled report: Officials have sought to preemptively discredit the report by debunking voter fraud allegations and reinforcing the many processes in place that protect against widespread fraud. 

To that end, on August 19, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, released a 122-page report on the “Partisan Review of the 2020 General Election in Maricopa County,” which outlines Arizona’s election safeguards, as well as what it describes as “Senate Review Failures.”

“In Arizona, several pre-and post-election tests are undertaken in order to ensure the integrity of the election,” Hobbs’ report said. “These include the required logic and accuracy tests of election equipment both before and after the election, as well as the post-election hand count audits, which were completed with no evidence of discrepancies or widespread fraud.”

The secretary of state’s report also calls out the Senate Republican attempt to discredit the election, saying that despite an “overwhelming evidence of a secure election and a complete lack of evidence to support claims of systemic fraud, there are those at the national, state, and local levels who dismiss the validity of these tests and refuse to accept the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.”

Hobbs’ office also released notes from observers on behalf of the Arizona secretary of state's office, which highlighted “problematic practices, changing policies, and security threats” in the Cyber Ninjas election review. The notes mention issues like the fact that the “external security gate” was unattended and opened partially, which meant observers could walk in, a copy of a confidently marked “Wake TSI procedure manual” was at times unattended at the check-in counter, and that Senate liaison Ken Bennett brought a cell phone onto the counting floor even though this was not allowed.

Observers also noted policy and process issues, such as: lack of quality control practices to make sure data is entered correctly, non-Maricopa residents “rifling through” military and overseas ballots, and the fact that “there was no information available about how tally differences would be reconciled, recorded or which of the tallies would be considered correct.” 

Maricopa County Director of Elections Rey Valenzuela also reminded participants at last week’s briefing that post-election audits aren’t just encouraged, but are actually mandated in Arizona, and that unlike the Cyber Ninjas effort, an official audit would have had official policies and processes in place. 

Describing the various ways Maricopa County’s tabulation process is designed to prevent fraud, Valenzuela noted that the Maricopa County ballot tabulation center is a secure facility with restricted access. Arizona voting equipment is certified by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission at the federal level, Valenzuela said. “On top of using restricted access, chain of custody, we have security, live 24/7 footage,” he added. “Our tabulation center has various checks and balances to this process.”

Stephen Richer, Maricopa County Recorder, has also played an active role in preemptively rebutting the findings of the Cyber Ninjas report. 

Last week Richer released a 38-page letter to Arizona Republicans, saying definitively that “Nobody stole Maricopa County’s election. Elections in Maricopa County aren’t rigged.”

In addition to explaining all the ways in which Maricopa County’s election was secure and listing various “checks and securities in the system,” Richer also addressed the “simple data-backed explanation” for Trump’s Maricopa County loss. Biden won, he noted, because of “dissatisfied Republican voters.” Richer added: “Using the cast vote record, elections experts Benny White, Larry Moore, and Tim Halvorsen have shown that 59,800 voters in Maricopa County cast a ballot for a majority of the Republicans on the ballot, but did not vote for Trump. Of those, 39,102 voted for Biden. That number far outstripped the number of majority-Democrat voters who abandoned Biden.”

Richer, who told The Dispatch in an interview that he loves the Republican Party, said in his letter that he would fight for conservatism but that he “won’t lie about the election,” and will “not unjustifiably turn my back on the employees of the Board of Supervisors, Recorder’s Office, and Elections Department—my colleagues and friends.” 

At last week’s media briefing, Richer reminded participants that the Cyber Ninjas had “resurrected” a number of debunked voter fraud claims, such as the sharpie incident and the false claim of a deleted voter database mentioned earlier. “I would encourage you to take everything that the Cyber Ninjas say with a grain of salt when they release the report,” said Richer, “because we’ve already seen them walk back multiple claims.”

Richard Romley, a Republican and former Maricopa County attorney, told The Dispatch that he thinks once the Cyber Ninjas report is released to the public, people will further divide into their camps: There will be those who know Cyber Ninjas don’t know what they are doing and those who believe in claims of  election fraud and will take the report at face value. This means, Romley said, that “the fighting goes on.”