Maricopa County Audit Tests an Already Fractured Arizona GOP
'I think not only is it a breaking point for the Arizona GOP, but it could be a breaking point for the party as a whole nationally.'
|Audrey Fahlberg||Jun 10||84||127|
PHOENIX—In the parking lot outside the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum last Thursday, a small group of Arizona Rangers were chatting under a flimsy white tent as the sun beat down on the asphalt. As he fiddled with the outdoor fan underneath the tent, a lead member of the security team jokingly asked the Arizona Rangers how he could tone down the afternoon’s 106 degree dry heat. “A 35-foot airstream—have Donald Trump bring one down for us,” a mustachioed Ranger named Terry teased in response.
The Arizona Rangers—an outfit of state law enforcement officials whom one Arizona state trooper called “glorified security guards”—take their jobs very seriously. They guard the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum, a saddle-shaped indoor arena located on the state fairgrounds, where since late April Republican organizers have been hand-counting the 2.1 million ballots that Maricopa County voters cast in the 2020 election.
Rangers spend their shifts directing audit volunteers into a cordoned-off area of the parking lot and escorting reporters to the press box inside the building. They enjoy teasing members of the press: On three separate occasions, I was asked by security personnel why I bothered to cover the “audit” in-person when I could simply watch the live stream online at azaudit.org.
For all their chest-puffing, the real power lies with Randy Pullen, former chairman of the Arizona Republican Party and treasurer of the Republican National Committee. Pullen now serves as the Maricopa County audit liaison alongside fellow audit spokesman Ken Bennett, who previously served as president of the Arizona Senate and secretary of state of Arizona. (Bennett did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.)
Arizona’s election results were certified on January 6, of course, and there were numerous legal challenges in Maricopa County, none of which concluded that county election officials committed any wrongdoing. Six months after Joe Biden won Arizona by 10,000 votes of the 3.3 million ballots that were cast statewide in the November election, rogue GOP officials continue to propagate baseless accusations of fraud despite the fact that local election officials took pains to ensure that the county tabulated votes correctly.
Immediately following the November election, Maricopa County election officials oversaw a hand-count of a statistically significant sampling of ballots—47,000 votes—that were cast by county residents and tabulated by Dominion Voting Systems, the election company the county has used since 1998. The results from the first hand-count—which was staffed by volunteers from the Republican, Democratic, and Libertarian parties—were 100 percent identical to the initial total tabulated on Dominion’s voting machines.
The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors then hired two additional elections companies to conduct a forensic audit of the Dominion voting software. The companies concluded that the installed software was certified by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and the Arizona secretary of state and that there was no malware connected to the machines. Neither company found any evidence to suggest the software was connected to the internet or that any votes were switched from one candidate to another.
Arizona State Senate Republicans still weren’t convinced. Under the leadership of Senate President Karen Fann, they ordered a so-called forensic audit contesting the victories of Joe Biden and Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly. The Republican-led audit began on April 23 after a judge granted Fann’s subpoenas for ballots and other election materials.
Pullen claims that the recount will be completed by the end of June. As of Wednesday, more than 1.7 million of the county’s 2.1 million ballots have reportedly been counted.
The partisan operation has been criticized by Democrats and Republican election officials in Arizona for its lack of transparency and its failure to adhere to state election rules. Audit organizers also aren’t being shy about their long-term goals. “What will come out of this is the entire process for how you do this large of an audit will be written up,” Pullen said. “It will be a plan that someone else can take and use as the basis for doing something similar to this.”
The idea is already gaining traction among rogue Republicans in swing states. Three members of the Pennsylvania Senate toured Maricopa County’s election site Wednesday and told reporters they plan to launch a similar audit in their own state.
In many ways, the audit can best be summarized by one word: “dominoes.” Arizona GOP leaders are hoping this Maricopa County audit will launch similar undertakings nationwide. “Arizona is the first domino that will fall, and then other states will look into irregularities, abnormalities, mistakes and potentially outright fraud that happened in their states as well,” state Republican Party Chair Kelli Ward said on Newsmax on May 1.
Ward, who previously served in the Arizona Senate, has spent months cheering on the audit and stoking baseless conspiracy theories alleging that Dominion improperly influencing the November election.* On December 28, a lawyer for Dominion sent a cease-and desist letter regarding defamatory claims Ward has made about the company, and ordered her to preserve all documents that relate to the matter. (Trump’s former personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and Trump-aligned lawyer Sidney Powell are both facing $1.3 billion defamation lawsuits by Dominion.)
But Trump and his Arizona allies are undaunted. “Arizona Republican State Senators are engendering such tremendous respect, even adoration, for the great job they are doing on the Forensic Audit of the 2020 Presidential Election Scam,” the former president said in a statement on May 25. “Our Country is watching as early public reports are indicating a disaster, far greater than anyone had thought possible, for Arizona voters.”
Arizona state senators have made it clear that the former president and his closest allies are influencing the audit behind the scenes. “I have been in numerous conversations with Rudy Guiliani [sic] over the past weeks trying to get this done,” Fann wrote in an email to a constituent on December 28. (The message was obtained through a records request under the Freedom of Information Act by the nonprofit legal watchdog group American Oversight.) “I have the full support of him and a personal call from President Trump thanking us for pushing to prove any fraud.”
“In many ways, it’s like the results are already preordained,” said Maricopa County Board of Supervisors President Bill Gates in an interview. “That they’re going to come up with some allegation that president Trump won Maricopa County, or, ‘It was closer than our results showed.’ And so then, they will use this to springboard into doing a similar type of Arizona audits in other states.”
Publicly, audit organizers claim they are abiding by a wait-and-see approach. “If it turns out that, you know, we find 12,000 ballots that were somehow changed, one way or another—and I’m not saying we will—which means that could result in a change in the result of the election, you know, that’s, I have no idea,” Pullen said in an interview Thursday. “I’m not a lawyer,” he said. “Whether they can go to court and overturn the election in the state—I don’t know.”
A Bird’s-Eye View of the Audit
A longtime GOP activist, Pullen makes it clear from his body language that he has an adversarial relationship with the press. “I was an audit partner with Deloitte & Touche so I’ve done lots of audits, I’ve done forensic audits,” Pullen said defensively in an interview last Thursday, assuring me that the recount is in good hands even though it’s being led by Cyber Ninjas, a Florida-based cybersecurity company that has never conducted a forensic audit.
Pullen claims that volunteers are drawn from the three recognized parties in Maricopa County: the Libertarian Party, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. “Those aren’t all Republicans on the floor, there are Democrats out there. The Libertarian Party is involved in providing volunteers as well,” Pullen said.
But bipartisanship doesn’t seem to be a priority for audit organizers. Asked whether he has a percentage breakdown of the volunteers’ party affiliations, Pullen demurred: “We don’t even look at that,” he said, adding that they conduct background checks as a more efficient means of filtering through audit applicants.
A bird’s-eye view of the audit from the press box makes the ongoing recount look like a game of Sorry! The ballot counters are divided into four pods, each a different color: red, blue, green, and yellow. Three ballot counters tabulate votes as two other volunteers spin a turntable that contains just two ballots at a time. Audit managers wear black, volunteer observers wear orange, ballot inspectors wear gray, and runners—who carry ballots to and from different stations—wear purple.
Volunteers wearing pink shirts are observing on behalf of Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who announced her candidacy for governor last week and has repeatedly called the audit a “farce.” Hobbs’ observers have been reviled by audit organizers ever since they were first allowed on the audit floor, but they ventured even further into enemy territory when they issued a report detailing “new and ongoing” incidents noticed by observers beginning on May 24. The report includes concerns over security, equipment, and policy changes.
Pullen, on the other hand, maintains that he and his estimated 300 audit volunteers follow strict ballot handling procedures. “Now, as you look down on the floor you can see that people go out and take a break right?” Pullen said as he pointed to a small crowd of people milling about in the hallways on the lower floor last Thursday. “And so they'll leave their box of stuff there, right? It doesn't mean that there’s no chain of custody on it, because there’s still managers down there.”
But the secretary of state’s observers claim that confidential election materials have been left unattended and that volunteers no longer adhere to protocols that were established at the beginning of the recount. “If you were to go in on day one and go back and look at some of the videos from day one, there was a scanning station where the ballot was scanned, and put up on a screen. There are no longer screens, there’s no longer a scanner,” said one secretary of state observer, Ryan Macias, in an interview.
“This is what their written procedures say will happen: They scan the ballot, it goes up on screen and then the counters will count off of the image of the ballot that’s on screen,” he said.
Macias, who claims he has observed the audit nearly every single day over the past six weeks, said he and other observers are routinely denied access to certain areas. “We are constantly, on a daily basis, pretty much being told where we can and cannot go,” Macias said.
Journalists were originally prohibited from observing the audit unless they signed up to be a volunteer observer and completed a six-hour shift. Now, local reporters sign up for shifts in a press pool that permits just one reporter, one photographer, and one videographer at a time. Journalists who work for national media organizations must be granted permission directly from audit organizers.
Another transparency concern among critics is that Republican organizers are not being forthcoming about who is funding the audit. The State Senate pledged only $150,000 to Cyber Ninjas, so organizations like the America Project have formed grassroots fundraising pages online. “I don’t know,” Pullen said when I asked if he could name any nonprofits that are pouring money into the audit. “I don’t keep the books for that, I don’t track the money or anything.” Pullen insists that he is not being paid.
While the livestream gives a sheen of transparency, the audit is so shrouded in secrecy that even the security guards are in the dark about the process. “I’ve been doing what I can. Unfortunately, they’re very secretive here,” an Arizona state trooper named Perry said when I asked if he could help me locate Randy Pullen during my Thursday afternoon shift. Thursday was Perry’s fifth overtime shift guarding the press pool, where his main responsibility consists of escorting members of the press to the bathroom. He calls the task “awkward,” but in Perry’s eyes, paying off his wife’s student loans is his number one priority.
Perry’s job isn’t quite as demanding as that of Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, who is responsible for administering the county’s elections alongside the Board of Supervisors. (At 2.6 million registered voters, Maricopa County is the second largest voting jurisdiction in the country.) Richer is an outspoken critic of the audit, and has been the target of relentless bullying from Arizona Republicans as a result of his public comments decrying the audit as a partisan sham.
“Sloppy Stephen Richer is an embarrassment to Arizona,” tweeted Audit War Room, an anonymous account that regularly trolls Maricopa County election officials. “He continues to spread lies about the audit on fake news channels while looking like a clown. He should get a suit that fits and do something with that hair! #AZauditpool.” Richer told me he has received death threats from constituents because of his criticism of the audit.
It’s worth noting that Richer says he voted for Donald Trump in 2020, has donated to roughly 100 Republican candidates, has volunteered for GOP campaigns, and was on the board of the Federalist Society at the University of Chicago. But his refusal to propagate the Big Lie has rendered him public enemy No. 1 among fringe members of the Arizona GOP.
County recorder is an elected position in Maricopa, and Richer defeated the Democratic incumbent in November’s election by 5,000 votes on the very same ballots that the Arizona Senate is currently contesting.
“I’ve always thought it didn’t lend credibility to their actions that they just chose two contests in which a Democratic challenger unseated the Republican incumbent,” Richer said in an interview on Thursday. “I also think it would be more than a little bit illogical when a lot of these same people asked to be anointed into power through the same system that they’ve been decrying and saying is fraudulent.”
Arizona has 90 state legislators, but Richer said he is “quite confident” that fewer than five of them genuinely believe this audit will somehow undo the 2020 election and reinstate Donald Trump as president. “For a lot of them, this has been a fundraising boon. For a lot of them this is putting them in the spotlight when they have previously weren’t. I think for a lot of them, this is an ability, or an opportunity to declare further fealty to the former president.” On the other hand, Richer said he thinks many of the state legislators are hoping that election denialism just “goes away.”
“For a lot of them, this is just so they can go back to their constituents and not get yelled at,” Richer said.
As I walked out of the Coliseum after my first observation shift Thursday morning, an audit volunteer stopped his car, rolled down the window and asked for directions to the parking lot, thinking I was another volunteer. His friendly demeanor quickly evaporated once he saw my press badge. “Are you with us or against us?” he asked after I pressed him for an interview. “Are you for transparency?” He drove off and refused to go into specifics. Pullen later informed me that all of the volunteers for the audit have signed nondisclosure agreements and are prohibited from speaking with reporters.
Activist Republicans like the man who asked for directions may constitute just a sliver of the state’s Republican base, but they also represent a certain breed of Republican voter who fundraises for candidates, knocks on doors, attends rallies and legislative district meetings, and volunteers for audits. In other words, they skew how Republican lawmakers perceive the entire base.
‘This Is Nothing New’
The Arizona Republican Party had rabble-rousers within its ranks long before former President Trump entered the political scene. “This is nothing new,” said Kirk Adams, former Republican Speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives. “The party apparatus has been at war with other elements of the party off and on for almost the last 20 years,” Adams said.
For example, the Arizona GOP was also at one point home to Russell Pearce, the former Republican state senator who rose to national prominence after he authored SB 1070, the controversial anti-immigration bill that became law in 2010. In 2011, Pearce became the first Arizona legislator to be recalled from office in a district that was largely considered to be one of the most conservative in the state. Pearce later became vice chairman of the state GOP, but resigned in 2014 after he made comments suggesting women on Medicaid should be forcibly sterilized.
Activist Republicans like Pearce opposed John McCain for the entirety of his political career, and the state GOP ultimately censured the late senator in 2014 for his allegedly liberal voting record that they called “disastrous and harmful.” But here’s the kicker: Not once did the former presidential candidate lose the Republican primary in his state. He served two terms in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District and later served as a U.S. senator from Arizona from 1987 until his death in 2018.
Lorna Romero, former legislative director for former Republican Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona from 2011 to 2015, said that figures like Kelli Ward and Randy Pullen originally constituted just a small fraction of the state GOP in the early 2000s. But that subset of the party ended up taking over the state party leadership during the Trump years.
“With somebody that’s the head of it like Kelli Ward, who feeds into these conspiracy theories, who fundraises off of them rather than actually giving accurate information to registered Republicans in the state—that's dangerous,” Romero said in an interview. “What was once considered just a small vocal minority that you could somewhat ignore is now running the state GOP.”
If Ward’s faction of the party was as strong and influential among voters as her supporters suggest, then she would have been the Republican nominee for United States Senator in 2018. But she ended up losing the GOP Republican nomination handily to former Arizona Republican Sen. Martha McSally that year.
Ward’s inability to win statewide office reflects an interesting phenomenon in Arizona GOP politics: “We don’t have any far-right, fringe members of our statewide leadership,” said Arizona-based political consultant Barrett Marson in reference to the state’s elected officials. In 2014, Pullen sought the Republican nomination for Arizona State Treasurer but was defeated by Jeff DeWit. Bennett sought the Republican Party’s gubernatorial nomination in 2014 and 2018 but lost both times to Doug Ducey. Bennett also lost the Republican primary in Arizona’s 1st Congressional district in 2016, the same seat McCain held from 1983 to 1987.
The Trump-loyal fringe of the state GOP has metastasized into a mouthpiece for the former president, and now regularly doles out punishments to any Republican lawmaker who refuses to pledge allegiance to him. On January 23, the state GOP voted to censure Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, former Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, and even Cindy McCain, the late Arizona senator’s widow.
Still, establishment Republicans are convinced that the state GOP leadership does not reflect the views of the typical Republican voter in Arizona. “They have not taken over the Republican Party in Arizona in terms of the primary electorate, but they clearly have a grip right now on the official apparatus of the state GOP,” Adams said. “Kelli Ward has been a disaster for the Arizona Republican Party from a reputational and branding perspective,” Adams said.
Even former three-term U.S. Sen. of Arizona Jon Kyl has previously acknowledged this trend. “I’ve gone to dozens of these meetings and every now and then some wacky resolution gets passed,” Kyl told the Arizona Republic shortly after McCain was censured in 2014. “But most people realize it does not represent the majority of the vast numbers of Republicans.”
“Do these guys ever get elected? It’s John McCain who gets elected,” Kyl said at the time.
In other words, recent elections have made clear that fringe GOP candidates are unpopular among the Arizona Republican base. Because Ward, Bennett, and Pullen have demonstrated that they’re incapable of appealing to vast swaths of Republican voters, they’ve channeled their hunger for power into something they can control: the ongoing recount.
‘He Just Did His Job and He Moved On’
More palatable to Arizona’s Republican base are elected leaders like two-term Gov. Doug Ducey, a business conservative who has drawn ire from former President Trump for voting to certify November’s presidential election results. “Incredible to see that RINO Governor Doug Ducey of Arizona just vetoed a bill that would have outlawed Critical Race Theory training for State employees, and another that would have banned the mailing of ballots to citizens who never requested them,” Trump said in a statement on June 2. “For those of you who think Doug Ducey is good for Arizona, you are wrong.”
But Ducey has also repeatedly sidestepped questions about the ongoing recount, and has said he’s simply waiting for the process to play out. “Let this be completed and then we can talk about what the findings are,” Ducey told reporters last month.
Some Arizona Republicans are at wit’s end with Ducey and wonder what political calculation is driving his wait-and-see approach. “He can’t possibly run for U.S. Senate, that can’t possibly be on his mind. I don’t know what’s going on there other than it’s just not his personality,” an elected Republican official in Arizona told The Dispatch. “But how many times can you just get kicked in the balls by the president—former president—and just be like: ‘Okay, I guess that’s okay.’ ”
“All of [Ducey’s] people think that this election audit is batshit crazy,” the Arizona Republican official said.
Ducey’s public comments about the audit come as no surprise to those who know him personally. “He did not hesitate, didn’t think twice about certifying the election, following the Constitution and Arizona law on his duties as governor of the state,” said Adams, who previously served as Ducey’s chief of staff. “Whatever attacks the president hurled at him did not have an effect. He just did his job and he moved on and I think that right there is Doug Ducey to the core.” Ducey’s press office declined to comment on the election audit.
‘The Audit Is a Perfect Reflection of the Dilemma That Arizona Republicans Face.’
State parties are almost universally understood to have one main goal: help down-ballot candidates win elections. But when it comes to statewide elections, Arizona Republicans have been doing a lot of losing lately. Arizona now has a Democratic secretary of state, two Democratic senators, and a Democratic superintendent of public instruction. In November, Biden became the first Democratic president to win Arizona since Bill Clinton carried the state in 1996.
Establishment Republicans are calling for at least some degree of course correction in the Arizona GOP to account for the state’s changing demographics and aversion to Trumpism. “The audit is a perfect reflection of the dilemma that Arizona Republican face,” Adams said. The activist base may not have an outsized influence in statewide primaries, but they certainly do in some district primaries. “From that perspective, you can make an argument that there was a political imperative that President Karen Fann move forward with this audit,” he added. But the problem is that this strategy makes it much more difficult to keep moderate Republicans and independents in the Republican tent.
Maricopa election officials are entirely convinced that the party is spiraling out of control. “I worry that it will fracture the Arizona GOP,” Richer said of the ongoing audit. He also worries that fealty to the Big Lie will become a prerequisite for any GOP candidate competing in a large primary. “I don’t envy the candidates in 2022 who are trying to make that political calculation.”
“I think not only is it a breaking point for the Arizona GOP, but it could be a breaking point for the party as a whole nationally,” Gates said of the audit. He insists that scores of Arizona Republicans are disturbed by the State Senate’s election denialism but are too afraid to speak out against the audit in public. “I'm hearing it from a lot of people they’re speaking up—elected officials, former elected officials,” Gates said. “They may not be going on the record, but they're telling me that they support what we’re doing, standing up for democracy.”
But Pullen and his allies see things differently. “There is a portion of our party that believes the election was stolen, okay? Whether it was or not, we don’t know,” he said. “If there’s no trust in your election system, then you don’t have a democracy.”
Correction, June 10: This article originally and incorrectly identified Kelli Ward as a former president of the Arizona Senate. She served in the the Senate but was never president.