At the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, workers line up in their cars to check in with uniformed security. As each car files into the fairgrounds, they park next to the “Crazy Times Carnival,” complete with the familiar sights of summer — a Ferris wheel, funnel cake and balloon games.
But these workers are not headed to the carnival. They’re going inside the Veterans Memorial Coliseum to engage in a different sort of spectacle.
They’re ballot counters, working on yet another tally of the nearly 2.1 million ballots in Arizona’s most populous county, Maricopa. But the agency directly overseeing these workers is not a governmental one, unlike the two previous audits directed by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. This audit is instead being driven by Republicans in the state Senate, perpetuating the falsehood that the 2020 election was filled with widespread voter fraud — and thus stolen from former President Donald Trump.
The audit, which began last week, has continued amid court hearings and questions over procedures and transparency. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Daniel Martin, in a victory for the Republican-controlled state Senate, ruled Thursday that this third ballot review could continue. In the ruling, the judge said he anticipated appeals to any of his decisions, raising expectations of more legal battles to come.
“Craziness” is how Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jack Sellers, a Republican, describes what he was witnessing at Veterans Memorial Coliseum. “… It’s really bothersome.”
Sellers is talking about the little-known tech company called Cyber Ninjas, a Sarasota, Florida, contractor hired by the GOP-controlled Arizona Senate to conduct this tally. This so-called review, deeply disputed by bipartisan groups from the Republican-led Maricopa County Supervisors to the Arizona Democratic Party, is the third to examine the 2020 ballots cast in the county. President Joe Biden won the swing state by 10,457 votes, flipping the longtime Republican state blue for the first time since 1996, when Bill Clinton narrowly won Arizona.
Since the election, Trump and his allies have been peddling lies and distrust in the 2020 results, and specifically in Maricopa County, which has a long history of bipartisan, public faith in its mail-in ballots and overall election security.
There was little expression of election faith from the ballot counting workers CNN saw as they lined up heading into the Arizona State Fairgrounds. What they did display was openly partisan views.
Their cars bore bumper stickers that read, “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted For Trump,” and other conservative insignias, like the “Don’t Tread on Me” symbol.
“Are you from OAN?” one of the ballot counters asked CNN. When reporters identified themselves, the woman rolled up her window and drove on.
OAN, or the One America News Network, is a small, far-right wing outlet that has promoted false claims that Trump won the 2020 election. Trump had previously encouraged his supporters to turn to OAN, angered when Fox News, a longtime Trump favorite, was the first media outlet to call Arizona for Biden. OAN’s hosts have publicly urged their followers on social media to donate to cover the costs of the Arizona audit.
OAN is also the host of the live stream from the ballot counting floor in the coliseum, which Ken Bennett, the hired representative for the Arizona state senate, touted as proof of “transparency.”
The process has been far from transparent. No independent reporters were allowed inside the Coliseum until a group of Arizona news agencies and their lawyer won access inside for one pool reporter, one videographer and one photographer at any one time.
Sellers, the Maricopa Board of Supervisors chairman, called such open bias among supposed election workers astonishing.
“When you accept responsibility for an election, it can’t be about a party,” he said. “It can’t be about a person. It has to be about representing all the voters.”
Maricopa’s supervisors — four out of five of whom are Republicans — initially refused to release the 2020 ballots to the Arizona state Senate. The Senate, with broad subpoena powers, took the county board to court and a judge ordered the supervisors to comply.
The state Senate and its contractor, Cyber Ninjas, now have a lease at the State Fair’s Coliseum that expires on May 14.
On the first day the independent pool reporter was allowed inside, a news camera caught the unusual process of ballots being scanned with UV lights.
Bennett, the former Arizona secretary of state hired by Republicans to serve as an audit liaison, told reporters earlier in the week that “the UV lights are looking at the paper, and it’s part of several teams that are involved in the paper evaluation.” When CNN asked if he could specify the purpose the UV lights served, he said he did not know.
Under order by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Martin, Cyber Ninjas on Thursday released some of their procedures, including acknowledging the use of UV lights. In the Cyber Ninjas document, however, it wasn’t clearly explained why they were needed.
Another Cyber Ninjas document revealed security plans for the coliseum where the audit is being performed. Called “The Arizona Audit Security Overview,” it lays out potential security breaches, numbers of private security guards and singles out “Antifa” as a security threat.
The document shows that Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey denied a request for members of the Department of Public Safety and National Guard members to provide security. (Trump has often attacked Ducey for his loss in Arizona, and the state Republican Party censured the governor earlier this year.)
Instead, private security firms, including a volunteer organization known as the Arizona Rangers, have been hired to protect the ballots and election equipment.
Democratic Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit attempting to stop the ballot review, called the entire exercise a “fishing expedition.” She warned what was happening at the Arizona State Fair could be repeated elsewhere, believing this is the next page in the Trump playbook of the “Big Lie.”
“They cried and cried for an audit for months and they finally got it,” said Hobbs. “And they’re going to try to use this and get it to other places too.”