After 2 weeks of counting, election experts warn of harmful effects from Arizona election audit

Andrew Oxford
Arizona Republic

With two full weeks of counting over and a long way to go before all of Maricopa County's 2.1 million ballots are examined, it is more unclear than ever when exactly the public might see results.

In the meantime, the work done on behalf of the Arizona Senate contractors has returned Arizona politics to punchline status and captivated many supporters of former President Donald Trump who hope — despite past audits finding nothing to support the idea — that his defeat in Maricopa County will somehow be revealed as a victory that was robbed of him.

Whatever happens, many election experts and administrators beyond Arizona are already confident of one outcome: increased distrust in voting systems everywhere and less confidence in the democratic process.

"Pretty much anything from today forward is just a crapshoot and the only point of it is to undermine confidence in the results. That is the only endgame here," said Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican who has watched the news out of Maricopa County with concern.

Wyman said the processes and procedures the Senate's contractors have outlined do not come close to the standards of election administrators. In turn, she said the effort is at risk of errors and inaccuracies. The final result likely will differ from what election officials reported last year, she said. The outcome of all of this then would be a shadow over the results that were previously certified by bipartisan groups of elected officials at the county and state level.

For many election officials used to working under procedures that include all political parties and meticulous planning, the recount at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix — done by contractors who have no experience with such a large task — has no credibility.

Maricopa County ballots from the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors hired by the Arizona Senate, May 5, 2021, at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Phoenix.

"I have no confidence as an election official that any of those ballots are legitimate now. None," said Wyman.

The past several years already have undermined voter confidence and the Arizona Senate's audit will contribute to that with the potentially long-term effect of diminishing election participation and turnout, said David Becker, a former voting rights attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice and executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research.

Intelligence agencies have reported that foreign governments have sought to undermine confidence in the electoral process and American institutions, with the Russian government aiming to undercut Trump's rivals.

"I'm concerned that this environment of doubt about democracy itself, which is being fed and fostered both by our external adversaries — autocracies around the world — and by sore loser candidates who just cannot process the idea that they might have lost. We've got to turn that around and it’s making the work to do that harder," he told reporters recently.

Wyman said political parties going forward may see a benefit in casting doubt on their defeats in the hopes of rallying supporters and raising money.

GOP in an 'electoral cul-de-sac'

Chuck Coughlin, a Republican political consultant at the Arizona-based firm Highground, published something of a warning to Republicans who believe this is a winning message, though.

The firm said it polled a group of 500 Arizona voters and found 55% do not believe there was "significant voter fraud in the last presidential election which compromised the integrity of the election."

Another 3% did not know or did not respond, leaving about 42% who said "definitely yes" or "probably yes."

'This is turning into a mockery':AZ Republicans worry about consequences from election audit

The group of people surveyed leaned Republican in an effort to reflect the anticipated turnout in the midterm election next year. But about two-thirds of independents and nearly all Democrats surveyed said they did not think there was significant fraud.

"Republicans bent on claiming fraud and making that an integral part of their statewide election campaign should understand the electoral cul-de-sac they are living in," wrote Chuck Coughlin, a Republican consultant at the firm.

Senate Republicans have maintained that this effort has nothing to do with the last election, could not change anything about it and is merely an investigation to inform policies for future elections.

And when it comes to restoring voter confidence, former Secretary of State and Senate liaison to the audit Ken Bennett suggested to reporters at the start of the audit that he anticipated not everyone would be satisfied.

"The half of the people that don't trust the 2020 election are the opposite of the other half of the people who were screaming fraud and mistrust of the 2016 election," he said. "So, in a four-year period, we've had just about all of the country express some frustration over whether our elections in America are secure, whether they have integrity."

Bennett is himself a veteran of a previous effort that sought to undermine the confidence in the outcome of the election.

When he was secretary of state, he investigated whether then-President Barack Obama was born in Hawaii.

And speaking of distrust: Bennett says don't listen to the podcasters and politicians who claim to have inside information from the recount.

"That's all baloney," he told reporters Thursday.

Contact Andrew Oxford at andrew.oxford@arizonarepublic.com or on Twitter at @andrewboxford.

Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.