Senate liaison Ken Bennett blocked from entering Arizona election audit as tension with contractors boils over
Questions are mounting about who is in control of the long-running partisan review of Maricopa County's 2020 election results — the Arizona Senate, which ordered it, or the outside firms that are running it.
On Friday, Ken Bennett, the Senate liaison to the audit, was not allowed into the building at the state fairgrounds where the audit is taking place, a day after he shared data with outside critics from an ongoing ballot count.
Senate President Karen Fann has billed this third ballot count as a way to check the ballots tallied both by the county and the Senate's contractor.
And although it is intended to be an independent check, the Senate's lead contractor, Cyber Ninjas, fronted the money to buy high-speed counting machines for the new count; its attorney is providing access to the ballots from their secured location; and the attorney and other workers from the initial count are feeding the ballots into the machines and recording the results.
While this work is supposedly being overseen by Senate representatives, many times that oversight is not there.
Senate representative blocked from entering audit building
John Brakey, a Tucson election-transparency activist who serves as a consultant for the audit team, said Bennett told him Friday that Bennett was not let into the building that morning.
Bennett did not directly answer a question from The Republic about whether he was not let in. He said he was tending to unrelated business in Prescott.
Fann said that Bennett was still the Senate's liaison, and that Randy Pullen, another Senate representative, is overseeing Friday's operations.
This development comes a day after The Arizona Republic learned that Bennett had provided initial results from the new machine count to a trio of outside election analysts who have been critical of the Senate-run audit.
The Cyber Ninjas have for weeks resisted getting outside checks of the audit, insiders say.
At first, it was a pitch for an electronic recount using digital images. Then came the offer by the analysts to compare their box-by-box analysis of the county's ballot count to the box counts put together by Cyber Ninjas. While those requests were initially ignored, Bennett has supported them and decided this week to take to the analysts the data from the Senate's new count.
Cyber Ninjas spokesperson Rod Thomson said that any decision to not let Bennett into the building was made by Fann's office, not by the Cyber Ninjas.
Fann did not reply when asked about Thomson's statement.
The data Bennett provided to the outside analysts, Larry Moore and Benny White, showed the results of the ongoing machine count of the ballots tracks very closely with the county's tally.
If that trend continues, it may call into question the results of Cyber Ninjas' count, because Fann has said that the Cyber Ninjas' count did not match the county's.
Senate not paying for majority of the audit
Since before the audit began, questions have been asked about who is in charge.
While Senate Republican leaders commissioned the audit in April after getting the ballots from the county through subpoenas, the Senate has funded only a small portion of the costs.
The Senate is paying $150,000, but election experts have estimated the effort is costing millions of dollars, and multiple former President Donald Trump allies have said they are fundraising for it.
Cyber Ninjas, a Florida-based cybersecurity company with ties to the "Stop the Steal" movement, has refused to say who is paying them.
The original workers' involvement in the new count means it is not independent from the first "in any way," said Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser of elections at Democracy Fund, who previously worked for Maricopa County Elections Department.
“It's better to have a second set of eyes," she said. "A true review or audit involves changing up who is looking at the materials and the information — and ideally it's individuals without a preconceived notion of what they want the outcome to be."
Conflict grows between Senate liaison and contractors
Fann ordered the new ballot count,which began July 13 after Senate contractors finished their months-long recount of the votes cast in the county's 2020 presidential and U.S. Senate races.
Fann saidtwo weeks ago the Senate would begin its own count of the number of ballots cast, using paper counting machines. She emphasized the Senate would be counting only the number of ballots cast, not retallying the votes for president and U.S. Senate.
”We’re going to run all the ballots through to see how they match up," Fann said July 8 after stopping by the audit operation at the state fairgrounds.
She has since said the counts from the county and the Senate contractors don't match up, so this would be a "check" on those tallies.
While Bennett has said repeatedly the Senate will not release results from the audit until it is complete, this week he provided the tallies of 24 boxes of ballots that had been counted by the Senate machines to Moore and White.
Moore is the retired founder of Clear Ballot, an election technology company that performs audits of elections nationwide. White is a Republican elections consultant from Tucson.
Bennett said he did it out of "curiosity" but said it is premature to draw any conclusions from the sampling.
There are more than 1,600 boxes of ballots.
Bennett confirmed Thursday that he did not tell Cyber Ninjas' CEO Doug Logan or company attorney Bryan Blehm about this effort.
Tension has been growing between Bennett and the Cyber Ninjas for months, Brakey said.
Part of the tension is because Bennett has long supported an additional check of the election results, separate from the Cyber Ninjas, while Cyber Ninjas have not, according to Brakey and Steven Rosenfeld, a San Francisco-based elections reporter who has been given special access to the audit.
Bennett’s goal is not the same as the Cyber Ninjas’, Rosenfeld told The Republic last month.
“Bennett is trying to expand what’s looked at to more than just the hand count," Rosenfeld said. "And he’s being blocked. They are trying to stymie him.”
Brakey said that Doug Logan is against an outside review of ballots and "he is lobbying to fire Ken Bennett."
Brakey said Friday that it was outrageous that Bennett wasblocked from entering the building.
"They need to take Ken Bennett and put him in charge if there is going to be any hope of good things coming out of this audit," Brakey said.
Earlier in the week, a security guard ever-present at the audit — who does not work for the Senate but will not tell reporters his name or who he works for — attempted to block Bennett from speaking to the media.
Asked by a reporter what the conflict was about, Bennett said it was a "power play."
A close match with the county count
Moore and White spent weeks analyzing the county's record of cast votes in the election andhave been itching to get a chance to compare their analysis with the Senate's results.
The Senate haspreviously rebuffed their offers to provide their services for the audit.
Earlier this week, at Moore’s request, Bennett provided results of the machine count from 24 of the more than 1,600 boxes of ballots.
The election experts compared those results against their system and found they matched almost perfectly, Moore said.
Out of 24 boxes of ballots, four of the counts did not match. The largest discrepancy, of 18 votes, is most likely due to two transposed numbers, Moore said, noting that while the machines count the ballots, the tallies are hand-entered by volunteers.
Since their system was built using county election data, the data Bennett provided suggests the machine count is tracking very closely to the county’s tally.
That calls into question the Cyber Ninja’s count, Moore said. After all, if it were close to the county tally, there wouldn’t be a need for the additional check that Fann ordered. The Cyber Ninjas' hand count of the ballots has been completed, but won’t be released until a final report is issued.
Bennett said Thursday that Moore is jumping the gun.
“That’s a huge assumption on their part,” Bennett said of Moore’s conclusion that the Cyber Ninja count is flawed. “That’s not my position at all.”
He said the data he provided was a way to check the ongoing machine count.
“To see if we’re matching on some counts, which we are, and we’re not matching on other counts,” Bennett said.
Cyber Ninjas attorney helps conduct new count
While Fann billed the new count as independent, spokesman Pullen has said from the start that the Cyber Ninjas and their workers would be involved.
"(Cyber Ninjas) have to have people there to sign in the boxes and sign them out," Pullen said last week.
Bennett also has had access to the ballot cages, though, and has had the ability to sign boxes in and out.
Since the new ballot count began last week, Cyber Ninjas attorney Bryan Blehm has been present at all times during the count, Bennett said. The Republic has consistently observed Blehm feeding ballots into a counting machine and marking down the new count, without someone else monitoring his work.
Pullen said last week that StratTech, one of Cyber Ninjas' original contractors, would ensure that chain of custody is maintained with the ballots during this count, and volunteers would feed in the ballots.
Ken Matta, an observer with the Secretary of State's Office, has said many of the workers doing the new count also participated in the original count.
Bennett said that the Senate is running the new count but that he couldn't answer questions about the specifics. He directed all questions to Pullen.
Cyber Ninjas buys machines, Senate says it will pay back
The Senate would purchase two paper-counting machines for the new count, Pullen said initially.
However, even this purchase wasn't independent of the Cyber Ninjas. The company or one of its subcontractors bought the machines, according to information The Republic obtained from the Senate through a public records request. Senate officials say the Senate will pay the company back.
Pullen said the two machines, plus two companion pieces of equipment used to align the ballots, cost about $30,000. That also includes the cost of hiring a local technician to train people on how to operate the machines.
The high-speed counting machines were made by U.S. Paper Counters out of Cairo, New York, and cost $13,500 each, according to the company's website.