June 15, 2021

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The mess in Maricopa’s audit – The Washington Post

22 min read

PHOENIX — Something spooky has been happening here in Maricopa County. Weird spooky, crazy spooky, this-has-never-happened-before-in-America spooky.

“We’re in uncharted waters,” says Tammy Patrick, a former Maricopa elections official.

“It’s a clown-car farce,” says Terry Goddard, a former Democratic attorney general of Arizona.

“It’s unacceptable,” says Grant Woods, a former Republican attorney general who has since become a Democrat. “I think it should stop.”

“All you have left now is the crazies leading the crazies,” says Democratic state Sen. Rebecca Rios. “It is mind-boggling and frightening that it has gone this far.”

Jack Sellers, the Republican chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, called an emergency meeting Monday to deal with the situation, which he described as “a grift disguised as an audit.”

What is going on in Maricopa County? For the past month, in a basketball arena in Phoenix, Arizonans have been tallying ballots from the 2020 presidential election — even though the ballots have already been officially counted, and verified via a hand count of a statistically representative subset, for an election that was conducted fairly, checked repeatedly, adjudicated nationwide and certified over and over again, for nearly seven months now.

Every time, the checks have confirmed that Joseph R. Biden beat Donald J. Trump for the presidency. Every time, Trump die-hards have doubted the outcome.

And so, last month, the Republican-led Arizona Senate took custody of all the nearly 2.1 million ballots from Maricopa County and then gave those ballots to a private company called Cyber Ninjas, a Florida cybersecurity firm that has never conducted an election audit, and whose CEO has been associated with social media claims that the election was fraudulent and with pro-Trump lawyers who filed election lawsuits last year.

“In my 28 years of doing elections I have never seen a private takeover of any kind of public process related to an election,” says Kim Wyman, Washington state’s Republican secretary of state. “It’s the wild, wild West.”

I.

‘It has become so bizarre’

From afar, the process in Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum appears low-key and methodical. The audit is boxes and paperwork and rotating trays that carry ballots past dizzied citizens.

The closer you look and the more you listen, the stranger this situation gets. Over the past month, workers used ultraviolet light to check ballots for watermarks that don’t exist. Cyber Ninjas anticipated an attack by left-wing militants that has not occurred. Doors have been propped or left open in this “large, porous public venue,” as Arizona’s elections director described the coliseum. Pigeons have gotten inside, adding to the concerns that ballots may be suspiciously marked. A former state representative who was on the ballot — and was photographed at a Trump rally in D.C. on the day of the insurrection — was counting votes for a while. What was that about?

“Cant talk … signed a NDA,” wrote former representative Anthony Kern in an email. A nondisclosure agreement is yet another unheard-of component of this “audit,” which its critics refuse to mention without scare quotes.

“It’s amateur hour,” says Jeff Flake, the Republican former U.S. senator from Arizona. “It’s horrible for democracy.”

Ryan Macias, right, an observer for Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, watches as Cyber Ninjas workers examine and recount ballots from Maricopa County. (Courtney Pedroza/For The Washington Post)

“The ballots themselves can no longer be trusted,” says Ryan Macias, an election technology expert who has observed the process from the floor of the coliseum.

Rod Thomson, a spokesman for Cyber Ninjas, questions the credibility of critics who’ve been against a full audit from the beginning. “Cyber Ninjas has continued to follow its contract with the Arizona Senate to conduct the most comprehensive election audit in history,” Thomson wrote in an email to The Washington Post. “Cyber Ninjas has a proven track record in cybersecurity and information technology services and will continue to maintain a high standard of professionalism in completing this engagement as they do all of their engagements.”

Skeptical experts are not the only ones watching this engagement. Hashtag patriots are cobbling together a legend around Maricopa that fits into the cuckoo mythology of Trumpism. Day and night, all around America, armchair conspiracy theorists have scrutinized live video feeds of the process, from nine different angles, broadcast by One America News, the pro-Trump channel that has been given favored access to the property, process and people involved. Followers of QAnon — a sprawling set of false claims that have coalesced into a radicalized movement that the FBI has designated a domestic terrorism threat — believed that a carnival next door was a false-flag operation to disrupt the audit. “The first domino to fall” is how those people are referring to Arizona, and the phrase is being echoed by channels like OAN and stoked by state legislators who supported the “Stop the Steal” movement. Mike Lindell, the pro-Trump pillow magnate, referred to Arizona as “ground zero” at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year. On April 14, Ron Watkins, the website administrator who some suspect is responsible for QAnon, posted that “the world is watching Maricopa.”

“Watch Arizona,” Trump told Mar-a-Lago guests two weeks later, adding, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they found thousands and thousands and thousands of votes.”

My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell is interviewed at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando in February. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The obsessives have read sinister meaning into the fact that one of the Maricopa County supervisors happens to be named Bill Gates, and that Dominion Voting Systems, whose equipment is used in Arizona elections, runs Microsoft software.

“It has become so bizarre,” says Gates, a Republican member of the board, which helps run elections. The five supervisors, four of whom are Republican, have been painted as traitors for conducting and defending a legitimate election. In February the state Senate fell one vote short of holding the supervisors in contempt, which might have resulted in their arrests. Outside the coliseum, a vigil of Trump supporters erected a huge sign that says “BOARD OF SUPERVISORS IS THE ENEMY OF THE NATION.”

Between the obscure tedium inside the coliseum and the carnival lunacy outside, it’s possible to miss what’s really going on in Maricopa: not an insurrection, but a kind of nonviolent adminsurrection — a haphazard, unprecedented corruption of both the democratic process and public trust, according to a bipartisan array of officials in Arizona and around the country who are worried it will spread to other states.

Says supervisor Bill Gates: “We’ve gone into the rabbit hole.”

President Donald Trump at an campaign rally in Goodyear, Ariz., last October. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

II.

‘You ain’t seen nothing yet’

To understand why the rabbit hole opened here, and why it’s gotten so deep, it helps to understand the terrain. Maricopa County is bigger than New Jersey and more populous than Oregon. Since Arizona achieved statehood in 1912, only a single presidential candidate has won Arizona without carrying Maricopa. Starting in 1952 the county swung Republican in every presidential election — until 2020, when Joe Biden won a slim majority of votes in Maricopa and beat Trump statewide by just 0.3 percentage points, locking down 11 electoral points that were crucial to offsetting losses in swing states such as North Carolina.

Arizona is a prize. You get it by winning Maricopa.

Political scientists had been expecting a blue Arizona at some point, given Maricopa’s 17.5 percent growth in population since 2010 and an increasingly younger, politically active and ethnically diverse voter base, buoyed by Hispanic immigrants and an influx of Californians, who are fleeing regulation and taxes and paying for haciendas in cash.

But heading into November 2020, Republicans in Arizona and elsewhere were primed to see defeat not as a result of demographic trends or political failures but rather as the fulfillment of a prophecy: Trump had promised Americans there would be fraud, especially if he lost.

At 11:20 p.m. on Election Day, when Fox News called Arizona for Biden, social media exploded with the rumor, rebutted by officials, that Trump ballots in Maricopa were rejected because voters used Sharpies. The frenzy manifested in real life when disinformation peddler Alex Jones and furious citizens swarmed the county’s ballot-processing center.

“We don’t know how this is going to end,” Jones bellowed, “but if they want a fight they’d better believe they’ve got one.”

Normal contingencies for verifying the results kicked into gear. Maricopa’s official hand recount of 2 percent of ballots found no irregularity; the voting machines passed tests for logic and accuracy under bipartisan watch. On Nov. 30, Arizona’s Republican governor endorsed the certification of Biden’s win.

That same day, at a Hyatt in downtown Phoenix, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani was leading a rogue hearing hosted by Republicans from the state legislature — Republicans who believed Arizona was a red state, no matter what the numbers indicated.

Trump called into the event and said, “I know that we won Arizona.” He assured the legislators that their fight was becoming “legend.”

Giuliani told them: “I’m counting on you to find me a whole bunch of others in the legislature like you, or turn them into you.”

“I think it would be poetic justice if President Trump won by 2,020 votes” after a review of the ballots, said state Sen. Sonny Borrelli (R). He was followed by state Rep. Mark Finchem (R), who five weeks later would be in the area of the U.S. Capitol, as the insurrection unfolded, though he would deny immediate awareness of it.

“Ladies and gentleman, this is a skirmish,” said Finchem on Nov. 30, laying out a vision for the coming months. “You ain’t seen nothing yet. Because when Satan wants to extinguish a light, he will stop at nothing. So be on your guard, put on the full armor of God, and be prepared to fight.”

Trump supporters outside the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum, where the audit of Maricopa County ballots was being conducted. (Courtney Pedroza/For The Washington Post)

III.

‘A new revolution is upon us’

Shelby and Steve were prepared to fight.

“We’re just normal people,” says Shelby Busch. “We’re grandparents.”

She works in the medical field and is a district chair for the Maricopa County Republicans. Steve Robinson, her fiance, works in maintenance. They had distrusted elections for years, even when Trump won in 2016, so they led the charge for a full audit in Maricopa. They say they had heard about hackable software and seen video of purported ballot manipulation. Something was wrong, they thought, and recounting all the votes was a way to get to the bottom of it.

On Dec. 29 they co-founded a political action committee called We the People AZ Alliance, whose website promises to “hold elected representatives accountable” and “take our country back!”

The alliance held rallies outside the Arizona Capitol complex Dec. 30 and Jan. 6 to support an audit and issue a “warning” to politicians.

“A new revolution is upon us,” Steve told a crowd in Phoenix, not long after law enforcement had quelled the insurrection in Washington.

“Let’s get five tyrants out of office,” Shelby said at the microphone, referring to the Maricopa County supervisors, whom they hoped to recall from their positions.

Their PAC started receiving donations from individuals around the country: $100 from a plumber in Hillsboro, Wis., $200 from a real estate agent in Pacific Palisades, Calif., $7,000 from a retired firearms dealer in Apache Junction, Ariz.

In March they got $50,000 from Lindell, the founder of MyPillow, who had recently appeared by video at one of their rallies.

“This is evil versus good, and it’s going to be amazing,” Lindell said to hundreds of cheering Arizonans in Queen Creek, Ariz., on March 10. “We get through this, I believe Donald Trump will be back in office this summer.”

Arizona Senate President Karen Fann (R) said the audit “is not about Trump. It’s not about overturning the election or the electors or anybody else.” (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

Maricopa County and the Republican House speaker declined to legitimize the movement, leaving the Arizona front of Trump’s war to the state Senate, which subpoenaed the county for the ballots. Around the time Trump was calling Georgia’s secretary of state, asking him to “find” 11,780 votes, Maricopa’s Board of Supervisors was receiving phone calls from Giuliani and others who wanted intervention in Arizona.

“It felt like the members of the Senate were being used by outside forces,” says supervisor Bill Gates. “These outside forces reached out to us. And we were not going to engage in those conversations. We had a job to do, and we did it.” (Giuliani could not be reached for comment.)

Karen Fann, the president of the Senate, had a reputation as a reasonable and levelheaded leader. Fann’s district consists mostly of Yavapai County, which nearly rivals Maricopa in land area but contains roughly a twentieth of the population. Between 2016 and 2020, as his margins deflated in Arizona cities and suburbs, Trump nudged up his vote share in Yavapai by 1.4 percentage points. Fann’s decision to back an audit was in service to her constituents, she told “Arizona Horizon,” a local PBS program. She said she received “thousands and thousands” of emails in support, and tried to make the process bipartisan. The Senate retained Cyber Ninjas for $150,000 after Fann consulted with other legislators. (She later explained that a forensics firm that worked for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would have cost $8 million.)

Fann declined to comment for this article, but she told “Arizona Horizon” that the audit “is not about Trump. It’s not about overturning the election or the electors or anybody else. This is about: 48 percent of the voters in Arizona have no confidence in our electoral system right now, rightly or wrongly so, for whatever reason. And they deserve answers.”

Privately, Fann has described it as a no-win situation, according to state Sen. Rios. Current and former state officials are bewildered by Fann’s actions, and fret about the motives and consequences of the audit. Is it a plan to find “evidence” to justify suppressive voter laws? Who benefits from distrust and chaos?

“Arizona, like other states, has always had that fringe element,” says former senator Flake, “but I guess the only difference now is that some of them are in control.”

Workers and volunteers for Cyber Ninjas examine and recount ballots at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix. (Courtney Pedroza/For The Washington Post)

IV.

‘They are writing the playbook here’

The fringe, as Flake calls it, has taken center stage at the state fairgrounds. The Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum opened on the fairgrounds in 1965 with Bob Hope hosting the Ice Follies, according to the Phoenix New Times. Elvis played here, as did the Phoenix Suns for about a quarter-century. In recent years the coliseum hosted gun shows, a jujitsu championship and MC Hammer. Now it is home to “the most comprehensive forensic election audit in the history of our galaxy,” according to a Twitter account associated with the state Senate.

The activity on the coliseum floor has a Kafka-meets-Willy Wonka vibe. Workers and volunteers in color-coded T-shirts carry out various administrative tasks, Oompa-Loompa-like. Ballots are withdrawn from a chain-link rent-a-fence, slowly unboxed in batches of 100 and spun two at a time on color-coded trays, where three workers look for the tiny bubble (filled in for either BIDEN or TRUMP) as the ballots move by. Then the ballots are reboxed to await their turn on a paper forensics table, where they are photographed. The images are uploaded to laptops, which experts say have not been independently tested or certified). Eventually the ballots are carted to another chain-link cage that is labeled with a pink slip of paper that says “COMPLETE.” When the audit paused May 14 to clear out for high school graduations, about 20 percent of ballots had been tabulated.

“We got 6,000 students — them and their family members — that are going down to the coliseum, just a few yards away from our ballots and our machines,” said county supervisor Steve Gallardo during the emergency meeting earlier this week. “Is that ‘ballot security’?”

The plan is to restart the audit Monday, despite its trail of oddities and the mounting fury over its execution. While Arizonans are carrying out the physical process of the audit, semi-mysterious out-of-towners seem to be involved in its funding and execution. A website started by Patrick Byrne, the former CEO of Overstock who claims fraud cost Trump reelection, is soliciting volunteers to work at the audit while trying to raise $2.8 million to support it. (Reached by text, Byrne did not answer a question about where the money was going.) Byrne says he has donated $1 million personally, and predicts an unspecified “titanic victory” around Memorial Day.

Another name that’s echoing around is Jovan Hutton Pulitzer. A “document pattern recognition expert,” Pulitzer once billed himself as the commander of TreasureForce, the “world’s foremost terrestrial treasure recovery team.” He is also the author of many books, including a survival guide titled “How to Cut Off Your Arm and Eat Your Dog.” Pulitzer says he developed a “virtual machine and platform” that can evaluate the authenticity of ballot paper. People orbiting the audit have suggested that his technology is being used to analyze photos of the Maricopa ballots.

“I can’t confirm or deny that,” Pulitzer said during an earnest two-hour phone conversation that covered everything from hanging chads to conquistador spears.

Why not?

“Everybody in these things has NDAs,” he says, adding that he’s a conservative but not a “stop the stealer,” or a QAnon adherent, or the “failed treasure hunter” that Georgia’s secretary of state labeled him in December, after he claimed there were vulnerabilities in Georgia’s election systems.

“I can tell you there are issues and problems, and if these machines can’t tell a real ballot from a fake ballot, we need to look at the ballots to understand what’s going on,” Pulitzer says, adding: “My job is just to understand what happened. I. Don’t. Know. What. Happened.”

That’s a big refrain in Maricopa, and around the country. Something went wrong, and we don’t really know what it is.

“I’m trying to get to the bottom of it,” Sen. Fann has said, without specifying what “it” is.

“The election was stolen,” tweeted Wendy Rogers, a newly elected Republican state senator, on the day of Giuliani’s event in November. “We will get to the bottom of it. People must go to jail.”

“There’s lots of gaps and holes and, really, just misinformation,” said state Sen. Warren Petersen (R) on Tuesday, adding: “I’m trying to get to the bottom of some of these things.”

This is just a race to the bottom, according to current and former officials, who say some Arizona Republicans are worried about getting “Mike Pence’d” — facing political or possibly physical danger — if they don’t support Trump’s continuing attack on democracy. The Maricopa supervisors have been harassed outside their homes, assigned police protection and decamped to Airbnbs to avoid threats.

“My colleagues across the country in Georgia and Michigan and many other states have protection details because their lives have been threatened” since the election, says Kim Wyman, the Washington secretary of state. “It’s frightening.”

Democrat Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s secretary of state, received a security detail after a deluge of threats, but she has remained in the fray. As the state’s top election official, she has excoriated the “fraudit” all over the mainstream media, partly because she fears it will become the norm.

“Look, this is comical to watch,” Hobbs says of the Maricopa mess. “We’ve all laughed at it, watching it unfold,” but “it is very serious. This is precedent-setting. They are writing the playbook here.”

Republican county committees around the country are making requests to do forensic audits, according to multiple state secretaries of state, and local officials nationwide are fielding bizarre offers from unqualified “auditors.” Byrne, the former Overstock CEO, is now backing an audit push in Pennsylvania. Earlier this month, hundreds of people showed up at a town meeting in Windham, N.H., to demand an audit; they turned their backs on the board of selectmen and chanted, “Stop the Steal.” An accountant from Nashua, N.H., has apparently raised $74,000 through a Christian crowdfunding site in an effort to hire Jovan Pulitzer to conduct a “people’s audit” in New Hampshire (Pulitzer says he is not an auditor, and did not initiate contact with New Hampshire or its citizens).

None of this is visible from the floor of the Arizona arena. But on Twitch, Telegram and YouTube, you can see how the rabbit hole that has opened in Arizona is part of a larger warren; a series of tunnels that allow Internet ravings to worm their way into the rhetoric of officials. Recently a claim from one of Lindell’s online documentaries — about a “systemic algorithm” used to elect Biden — ping-ponged around Twitter and into the timeline of an Arizona state senator. A critical post from Ron Watkins on voting software made its way to state Rep. Finchem’s Gab account via a tweet from an OAN reporter.

“There’s nothing we’re doing here that you can’t do in your state,” a Scottsdale real estate agent named Gail said May 7 to her 6,000 subscribers on YouTube. “We contact our senators consistently, and get a ground operation going.”

The state Senate may be orchestrating this audit to shore up the security of future elections, but people online believe it will help put Trump back in the Oval Office. The “domino” metaphor is repeated on message boards and social media, in tweets and videos.

“It’s all ridiculous, but there are people that believe this,” Hobbs says. “We saw what happened on January 6th. I wouldn’t put it out of the realm of possibility that something like that could happen again.”

State Rep. Mark Finchem (R) at his desk during the opening of the Arizona Legislature in January. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

V.

‘Good intentions’

The audit was supposed to wrap May 14, but now it will end sometime in June, according to Cyber Ninjas, which is still operating under the $150,000 contract with the Senate. What will the audit really cost, though, and who’s paying for it? It took about 17 days to count around a fifth of the ballots; at that pace, the counting would go through July.

Meanwhile, access to voting materials has been granted so permissively via the audit in Maricopa — and through court cases in Michigan and other states — that experts are nervous about the security implications.

“What really worries me is that so many groups are getting the kind of access to the election system that you’d need to make fraud happen in the future,” says J. Alex Halderman, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan, adding: “Up until 2020 we were worried about very well-resourced foreign actors like Russia,” but “what’s happening now is creating a very serious potential for a serious domestic threat in 2022 and 2024, the likes of which we’ve never had before. There’s never been this confluence of political actors, technical actors and access.”

Hypothetically speaking, if Maricopa is the front line of a slow-moving adminsurrection, this is what a perimeter breach might look like.

As it stands, private companies and individuals have been granted unprecedented access to equipment, the Arizona Republic reported Wednesday, and the county’s voting systems could be unusable after the audit. Cyber Ninjas told The Post that “all proper care and procedures as outlined in the terms of the contract were executed to ensure confidence with the equipment being used.” But on Thursday Hobbs said this equipment was compromised because “election officials do not know what was done to the machines while under Cyber Ninjas’ control.”

More broadly, Hobbs wonders if bad actors will start infiltrating poll-worker recruitment. Others worry responsible elections officials will be intimidated out of their jobs and replaced by partisan crusaders, who may believe they have to kick in the doors of the sanctum to protect it.

State Rep. Finchem, the Republican who at Giuliani’s hearing spoke of battling Satan, is campaigning to replace Hobbs as secretary of state in 2022. In a recent interview with the podcast “Red Pill News” — a source for news about QAnon and “President Trump’s war on the Deep State,” per a description on iTunes — he suggested that, if fraud is found in Maricopa, the legislature could “reclaim” the state’s presidential electors.

“At this point, that’s the best I’m hoping for,” said Finchem.

Finchem, who did not respond to requests for comment, seems to really believe in what he’s doing. Sincerity underpins “participatory disinformation,” which is the interplay between concerned citizens, who rile each other up with these claims, and the actors who conscript them into real-world battle, explains researcher Kate Starbird, who studies online rumors and social media usage during crises. This is how you get rallies to “Stop the Steal,” affidavits that cry foul at polling places, and 7 in 10 Republicans believing that Biden did not legitimately win enough votes to win the presidency, according to a recent CNN poll.

Matthew Masterson, former senior cybersecurity adviser at the Department of Homeland Security, says he talks every day to elections officials who are being swamped by this type of disinformation.

“This is part of their reality: doing everything by the book, and still being presented with outlandish theories and lies,” Masterson said on a May 4 call coordinated by the National Task Force on Election Crises. “The only people that benefit are those that are raising money off this and, more directly, Vladimir Putin in Russia, who gets to watch us undermine our own democracy.”

Participatory disinformation motivated the Jan. 6 insurrection, says Starbird, an associate professor at the University of Washington. Before and after Nov. 3, elites spread a message of a rigged election. Audiences engaged with this message, either tactically or sincerely, by generating false or misleading stories of voter fraud that sometimes caught the attention of elites, who then amplified those stories and created an echo chamber of collective grievance that became increasingly violent in tone. Starbird mapped a “retweet network” of the “Stop the Steal” movement, and Arizona was well represented in the run-up to Jan. 6: Finchem, Arizona GOP Chair Kelli Ward and Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) were major nodes of disinformation that encircled Trump’s and spoked outward to countless ordinary Americans, some of whom were ready to take action.

“So many people are doing it with good intentions,” Starbird says. “They’re sincere believers trying to find evidence” to support their theories — which may lead them to misinterpret events. “They’re searching for a greater truth,” and “getting all this positive feedback” on social media. “Your celebrity influencers are actually validating you and telling you that you mean something. It’s such a powerful kind of political participation.”

Last month, about 10 days before ballots started arriving at the coliseum, an event titled “Fight for Freedom: Elections Exposed” was held in Las Vegas. Lindell and Patrick Byrne were featured on the flier. So was Jovan Pulitzer, listed as a “kinematic inventor.” So were self-described normal people: Shelby Busch and Steve Robinson, founders of We the People AZ Alliance. Robinson patched Lindell in via Zoom, and Busch helped to introduce him.

“I feel so blessed to be a part of this,” the pillow king said, to applause from the audience. “And to be fighting out there. I know all of you are doing the same thing.”

Shelby Busch, with her fiance Steve Robinson behind her, speaks at the Arizona Revival Rally at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Phoenix on May 8. (Courtney Pedroza/For The Washington Post)

VI.

‘You don’t take from God’

Shelby Busch and Steve Robinson’s latest rally in Arizona was billed as a “revival,” and for good reason. At a veterans’ memorial near the State Capitol on May 8, speakers framed the audit in biblical terms.

“Put your faith in God, like we have with this audit,” said a woman named Patty, wearing a “Latinas for Trump” shirt. “The election was stolen, and you don’t take from God. I will die fighting. We all need to be there. It is a war.”

“We know who wins in the end,” said a congressional candidate named Jeff Zink, seeming to equate the certainty of God’s final victory with the eventuality of Trump’s.

“That heaviness you feel every day when you wake up?” Busch said. “That’s spiritual warfare.”

Robinson, who referred to Trump as “our rightful president,” said “several states in this nation are soon to follow” Arizona.

After Busch and Robinson spoke to the crowd of about 100, they hustled over to the shade of the state Senate building. They were scheduled to speak remotely at a rally in Georgia featuring Lindell. They smoked Camels and waited in the virtual green room on Robinson’s phone. Away from the microphones, their rhetoric was softer. Their loyalty is to the Constitution, they said, which means fighting corruption and fraud.

“We’re confident it’s happening,” Robinson said, “but we don’t know why.”

The audit, Busch said, “is about identifying the problems so that we can work as a nation to resolve these issues.”

But how could they trust a partisan audit that was conducted without proper oversight? By way of explanation, Busch talked about a 2017 tweet from Hobbs, when she was the leader of the state Senate’s Democratic minority, criticizing Trump for “pandering to his neo-nazi base” in his response to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. Shelby felt Hobbs was referring to all Trump supporters as Nazis. And Hobbs was in charge of the 2020 election in Arizona.

“I understand why you wouldn’t trust this audit,” Busch said, “but can you understand why we don’t trust your election?”

This audit. Your election. What’s happening in Maricopa can seem confounding, but maybe it’s that simple.

The skirmishes continue. Last week, the official audit Twitter account accused Maricopa County of spoiling evidence by deleting election databases. The account shared a screenshot of a database directory, without any explanation of what it meant. The wild claim was retweeted more than 12,000 times and boosted by the usual suspects.

Pulitzer shared the tweet on Telegram, where followers replied with “Firing squad!” and “Time for hanging?”

On Steve Bannon’s podcast, Rep. Finchem, who is hoping to become Arizona’s top election official, wondered if this evidence revealed Maricopa’s “incompetence” or “criminality.”

Patrick Byrne, the former CEO who is raising money for the audit, announced that “we now have the forensic proof of another massive federal felony.”

“Look at that, you guys,” Gail, the Scottsdale real estate agent, told her followers on YouTube, sharing the database screenshot. “I mean, it’s a crime. This is a crime scene.”

The Gateway Pundit, a pro-Trump website that has access to the coliseum, declared that Maricopa officials “DELETED ENTIRE DATABASE DIRECTORY from Voting Machines.”

Trump repeated the accusation, announcing on his website that “the entire Database of Maricopa County in Arizona has been DELETED!”

Jack Sellers, the Republican chairman of the board, called the allegations “false” and “outrageous.”

“This is not funny,” Sellers wrote to Fann, the Senate president. “This is dangerous.” The county released a technical document Monday explaining how the server functioned, which appeared to clear up the matter.

At a meeting Tuesday, a Cyber Ninjas subcontractor said that all this “may be a moot point,” because he’d since been able to “recover” the files in question, though the county described that they were there all along. Was it a misunderstanding? Did someone screw up? It didn’t matter. The crime fantasy had already spread, and Trump was promising “many other States to follow.”

The audit “has nothing to do with overturning the election,” Fann repeated Tuesday.

“The story is only getting bigger,” Trump said in a statement.

And so his supporters will continue to look at Arizona like a domino.

If it doesn’t fall, what will they do? If it does, what falls next?

A worker rests at a paper forensics table at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum. (Courtney Pedroza/For The Washington Post)

dan.zak@washpost.com

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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