Opinion | The Trump Clown Car Has a Smashup in Arizona
Monday was supposed to be a banner day for former President Donald Trump and the MAGAverse. After multiple delays, legal challenges and public controversies, the results of the third — and hopefully final — review of the presidential voting in Maricopa County, Ariz., was scheduled for delivery to its Republican sponsors in the State Senate. At long last, the proof of mass election fraud would be laid out for all to see! Mr. Trump would be vindicated! Maybe even reinstated!
At least, that’s what MAGA die-hards hunkered down in their bunkers of disinformation were hoping. Most everyone else — including plenty of Arizona officials from both parties — just wanted this gong show to end.
Alas, it was not to be. On Monday, the Republican president of the State Senate, Karen Fann, announced that the Cyber Ninjas, the Florida-based firm overseeing the recount, had not yet completed a full draft report after all. It seems the firm’s chief executive and two other members of the “audit team” had come down with Covid-19. Also, the State Senate had only just received images of the ballot envelopes from Maricopa County, which still needed to be analyzed for inclusion in the final report.
And so the spectacle grinds on.
The clown-car chaos in Arizona is a near-perfect distillation of what Mr. Trump has done to the Republican Party, as well as much of the broader public. On what feels like a daily basis, he beats the drum about a stolen election, setting a tuneful lie that many Republican voters still dance to as the party mandarins look on, in either active support or silence. The political ramifications of this disinformation will be on display in Arizona’s U.S. Senate race next year, as well as those elsewhere, as independents and moderates assess if this is the party they want to reward.
But there’s another cost that should worry all of us: the integrity of election audits, which are important and are necessary. While many secretaries of state are now pushing for new standards for such audits, the Arizona recount stands as an object lesson about the embarrassing damage to democracy that one party can inflict when led by a sore loser who still manages to scare people.
For those who have blissfully forgotten the Arizona back story: Mr. Trump was mad about narrowly losing the state to Joe Biden. He was madder still when two recounts of vote-rich Maricopa County confirmed his loser status. Desperate to appease him and his devoted base, a gaggle of Republican state senators arranged for yet another review, this one run according to their preferences and overseen by private contractors of their choosing. The result has been a poisonous, partisan P.R. stunt so poorly executed that it makes the hunt for a new “Jeopardy!” host look smooth by comparison.
From the jump, it was clear that Arizona’s Republican lawmakers weren’t interested in putting together a serious audit. Ms. Fann tapped the Cyber Ninjas to run the show, despite the firm’s total lack of auditing experience — and despite it not submitting a formal proposal. How did this happen? It may have helped that the firm’s chief executive, Doug Logan, had tweeted his support of some of the wackier election-fraud conspiracy theories. (Venezuela? Really?)
The Republican lawmakers arranged for state taxpayers to foot part of the bill — an outrage in itself. But the Cyber Ninjas also gathered millions in private funding from Trump supporters. These include the former chief executive of Overstock.com, himself another spreader of election-fraud manure; a nonprofit group led by the former Trump administration official and QAnon flirt Michael Flynn; and a nonprofit founded by a host on the MAGA-tastic One America News Network.
As for the ballot counting process, the word “squirrelly” doesn’t begin to cover it. Among other absurdities, the ballots were examined for secret watermarks and for bamboo fibers, a nod to the conspiracy theory that fake ballots had been shipped over from Asia. And forget careful screening of workers for political bias. Among those hired was the former state lawmaker Anthony Kern, a “stop the steal” crusader who was photographed on the steps of the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 riot. (After a reporter posted a picture on Twitter of Mr. Kern at a counting table, the ex-lawmaker was removed over concerns about “optics.”)
In an independent evaluation of the process, Barry Burden, the head of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Trey Grayson, a former Republican secretary of state in Kentucky, detailed the review’s many “maladies.” “They include processing errors caused by a lack of basic knowledge, partisan biases of the people conducting the audit, and inconsistencies of procedures that undermine the reliability of the review and any conclusions they may draw. In particular, the operation lacks the consistency, attention to detail and transparency that are requirements for credible and reliable election reviews.”
Even some Republican officials have had enough. In May, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, a Republican-dominated body, accused state lawmakers of having “rented out the once good name of the Arizona State Senate” to “grifters.”
Last week, the Maricopa County recorder, a Republican, issued a long prebuttal to the Ninjas’ expected report, lamenting that the process had been an unnecessary disaster, that its results could not be trusted and that it was time for his party to “move forward.”
Some of the costs of the recount are easier to calculate than others. Because of concerns that the security of its voting machines had been compromised during the review, Maricopa County decertified the equipment. Last week, county officials demanded that the State Senate shell out $2.8 million for the purchase of new machines. Ms. Fann promptly pooh-poohed the request, but if the Senate doesn’t officially respond within 60 days, the county can sue.
However the Arizona odyssey ends, officials who care about restoring faith in the electoral system should take steps to prevent such nonsense from spreading. The Republicans’ recount was never going to change the outcome of the 2020 race. But it did become a model for Trump dead-enders across the nation — a beacon of obduracy.
At its summer conference this month, the National Association of Secretaries of State overwhelmingly recommended establishing concrete guidelines for postelection audits. Among other measures, they advised states to adopt timelines for audits, to ensure that area election officials remain central to the process and to rely only on state or federally accredited test labs. Outside contractors, they urged, should be used sparingly and operate under intensive oversight.
Having observed the slow-rolling Arizona debacle, states would be well served to install guard rails sooner rather than later. If there’s one thing the Trump years taught the nation, it’s that you cannot simply rely on public officials to operate in good faith or abide by widely accepted norms.
Serious, well-run audits play an important role in safeguarding the integrity of elections. What Arizona’s Republican senators arranged, by contrast, is what you’d get if you crossed a clown pageant with a QAnon convention and made the whole thing open bar. The whole mess would be entertaining if it weren’t so destructive.
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