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Antifa fears, UV lights: What the group running Arizona GOP's election audit tried to keep secret

Months after Trump's loss, a review of Maricopa County ballots, instigated by Republicans and paid for by taxpayers and undisclosed donors, fans fraud conspiracies.
Image: Photos of a Maricopa County ballot box, a Arizona election ballot, and an election worker counting ballots with scribbles.
Documents offer a detailed look at the conspiratorial thinking behind an extraordinary partisan hunt for election fraud in Arizona.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images

The private companies hired by Arizona Senate Republicans to recount millions of ballots from the 2020 election are concerned about possible Antifa attacks and planned to use UV lights to hunt for fraud, internal documents released as part of a legal battle with Democrats revealed.

State Senate Republicans and the companies also initially sought National Guard protection for their review of Maricopa County ballots but were turned down by Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, according to one of the documents, which was released Thursday by the Maricopa Superior Court over GOP objections. A judge ruled on Friday that the security document, which was posted publicly to the court's electronic docket on Thursday night, could be sealed by agreement of the parties.

The documents offer a detailed look at the conspiratorial thinking behind an extraordinary partisan hunt for fraud some six months after former President Donald Trump lost the election and began pushing the lie that it was stolen from him.

“It would be comical if it weren't so scary,” Rick Hasen, an election law expert and a professor at the University of California, Irvine, said of the audit.

Republicans and the private companies, lead by the Florida-based cybersecurity company Cyber Ninjas, have fought for the last week in state court to keep details of the audit secret. Incensed Democrats, who say the count is yet another attempt to undermine President Joe Biden's win, sued last week in a last-ditch effort to block the audit from going forward, arguing that the private companies were not properly protecting voter privacy and the secrecy of ballots. The court has so far declined to end the audit, which began last Friday, but has ordered the release of more information.

Republican lawmakers have said that an audit of ballots in Maricopa County, the largest in Arizona, would help them write new election laws and restore trust in the state’s democratic process. After Trump lost the state by around 10,000 votes last year, these same lawmakers spent months questioning the results. Senate Republicans did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Democrats and national voting rights advocates warn that the Republican audit is further compromising Americans' faith in democracy and advancing the stolen election lie that inspired the deadly riot at the Capitol in January. Trump, banned from his usual social media megaphone since the aftermath of the Capitol attack, has released at least eight statements on the audit over the last week, sometimes two a day.

The state of Arizona and Maricopa County have already conducted numerous accuracy tests and hired two independent outside companies to conduct a forensic review of the results of the election; these reviews all confirmed that the county system performed properly, election officials told NBC News.

The audit documents ordered released by the court, meanwhile, reveal an effort that experts say is out of touch with reality.

After Ducey declined to provide National Guard resources, the companies then prepared their own security plan and threat assessment, outlining potential threats to the recount that included Antifa, a network of loosely organized radical groups frequently blamed by Trump allies for violence despite little evidence.

In an “extreme threat scenario,” the assessment suggests that a coordinated attack involving a chemical fire and disrupted traffic could allow the recount facility to be breached.

“Antifa will likely use the backed-up traffic in those six lanes to slow police and fire response to any permitter breach operation,” the assessment says, adding that this could lead to “nearly unmitigated access” to the facility.

One document detailing recount procedure laid out plans to use microscope cameras and shine a “UV-B and UV-A source” on allegedly suspect ballots. But that document doesn't address how common ballot issues would be handled. For example, the document doesn't mention how counters would handle an "overvoted" ballot, where a voter appears to have been trying to vote for more than one candidate.

“The documents definitely have a lack of understanding of the specific way in which elections are conducted in Arizona,” said Tammy Patrick, a former Maricopa County elections official and senior adviser at Democracy Fund, a nonpartisan foundation aiming to improve American elections. “There seems to be a predetermined outcome here that I think is really problematic.”

National voting rights advocates have urged the Department of Justice to send federal monitors to observe the recount, an unprecedented situation they argue could easily run afoul of federal election laws. The ultraviolet lights, they say, are likely damaging ballots.

The audit has been engulfed in litigation, controversy and conspiracy theories from the outset.

Cyber Ninja's CEO, Doug Logan, reportedly advanced 2020 conspiracy theories online, and refuses to say how much money he will make on this audit. The audit is funded with $150,000 in taxpayer dollars, as well as an undisclosed number of private donations whose names are still shrouded in secrecy.

Logan and Ken Bennett, a former Republican secretary of state of Arizona who is overseeing the audit at the request of the GOP-controlled state Senate, sparred with reporters over how much the effort would cost in a contentious news conference last week.

"There are organizations, individuals, people across the country that are interested in the same things," Bennett said of the donors, later adding that "it doesn't matter who paid for it."

Democrats say Senate Republicans have been unprepared and unserious in their efforts.

“It was obvious that the Senate had not thought this through,” Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, told NBC News this week. “They've really just been making it up as they go along.”

When lawyers for Senate Republicans won legal custody of the ballots and election machinery this year, it became clear the lawmakers didn’t have anywhere to put the materials. Republicans later rented an arena at the state fairgrounds and say they will finish the counting by mid-May.

“My people are telling me that it would take months,” said Jack Sellers, the Republican chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, who oversaw the 2020 election. “In the time frame they have, how on earth are you going to count 2.1 million ballots?”

Sellers, who repeatedly stressed that the elected supervisors were not involved in the audit, said he’s particularly worried about what auditors are doing to the county’s election equipment; he said he expects the machines will need to be recertified by federally approved companies before they can be used again.

“If any person that is not qualified to work on those machines goes into them, then they would have to go through a certification process again, and that could be very expensive,” he said.

His office later told NBC News that the estimated cost of such an effort would be in the tens of thousands of dollars. When the county signed over the ballots to Senate Republicans, Sellers said it wrote up an indemnification waiver asking them to cover any costs incurred by such an audit, though he’s not confident that will happen.

“One way or another, it sounds like the taxpayer is going to pay for whatever this costs,” he said.

He added: "People keep saying what are we afraid of? We’re not afraid of anything, if we were afraid of anything we wouldn't have hired independent auditors."

Media access to the Veterans Memorial Coliseum arena where the count is taking place was initially limited unless reporters agreed to be volunteer observers. When one reporter from The Arizona Republic did so, she noticed that proper procedures for handling ballots were not being followed after she spotted blue pens near ballots. Election officials say red or green pens are used to ensure that ink does not spoil or change a vote, because ballot-counting machines can read blue or black ink.

One America News Network, a right-wing cable channel, has been given special access to cover the audit and reported that audit workers were using ultra-violet light to search for watermarks — a possible reference to a thoroughly debunked QAnon conspiracy that Trump secretly watermarked ballots to prove voter fraud.

“It's a bunch of bull!” Hobbs said of the alleged watermarks. “They're making stuff up."

She immediately apologized.

"Sorry, sorry. I am riled up about this,” Hobbs said.