Arizona Senate Republicans’ extraordinarily partisan and controversial ballot review again extended their lease this week, adding at least two more weeks to the already delayed operation.
The contractors, led by cybersecurity firm Cyber Ninjas, had planned to pack up and finish their review remotely, Ken Bennett, the Arizona Senate liaison to the audit, said as recently as last week. But on Thursday he said auditors had decided to seek more time to review ballots and machinery in person.
“The hand count’s done, but in my opinion the audit is just starting,” Bennett told NBC News, noting that the reviewers had only recently obtained documents they consider critical to the count.
Arizona's election results have been audited multiple times since Nov. 3 by the state and county, and the system was found to be accurate and secure. President Joe Biden won the state by around 10,000 votes. But in December, state Senate Republicans took the unusual step of going to court to take custody of the county's ballots and voting machines. They then turned the materials over to third-party contractors with little experience in elections, launching a first-of-its-kind review that Republican leaders said would restore trust in elections and help the lawmakers write new election laws. The so-called "audit" has been slammed by experts as a bungled, amateurish effort with results that cannot be trusted.
On Thursday, Bennett said the contractors has just started reviewing documents that track duplications of ballots that were damaged or unreadable in a tabulator. The records, he said, were obtained through a public information request by AUDIT USA, a group supporting the Arizona operation.
Bennett predicted that the logs of duplicated ballots "probably will infamously be called the blue sheets," and complained that the county had not provided them along with the other subpoenaed election materials.
“Those documents are critical to understanding how many ballots were taken out of every almost every batch and sent to duplication and therefore have to be accounted for in accounting for all of the ballots," he told NBC News on Thursday, from the floor of the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the state fairgrounds arena that's housed the audit for the last few months.
A spokesman for Maricopa County’s Elections Department, Megan Gilbertson, said the state Senate did not subpoena the logs, which the county had explained in detail in a 17-page technical document prepared in response to state Senate claims that the election materials were, among other things, missing ballots.
Asked for details on the public information requests, Gilbertson said AUDIT USA asked for materials from the county on June 11; the county fulfilled them on June 14.
Barry Burden, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and director of the school's Elections Research Center, said the latest extension was "yet another sign that the Cyber Ninjas are in over their heads and didn't really have the experience or qualifications to do the review that they're doing."
Burden was a co-author of a recent report that sharply criticized the processes of the Arizona audit.
Ballot duplication is "a regular part of the process that any poll worker or election official would know about," Burden said Thursday night, adding that it was worrisome that the audit was just considering the logs two months into the review.
The audit won't be continuing in the state fairgrounds' Veterans Memorial Coliseum arena where it has taken place for the last few months; that space is reportedly booked for other events in July. Instead, the contractors are moving approximately 2.1 million ballots and hundreds of election machines to another site at the fairgrounds, the Wesley Bolin Building.
That space is “not recommended for use between May through September,” according to the venue, but Bennett said the “swamp coolers” would keep the space cool enough.
Bennett said once the audit was operational in the new space, reviews of the log sheets and ballot signatures would continue. He said he also hoped the Senate would agree to contract another firm for an independent tabulation of ballot images.
“There’s even talk of a couple of other tasks that would give us good data points to compare to,” he said, declining to explain further.
The third extension is the latest in a review process that's been marked by procedural snafus, repeated delays, and blown deadlines. The audit was supposed to wrap up in the middle of May, but the hand recount took longer than expected and the contractors were forced to move out of the arena temporarily for prescheduled high school graduations. During the temporary break, the ballots were also housed in the Wesley Bolin Building. After that, the auditors returned to the arena and had been scheduled to pack up on Wednesday, June 30.
Burden warned that the new space poses another risk: swamp coolers act like humidifiers, he said, which may damage the ballots or make them look different from the other ballots.
"Dragging ballots back and forth between the climates is going to change the paper," he said.