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Secret Chinese ballots, UV lights and watermarks: Arizona GOP recount mired in conspiracy theories

Justice Department and Arizona’s Secretary of State warn partisan process risks ballot safety and could violate Voting Rights Act protections

Alex Woodward
New York
Thursday 06 May 2021 15:57 BST
Anthony Kern, a former Arizona state lawmaker who was photographed at the US Capitol during the insurrection on 6 January, participated in a GOP-led vote audit on 30 April.
Anthony Kern, a former Arizona state lawmaker who was photographed at the US Capitol during the insurrection on 6 January, participated in a GOP-led vote audit on 30 April. (Getty Images)

Arizona Republicans’ “forensic audit” as part of a partisan recount of 2020 election results in Maricopa County has been accused of going down a conspiracy theory-filled rabbit hole relying on “completely unnecessary” gear to find evidence of voter fraud.

On Wednesday, one audit official said auditors were examining whether any ballots contained bamboo fibers – to determine whether China delivered thousands of ballots with votes for Joe Biden, among the dozens of false claims that circulated within the discredited far-right QAnon conspiracy theory.

Three earlier reviews of results have shown no evidence of widespread fraud or reason to doubt the results in the state’s most populous county, which Mr Biden won by more than 45,000 votes.

But Republicans in the state’s Senate now are leading an audit performed by a private company whose founder supported Donald Trump’s “stolen” election lies and the “Stop the Steal” campaign.

“There are accusations that 40,000 ballots were flown into Arizona and it was stuffed into the box, and it came from the southeast part of the world – Asia – and what they’re doing is to find out if there’s bamboo in the paper,” said John Brakey, an assistant to former Arizona secretary of state Ken Bennett, who is acting as the audit’s liaison.

“I don’t believe any of them,” Mr Brakey told a Phoenix CBS affiliate. “They’re doing all sorts of testing to prove if it was or wasn’t, and that’s very important, because the only way you’re going to persuade people on changing is having facts, and we’re on a mission for facts.”

As reported by Slate, the “bamboo” conspiracy theory appears to have emerged from Jovan Pulitzer, who has claimed to have invented a technology to detect whether a ballot’s ink and folds might indicate forgery.

The Arizona allegations also echo other fraud claims that were widely circulated among QAnon proponents, including a belief that Mr Trump secretly watermarked ballots.

Conspiracy theorists – in an attempt to decode the phrase “watch the water” on the Q-affiliated message board website 8kun, formerly 8chan, in 2018 – falsely believed that the former president directed mail-in ballots include watermarks to promote a baseless allegation that Democrats were stuffing ballot boxes with fraudulent votes.

In a six-page letter to Mr Bennett on Wednesday, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said that the “forensic” exams – from measuring ballot thickness to using UV lights to search for watermarks – are “completely unnecessary steps if the goal is to validate the election results.”

“Though conspiracy theorists are undoubtedly cheering on these types of inspections – perhaps providing financial support because of their use – they do little other than to further marginalise the professionalism and intent of this ‘audit’,” she wrote.

Ms Hobbs outlined more than a dozen concerns, accusing the audit process of mishandling the chain of custody and applying inconsistent rules and procedures that risk ballots being double counted or not counted at all.

She said unqualified workers have overseen a process that has left ballots unattended on counting tables with unlocked and unmonitored laptops.

Ms Hobbs stressed that elections are “governed by a complex framework of laws and procedures designed to ensure accuracy, security, and transparency.”

The process underway in Phoenix “ensure[s] none of those things,” she said.

Mr Bennett told PolitiFact that auditors did initially scan ballots with UV lights to see if there were watermarks, but they are no longer in use.

Ms Hobbs “continues to make baseless claims about this forensic audit but has never led an election audit in her entire career,” according to a statement on the audit’s Twitter account. “The audit continues!”

The audit is being performed by Florida-based firm Cyber Ninjas, whose founder Doug Logan repeatedly shared false claims about vote fraud on a since-suspended Twitter account.

He shared posts with “stop the steal” – a far-right campaign alleging that Democrats plotted to “steal “the 2020 election from Mr Trump – as well as posts from prominent QAnon figures including 8chan administrator Ron Watkins and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Mr Logan also wrote a document titled “Election Fraud Facts & Details” used by Sidney Powell, who is being sued for $1bn by voting machines company Dominion after amplifying election conspiracy theories.

Anthony Kern, a former Arizona state lawmaker who sought to invalidate the state’s election results, was photographed at the US Capitol during the insurrection on 6 January, fuelled by the former president’s “stolen election” claims.

On 30 April, Mr Kern was photographed reviewing ballots during the recount.

His name also appears on the ballots he is reviewing – he placed last in a three-way race, losing his seat.

The reporter who took the photo was ejected.

The Independent has requested comment from Mr Kern.

Civil rights attorneys at the US Department of Justice have also warned auditors that the process may violate federal law over ballot custody issues, and that any effort to directly contact voters about their ballots would likely amount to voter intimidation.

“Past experience with similar investigative efforts around the country has raised concerns that they can be directed at minority voters, which potentially can implicate the anti-intimidation prohibitions of the Voting Rights Act,” Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Pamela Karlan wrote in a letter to GOP Senate President Karen Fann.

“Such investigative efforts can have a significant intimidating effect on qualified voters that can deter them from seeking to vote in the future,” she wrote on Wednesday.

The Arizona effort has tallied roughly 10 per cent of the election’s ballots since the count started on 23 April. It is unclear whether the audit can be completed by 14 May, when the deal allowing Senate Republicans use of the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix expires.

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