Arizona's top election official details 'a constant barrage of harassment' during unprecedented GOP-backed ballot recounting

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Katie Hobbs
Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs reads a statement prior to certifying the election results for federal, statewide, and legislative offices and statewide ballot measures at the official canvass at the Arizona Capitol Monday, Nov. 30, 2020, in Phoenix. AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool
  • Arizona's top election official is receiving harassment during continued election controversy.

  • Secretary of State Katie Hobbs told Insider that it's making it harder for her office to do its job.

  • A private firm is conducting a GOP-backed and widely-criticized "audit" of 2.1 million ballots.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

More than six months and two audits after the 2020 presidential election, Arizona Republicans are still legitimizing election conspiracies by paying a private contractor to conduct what they describe as an audit and recount of all the votes cast in Maricopa County.

The high-profile and baseless questioning the integrity of the 2020 election has resulted in harassment directed at election officials that still persists over half a year later.

On Thursday, Arizona's Secretary of State Katie Hobbs tweeted that she had received a threatening call to her office from someone who said they wanted her dead. The next day, on Friday, 12 News/KPNX reported that Gov. Doug Ducey had deployed 24/7 state trooper protection for Hobbs, the second instance she's received official protection since November.

"The threats are bad, but there's also just a constant barrage of just harassment and attacks," Hobbs told Insider in a Friday interview, adding that the deluge of angry calls is spilling over into divisions of the Secretary of State's office that have nothing to do with elections.

"My biggest concern in terms of staff is that they're calling every line that they can get to in our office," she said. "And so it's disrupting business services, it's disrupting the museum. We're having to do again what we did, right after the election, and so it goes straight to voicemail and it just makes it harder for everyone to do their jobs serving our state."

The Republicans backing the ballot-counting exercise call it a recount and an audit. Both descriptors are ones that seasoned election officials bristle at.

"It certainly not either one of those things," Hobbs told Insider.

Read more: The House's history-making top security official talked with Insider about his plan to reopen the Capitol and ensure it will 'never, ever be breached again' after the January 6 attack

The state Senate, using its subpoena power, took control of 2.1 million ballots cast in the 2020 presidential election in the county and hundreds of ballot scanners and ballot marking devices. The Senate turned everything over to a controversial Florida-based firm called Cyber Ninjas that has no experience in election audits but has been tasked with overseeing the recounting of all ballots in the nation's second-largest voting jurisdiction.

arizona recount
PHOENIX, AZ - MAY 01: A contractor working for Cyber Ninjas, who was hired by the Arizona State Senate, works to recount ballots from the 2020 general election at Veterans Memorial Coliseum on May 1, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Maricopa County ballot recount comes after two election audits found no evidence of widespread fraud in Arizona. Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images

Outside experts and officials, including Republican election officials like Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, have spoken out against the procedures, which diverge significantly from the detailed procedural norms and mandate for bipartisan counters in Arizona's regular hand-count audits.

"Anyone who's conducted any type of audit, not even specific to elections, would tell you that you lay out the procedures, you have to have things done in a way that's going to produce valid and reliable results," Hobbs said.

In a detailed six-page letter to state Ken Bennett, the state Senate's liaison to the audit, Hobbs outlined problems her observers and others have seen with the exercise. They include inconsistent standards for the recounting and storage of ballots and documentation of the proceedings, which is compounded by a lack of transparency that led the Arizona Democratic Party to sue to get more access.

"They're throwing out different numbers to reporters every day about how many ballots they counted. And sometimes it's so nonsensical that it seems like they're going backwards counting," Hobbs said. "Our observers are completely shut out, nobody will talk to them."

In her letter to Bennett, Hobbs said the lack of standard counting and aggregation procedures is "a significant departure from standard best practices utilized by jurisdictions and experts across the county," and "raise[s] serious doubt about the accuracy and reliability of any result of this process."

The security lapses detailed in Hobbs' letter and other reports include "ballots left unattended on tables," "ballots being tallied using scrap paper rather than official tally sheets, and "forensics team computers left unlocked and unattended."

In response, the official @ArizonaAudit Twitter account said that Hobbs "continues to make baseless claims about this forensic audit but has never led an election audit in her entire career."

The procedures include examining ballots with UV lights to search for nonexistent watermarks and searching for bamboo fibers in ballots because of a baseless conspiracy that thousands of ballots were smuggled to Arizona from China.

Hobbs told Insider that the "so-called audit...is making a mockery of everything we do to conduct fair, secure, and accurate elections."

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In this Thursday, April 22, 2021, file photo, former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett speaks at a news conference to talk about overseeing a 2020 election ballot audit ordered by the Republican lead Arizona Senate at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix. A judge hearing a challenge to voter privacy policies during the Republican-controlled Arizona Senate's recount of 2.1 million 2020 election ballots says he is not convinced voter secrecy is being upheld. AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

The counting exercise, much like the persistent lie that the 2020 was stolen itself, has no clear end date or resolution. As of Wednesday, only a little over 200,000 of the ballots have been recounted. Cyber Ninjas' lease on the facility ends on May 14, with high school graduation ceremonies scheduled to take place in the space shortly after.

Hobbs believes that no matter if or how the exercise ends, the goalposts for justifying false claims of fraud will keep shifting.

"They continue to say, 'Oh, voters have concerns.' And it's the same politicians who have created the concerns because they refuse to stand up for the integrity of our elections. And these are elections that were conducted according to laws that they passed as legislators. So it's just mind-boggling," she said.

The conduct of Cyber Ninjas is also now on the radar of federal law enforcement. Pamela Karlan, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General from the DOJ's Civil Rights Division, sent a letter to Arizona State Senate President Karen Fann warning that Cyber Ninjas having custody of the ballots for an undetermined amount of time may run afoul of federal elections laws requiring election officials to preserve ballots for 22 months after an election.

Hobbs worries that the precedent it sets could cause long-term damage.

"For the voters of Arizona, this is an exercise to continue to undermine their confidence in our election systems. And that's harmful potentially in perpetuity to our elections, in terms of voter participation," she said.

Hobbs said that fellow chief election officials around the country "are very concerned," adding that Cyber Ninjas and their backers in the Arizona legislature "are writing the playbook here and chomping at the bit to try to do this kind of thing in other states."

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