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Controversy over GOP-led election audit in Arizona

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The Republican-held state Senate in Arizona has hired a private company to conduct a hand recount of more than 2 million ballots from the 2020 election in Maricopa County, even though the official tally already confirmed former President Trump lost to Joe Biden. Many critics are alarmed by what appears to be a secretive and partisan process. TucsonSentinel.com editor and publisher Dylan Smith joins "Red and Blue" anchor Elaine Quijano with more on the company conducting the audit and why he believes it's unlikely to be completed.

Video Transcript

ELAINE QUIJANO: Arizona is conducting an audit of more than 2 million ballots six months after former President Trump's election loss there. The Republican-held state Senate is leading the effort. They've hired a private firm to hand recount ballots from Maricopa County. It started last week. Journalists have largely been barred from observing.

One of the counters is former state lawmaker Anthony Kern, who was at the US Capitol on January 6 during the insurrection and is a known advocate of the baseless "Stop the Steal" movement. Former President Trump and his allies claim the results will validate the election was stolen. There is still no evidence to support that assertion.

In fact, two different audits concluded earlier this year failed to overturn President Biden's victory in Arizona. Officials in other states are expressing concern about the potential precedent this audit could set. A top Republican in Georgia, Gabriel Sterling, condemned the move, calling it, quote, "another step in undermining confidence in elections."

For more, let's bring in Dylan Smith. He's the editor and publisher of TucsonSentinel.com. Hi there, Dylan. Welcome. Thanks very much for being with us.

DYLAN SMITH: Always a pleasure.

ELAINE QUIJANO: So what can you tell us about the, quote unquote, "cyber ninjas." And do they have relevant experience to conduct a recount?

DYLAN SMITH: Certainly they don't have any relevant experience to conduct a recount or an audit. They do have some relevant experience to try and toss a kind of rhetorical monkey wrench into our political process and make hay where there's very little to be found. One of our columnists at TucsonSentinel.com, Blake Morlock, last week, week before called this a "fraud-it" rather than an audit.

They're really trying to gin up just about any reason to cast doubt or raise questions about what happened in Arizona. And our elections here in Arizona are audited by law. The Saturday after Election Day, they are very carefully reviewed, and we almost never find any kind of error.

And to be doing this six months on in a process that is, quite frankly, never going to be finished is a little bit ridiculous. There are 2.1 million ballots in Maricopa County that they want to review just in that one county. They aren't even to the 0.1. They've looked at just a few tens of thousands of ballots. It's going to take years for them to continue this process, and quite obviously, that's not going to happen.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Dylan, before we continue, I just want to ask you about some of the images that we're seeing, because as I understand it, there are a number of cameras, right, positioned throughout where this process is taking place. But with respect to actually how this is happening, that is something that journalists have not been able to specifically ascertain. Do I have that about right?

DYLAN SMITH: Yeah, the cameras that are streaming the activities on the floor don't have any sound. They really don't show anything up close. They are being operated by the Trump-aligned OAN Network. And independent journalists here in Arizona are largely barred from getting anywhere close enough to try and figure out exactly what's going on.

The people who are conducting this audit are seemingly making things up on the fly as to what they're looking for, what they're looking at, how they're handling things. They are trying to, in some cases it seems, to be looking for a watermark on these ballots. There-- that's a lot of widespread claims by people in the Arizona Republican Party that if the ballots don't have a watermark that they're not valid.

Well, in Arizona, we don't have watermarks. In Maricopa County, the ballots are not watermarked. They're looking for something that can't exist. If they do find watermarks, that would be pretty unusual and might raise some questions.

ELAINE QUIJANO: All right, well, Dylan, who is paying for this audit? When is it due to be completed?

DYLAN SMITH: Well, who's paying for it? The taxpayers of Arizona are paying for part of it, but certainly not all of it. And we have really no idea who's paying for the rest of it. The private company that was given the contract to do this was out there raising money. We have other Republican political candidates who are raising money against this. It's quite unclear whether any of that is going to this effort or if it's just going into their own campaign coffers.

And when will-- it will be completed, the-- the location where this is, the Phoenix Coliseum, is scheduled to have a number of high school graduations coming up in a couple of weeks. They need to be out of that space. There's no way they will be anywhere near done or even have a reasonable sample of things done by then at the rate they're going.

They say that the organizers of the effort say they might go back after that. It's a little bit coincidental that right now, basically in the parking lot of the Coliseum, there is a carnival going on. And there's a little bit of a political carnival going on inside the building as well.

ELAINE QUIJANO: So, you know, Dylan, of course, Arizona is not the only state that has dealt with these kinds of questions of election integrity. In Georgia, the state ordered three recounts, but that did little to change anyone's mind. So does this recount in Arizona potentially set any precedent for future elections?

DYLAN SMITH: Well, it certainly is an attempt to lay some groundwork to cast further-- you know, create bills that have more restrictions on people's ability to vote. They're trying to come up with a reason to do that. It's interesting that some of our foremost conservative proponents of election integrity are pretty much daily mocking this effort.

Here in Pima County, one of the Republican candidates for county recorder, the person who handles elections who lost the last election, has been involved in these kinds of things, election integrity, for two decades. And daily, he's asking questions about just what the heck is going on here, because even to him, it seems ridiculous.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Right. And what we're showing viewers now-- or what we were just showing them a moment ago was just to sort of contrast the idea of the kinds of transparency that we were able to see during the presidential election in November. We were showing some view, I believe, of Maricopa County.

And what we've seen today, which as you point out and which needs to be emphasized, is not independent footage that has been gathered, and journalists have not been allowed sort of that close access. And there hasn't been necessarily that same sense of transparency with respect to that audit process. All right, Dylan Smith, a lot to watch there in Arizona. Dylan, thanks very much.

DYLAN SMITH: Thank you.