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The Justice Department is staffing up and will apply new "scrutiny" to controversial audits looking for evidence of fraud in the 2020 election, Attorney General Merrick Garland declared on Friday.
The message was the clearest signal yet that the Biden administration is gearing up to crack down on the Republican-led Arizona Senate's review in Maricopa County, which has attracted GOP officials from other states to consider their own audits and praise from former President Donald Trump, who insists the November contest was rigged despite assurances by elections officials it was secure. A clash could very well happen before the audit is complete and its findings are released in a report expected to be released this summer.
Garland didn't mention Maricopa County by name, but he nevertheless charted a collision course echoing a call to action made by Eric Holder, an attorney general during the Obama administration, for the Justice Department to become “aggressively involved” in pursuing possible violations of federal law in the case of the audit and to prosecute violators of these laws when needed.
"As part of its mission to protect the right to vote, the Justice Department will, of course, do everything in its power to prevent election fraud, and if found, to vigorously prosecute it," Garland said.
"But many of the justifications proffered in support of these post-election audits and restrictions on voting have relied on assertions of material vote fraud in the 2020 election that have been refuted by law enforcement and intelligence agencies of both this administration and the previous one, as well as by every court, federal and state, that has considered them," he added. "Moreover, many of the changes are not even calibrated to address the kinds of voter fraud that are alleged as our justification."
Garland made the comments during a policy speech on voting rights in Washington, D.C. He said the Civil Rights Division is going to need more lawyers and announced that within 30 days the Justice Department will double its "enforcement staff for protecting the right to vote."
He said their focus will be a raft of new voting laws passed by Republican-controlled states in the wake of the 2020 presidential election and noted the Justice Department "will apply the same scrutiny to post-election audits to ensure they abide by federal statutory requirements to protect election records and avoid the intimidation of voters. In that regard, we will publish guidance explaining the civil and criminal statutes that apply to post-election audits."
The Justice Department initially signaled interest in the Maricopa County review in May, sending a letter to the Arizona Senate warning that the audit and recount, led by contractors hired by the Arizona Senate, might run afoul of federal law, particularly in terms of canvassing.
Arizona Senate President Karen Fann, who has said the audit is not meant to overturn the 2020 election results but rather restore trust in the system and influence possible changes to voting laws, responded by making assurances the process was and will remain compliant with federal and state civil rights laws.
"Since the inception of the audit, I have emphasized the crucial importance of transparency and collaboration to its success. To that end, I am happy to provide any additional information and to continue a constructive dialogue with your office to advance our common objective of protecting the rights of voters and the integrity of our elections," Fann said.
Garland's speech on Friday was met with defiance among supporters of the Maricopa County audit.
"Retweet if you think election audits are a state right!" said a message from an anonymous "War room" account that was retweeted by the official Twitter account for the audit.
"100%", Arizona Republican Party President Kelli Ward approvingly said in a retweet.
"You will not touch Arizona ballots or machines unless you want to spend time in an Arizona prison. Maybe you should focus on stopping terrorism. The Justice Department is one of the most corrupt institutions in the USA," Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers said in a tweet of her own.
Although federal and state election officials insist there is no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 contest, Trump and his allies still claim the contest was stolen. Some take issue with pandemic-focused changes to the voting process last year, including widespread mail-in voting, which they say was ripe for fraud, and, in some cases, was not constitutional without approval from state legislatures and Congress.
In particular, the Maricopa County audit has become a beacon of hope for faithful Trump supporters after dozens of lawsuits with election fraud allegations and voting irregularities were rejected by courts around the country. It has attracted elected officials from several other states considering their own audits.
Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who was present at the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol, was part of a delegation visiting the venue last week.
"The AZ Forensic Election Audit is the most comprehensive election audit in the history of [the] United States," Mastriano said in a press release. "Transparency is a must in our republic. Every citizen should be confident that their vote counts."
Even as pressure mounts in states such as Pennsylvania and Georgia to replicate the Maricopa County audit, the review has earned criticism from county officials and Democratic Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs. Critics argue the results from two previous election machine audits, conducted for the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, showed no irregularities in the county's 2020 election. A recount of a sample of ballots also did not turn up any problems.
President Joe Biden won Arizona by more than 10,000 votes out of more than 3.3 million cast across the state. His lead of roughly 2 percentage points was due partly to his advantage in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, where the Democrat scored nearly 45,000 more votes than Trump. Roughly 2.1 million ballots were cast in the county.
Fann's backlog of emails were revealed on June 4, showing she had been in contact with Trump's former attorney Rudy Giuliani since early December to begin working on the present audit at the coliseum. The emails also show Fann saying she had a "personal call from President Trump thanking us for pushing to prove any fraud."
The recount portion of the Maricopa County audit, which began in April at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, is expected to come to an end in the coming days, but other tasks remain. For the remainder of the month of June, "resources will shift to the paper evaluation,” Senate audit liaison Ken Bennett told reporters Tuesday.
A final report of the findings from the election audit is expected in late July or August, audit media coordinator Randy Pullen told NBC affiliate 12 News.
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Original Author: Daniel Chaitin
Original Location: Garland charts DOJ collision course with Maricopa County election audit