What the Senate election audit lacks in transparency, it makes up for in QAnon conspiracy theories.
From the Arizona Senate to the cybersecurity company overseeing the audit of nearly 2.1 million ballots from the November election, everyone involved has said one way or another that they want and hope to be transparent about the process, but to date, there is little evidence to support those claims.
While media outlets across the state had to fight and threaten legal action to receive limited access to the Madhouse on McDowell – dubbed so decades ago for raucous Phoenix Suns games – unanswered, important questions still hang in the air.
Former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, the Senate liaison for the audit, hasn’t disclosed any private contributors helping to fund the audit. The Senate and Cyber Ninjas, the firm overseeing the process, agreed on a $150,000 contract that will come from taxpayers, but it is known that there is a lot of money pouring in from outside sources, including One America News Network, which pushes the far-right agenda.
Bennett has stated his intention for transparency on the private funding, but has yet to accomplish that.
Bennett said April 27 he will try to have the money go through the state Senate so it can be tracked as a public record. Currently, the private money is going directly to Cyber Ninjas, whose CEO Doug Logan has repeatedly refused to disclose any information.
“I am going to fight with every ounce of breath I have to make sure that all of that money goes through the Arizona Senate, and is publicly disclosed,” Bennett said.
If any money does go to the Senate, it would go through the Legislative Council, not directly to senators.
However, according to Legislative Council, the body that would actually accept any “gifts” the Senate receives, no one has asked about the possibility of setting up a mechanism to receive these donations.
Mike Braun, Legislative Council executive director, said Arizona Capitol Times reporters were the only ones who have even broached the topic to him.
He said that this isn’t one of those times where “the answer is no, but the check will be here by two o’clock.”
“Nobody’s ever talked to us about setting it up or doing it, or what the requirements would be,” Braun said.
Bennett declined to say whether former President Trump was sending money to back the audit, but he said MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell has not donated money.
While simultaneously claiming the money would become public, Bennett plugged the Trump-friendly One America New Network-backed 501(c)(4) organizations fundraising for the audit, directing people to its website to donate during the brief press conference.
He said the source of those nonprofits’ funding will “get disclosed … when all the 501(c)(4) contributors get disclosed.” That might be a while, considering 501(c)(4) organizations are “dark money” nonprofits that aren’t required to disclose donors.
Bennett also urged people to visit a website if they wanted to give money to the audit. The site – also a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization – is hoping to raise $2.8 million. The nonprofit, The America Project, is run by former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne, who has close ties to Trump, Lindell and others in that inner circle.
Meanwhile, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled on April 28 that policies and procedures for the audit conducted by Cyber Ninjas and its subcontractors is considered a public record, but the ruling is likely pending appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court.
To date, a coalition of media publications had to fight with the Senate, Bennett and Cyber Ninjas over allowing members of the press to be in the room as the audit is being conducted. It took until the fourth day of counting ballots before media got inside Veterans Memorial Coliseum to report. From day one of the auditing process, media outlets could only gain access to the venue if they volunteered to participate as an observer without being able to report, but attorneys for media organizations struck a deal to allow one pool reporter at a time in.
Before that, only one reporter, Jen Fifield from The Arizona Republic, was granted access (a Capitol Times reporter was denied after signing up) and became a key part of the story when she noticed blue pens were about to be used and urged Logan to remedy it.
Now, there’s a rotation of media outlets who can observe from the bleachers inside the coliseum during several shifts in a day.
While Arizona media fights for access, journalists and election officials are also fighting to debunk persisting conspiracy theories Bennett and others involved with the audit are pushing.
The 2020 election gave rise to many conspiracy theories of a stolen election, and some are still alive as auditors count the ballots.
The most prevalent conspiracy theory is that the auditors are using ultraviolet light to scan ballots to look for secret watermarks the Trump administration placed on “official ballots.”
That repeatedly-debunked theory began from the QAnon community.
QAnon emerged after Trump’s election, claiming that Trump is fighting an elite cabal of business leaders, celebrities, media professionals and politicians engaged in Satanic worship and child sex trafficking.
One of its rumored leaders, who might be “Q” himself, according to a recent HBO documentary series is Ron Watkins, who does not live in the United States. He has gotten heavily involved with the Maricopa County audit through the instant-messaging app Telegram. Watkins, on the social media channels he has not been banned from, goes by the moniker CodeMonkeyZ. He has posted more than a dozen times about the audit, claiming he has seen wrongdoing on the livestream cameras.
Bennett would not answer questions about Watkins’ possible involvement.
It’s unclear how involved Watkins is in the audit, but there is a host of connections between him and the auditors, including that Watkins and Cyber Ninja CEO Doug Logan retweeted each other after the election.
Watkins claimed Trump actually received 200,000 more votes in Arizona than he did, which Logan shared on his now-deleted account.
On the message board, Watkins commented that he has been talking with Bobby Piton, a mathematician and investment manager who has theorized that the election was stolen. Piton attended the unofficial legislative hearing in November at the Hyatt in Phoenix as an expert witness and posted on social media that he spent “12 hours working on AZ Data” over the weekend.
The two agree that UV light will expose all the fake votes.
“Called [Piton] earlier and had a chat about the potential use of the UV light station,” Watkins wrote. “Since UV is able to detect oil from fingerprints, if there are no fingerprints on the ballot then the likelihood of the ballot being marked through a non-human process is high.”
Watkins also complained that volunteers weren’t doing the UV process properly.
In an interview with Newsmax, another right-wing channel, Bennett confirmed they were looking for watermarks.
Maricopa County Elections Department recently said their ballots do not have watermarks on them.
Bennett said auditors “are looking for a lot of things” with the UV light.