Republican-led efforts to re-examine last fall's vote are spreading as experts and election officials warn that the proliferation amounts to a grave threat to U.S. democracy.
At the center of the push is Arizona, where the private company hired by the Republican-controlled state Senate continues its review of more than 2 million Maricopa County ballots, despite prior audits finding no evidence of fraud. With former President Donald Trump and others on the right following that count closely — despite it having no legal ability to overturn the result — GOP officials and voters have pushed for similar probes in at least five other states.
In Georgia, a judge last month awarded a group of plaintiffs, led by a known conspiracy theorist, a limited review of mail-in ballots in Fulton County. (That effort is still being litigated.) In Wisconsin, the Republican state House speaker recently hired a team of retired police officers and an attorney to probe the 2020 election.
In Michigan, state elections officials have warned local clerks in two counties that county commissioners have no authority to require further auditing or third-party reviews of election records and equipment. In New Hampshire, the audit of a single statehouse race — which officials said found no evidence of fraud or malfeasance — was seized upon by the former president and his supporters, who've pushed for its expansion. And in Pennsylvania, a trio of GOP state lawmakers visited the site of the Arizona ballot review and called for a similar probe in the Keystone State.
"I think that people in other parts of the country should be looking at what's going on in Arizona as an example of what not to do," Bill Gates, a Maricopa County supervisor who helps oversee elections, told NBC News. A lifelong Republican, Gates is among the review's most outspoken GOP critics.
Tammy Patrick, senior adviser to the elections program at Democracy Fund, a nonpartisan foundation aimed at bolstering the U.S. democratic system, said she's been a longtime advocate of post-election audits. But she hesitates to label what's happening in Arizona and what is being considered elsewhere as "audits."
"We truly are in uncharted waters," she said, calling the efforts more than six months after the 2020 election "unsustainable" for U.S. democracy.
Part of the political calculus for the GOP is the widely held belief among Republican voters that President Joe Biden's win was illegitimate. Last week, a Quinnipiac University poll found that while 64 percent of Americans say Biden's win was legitimate, two-thirds of GOP voters feel it was not. Meanwhile, Trump himself is "increasingly consumed" with the ballot reviews, The Washington Post reported Wednesday. Banned from his social media platforms, he's pushed out statement after statement about Arizona's audit and repeating the lie that the election was stolen from him.
"This is not going to go away," Steve Bannon, Trump's former chief strategist, said in a recent interview. His "War Room: Pandemic" podcast has hyped the Maricopa County ballot review and other similar efforts pushed across the country.
"The Nov. 3 effort will reach white hotness by the summer," he predicted, adding that he thinks no Republican will be able to win a primary next year unless they vigorously push for similar ballot reviews.
"You've seen already in Pennsylvania, you've seen things happening in Michigan, in Wisconsin," he said. "It is going to build in momentum and heat by August and then into the fall. It'll be the central issue."
Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, said the partisan ballot review in her state is effectively creating a roadmap for Republicans elsewhere to undermine election results they don't like.
"They are definitely writing the playbook here in Arizona to bring this type of, I don't want to call it an audit, but to other states," Hobbs said. "And it's dangerous. It's continuing to undermine the integrity of our elections. We are now more than six months past the 2020 election. We know that it was secure and that the results reflected the will of voters accurately."
Hobbs, who announced a gubernatorial bid Wednesday, said those "calling the shots" in Arizona's review "know that they're not going to do anything to overturn the election."
"But they have many, many followers and believers who believe otherwise," she continued. "Look what happened on Jan. 6. And this is just inciting further situations like that. It's very dangerous."
Voter fraud in American elections is exceedingly rare. Trump's top cybersecurity official called the 2020 election "the most secure in American history," while then-Attorney General William Barr said the Justice Department found no evidence of widespread malfeasance.
In Arizona, Michigan, Georgia and other presidential battlegrounds, post-election audits or recounts — in some cases, multiple such reviews — have affirmed Biden's win. But those who still question last fall's vote say those recounts did not go far enough.
The group of plaintiffs in Georgia who won limited access to Fulton County mail-in ballots, for example, said past reviews did nothing to assuage their concerns. Elsewhere, Republicans have enacted or are trying to pass audit-related legislation.
In Alabama, a recently signed law authorizes the secretary of state and three judges to conduct a one-time post-election audit after next fall's midterms. In Pennsylvania, state House Speaker Bryan Cutler, a Republican, introduced legislation seeking to establish a Bureau of Election Audits under the purview of the state auditor general's office.
In an interview with NBC News, Cutler said there's a need for such scrutiny in his state after last year's vote not because of Trump's fraud claims but because of voter concern over significant changes to the state's election system and a number of snafus that happened as they were implemented.
"We certainly pursued everything that was in our domain as Legislature," Cutler said of litigation or reviews of the 2020 election in its aftermath. "But our job, quite frankly, is to look forward and make sure that going forward, things are in place to prevent any questions from even coming up in the first place."
Ken Bennett, a former GOP Arizona secretary of state who is serving as a liaison between the state Senate and the private auditors, said: "There's a lot of people, including Republicans, who have bought into this idea that we don't need an audit, everything works just fine. Or that false narrative that we've had two or three audits already, which in my opinion is not true. At all."
Bennett said he believes such audits will become "a standard part of our whole election system." Like other state GOP leaders, Bennett said the review is about uncovering any flaws with the prior election so they can recommend fixes — not about seeking to overturn the results.
"I think it will largely put to rest the people who are most concerned about whether things were done correctly in November of 2020," he said of the review.
Experts and officials said that under typical circumstances, such an audit would follow clearly laid out procedures, be the product of legislation and have a due date for completion. For those reasons, among others, they say Arizona's effort lacks legitimacy — as would similar reviews elsewhere.
"It's a tremendous concern," said Eddie Perez, a voting systems expert at the Open Source Election Technology Institute, a nonpartisan election technologies research and development organization. "Because really, what's at stake and what's being corroded here is the very idea that we can have some kind of truth in election outcomes."
"When you are actively undermining the idea that there are facts and there are outcomes that can be supported through transparency and documentations and the professionalism of election officials — once you take all of that away, we truly don't have a method to peacefully transfer power," he continued.
Robb Pitts, chairman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, said Republicans' desire to continue questioning the election was being driven by nothing but Trump's stolen election claims, or what Democrats and others have come to label the "Big Lie."
"Our 2020 election was safe; it was fair; it was secure," Pitts said. "It was open; it was transparent. And it's over. The votes have been counted three times. Not one, not two, but three. And one of those was a hand count. Votes have been counted, elections have been certified, so it's over. So let's be real clear about what this really is: This is the continuation of the Big Lie."
Meanwhile, Gates, the Maricopa County supervisor, implored fellow Republicans to condemn what's happening in his state before similar reviews take hold elsewhere.
"This is an illegitimate audit that's going on right now," Gates said. "So if Republican leaders can't stand up and say that this needs to end and that this is illegitimate, we're gonna have real problems and it's only going to get worse. This is the time to speak out."
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