Journalists Have Access to Arizona Senate Election Audit
After days of silence, reporters on Tuesday had limited access inside the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, where Arizona Senate contractors attempt to count all Maricopa County ballots in the November election.
Officials from Florida-based Cyber Ninjas, the private entrepreneur leading the audit, were not present in the press area to answer questions, including about the number of nearly 2.1 million of ballots that have been reviewed since the audit began on Friday.
Ken Bennett, the Senate liaison for the audit, spoke to the media at a press conference outside the State Capitol for the first time since Friday, but said he did not know how many ballots had been counted.
“I have an estimate of the number of votes,” he told reporters, saying just under 100,000 ballots had been counted.
Bennett said he was confident the tally could be completed before the Senate’s lease on the Colosseum expires on May 14.
“We are on the right track to get the job done in the time available to us,” he said.
While many concerns have been raised about the security of ballots and private voter information, Bennett said they “make sure everything is very secure.”
“Nothing is happening there that would violate voter identity or privileged voter information,” he said.
At the Colosseum, the recount seemed to go smoothly.
As listeners worked, an American flag hung in the stands above them, next to a banner that read “The MADHOUSE is OUR HOUSE”, referring to the colosseum’s nickname “The House of the crazy on McDowell ”.
In the meantime, it emerged that some ballot counting procedures had been adjusted since an Arizona Republic reporter observed the operations on Friday.
Race against time
Although Bennett was unable to provide an exact number of counted ballots, it was clear from looking at the paddles that the auditors had hardly made a dent. Of approximately 46 pallets of cases, five had been opened and the cases of two of the pallets were nearly empty.
The counting started in earnest around noon on Friday. It started slowly as the procedures were finalized on the fly and the training took place on site. The counters had examined approximately 150 ballots by 1:30 p.m. on that first day.
If the listeners counted nearly 100,000 on nearly 2.1 million ballots Tuesday afternoon, it is almost 5% in addition to three days of counting. Auditors have about 19 days in total at the Colosseum that they plan to work because they don’t schedule a Sunday shift.
Bennett said companies are looking to extend hour counting where possible, potentially dropping to three five-hour shifts instead of the original two.
Counting procedures have changed
This is how the ballots are counted: three counters examine each ballot. Counters should record what they see on the ballot on a printed spreadsheet.
They make three points for each ballot: one to indicate that they have verified a ballot, one to indicate which presidential candidate the voter chose, and the last to indicate which US Senate candidate the voter chose.
Counters were running at around 18 tables Tuesday afternoon. They used green pens to mark their tally sheets, and red pens were also available to them.
On Friday, listeners first received blue and red pens before a Republic reporter clarified that only red pens are generally allowed around the ballots during electoral audits. Other colors could potentially be used by listeners to fill in the votes and change the intention of voters. The blue pens were taken away before the real ballots were on the floor.
Here are some ways in which counting procedures have changed since Friday:
- The way counters count the ballots. On Friday, someone first scanned a ballot and projected it onto screens in front of the three counters before placing the ballot on a turntable. The counters then looked at the actual ballot on the turntable and the scanned ballot on the screen before marking the votes. By Tuesday, the screens were gone and the counters were just watching the ballot on the hub in front of them.
- Counters examine ballots in smaller batches before a fourth person, the tabletop monitor, checks to see if their counts match. The ballots were checked every 100 on Friday. Now it seems to be less.
- If the counters need anything while the ballots are on the table, someone shouts “runner”. Runners literally run to help, including taking the completed score sheets from the tables to another area of the hall for further examination.
Counting took about 15 seconds per ballot on Tuesday, but counting was not continuous as there were pauses between lots.
Workers inspect ballots, but it’s unclear why
After the ballots were counted, they went to an inspection table with three people. There are a lot of questions about what the workers were doing there and what they were looking for, but here’s what we know about what each one was doing:
- The first person lines up the ballot under a Canon camera hanging from brackets.
- The second person lines up the ballot under a device that displays part of the ballot on a computer screen. One of the images displayed on the screen is a filled bubble, and it is enlarged and examined.
- The third person holds the ballot in a box on the table. The person takes a UV flashlight and shines it on particular areas of the ballot. As the Republic observed, the ballot was looked at from one side in particular, and from the middle.
Rumors have spread about workers checking ballots for watermarks, but the paper Maricopa County uses for ballots does not have a watermark. Shortly after the November election, QAnon conspiracy theorists claimed that former President Donald Trump and others had secretly watermarked postal ballots to prove fraud.
A USA TODAY and other fact check found the allegations to be false because postal ballots are designed by local governments and ordered from private printers.
Another rumor was that workers were checking ballots for fingerprints, but this was not confirmed, nor why fingerprints would be important.
Asked about the purpose of workers examining ballots with lights on, Bennett replied, “Personally, I don’t know.”
Journalists have access to observe
Local media organizations came together to hire a lawyer to lobby for media access after journalists were initially denied entry unless they signed up as a volunteer observer and worked six o’clock.
A journalist from the Republic was admitted on Friday as a voluntary observer, while others were not. The journalist from the Republic was informed halfway through this shift that she could not provide further updates before the end of the shift.
After that, the only media access to the live audit before Tuesday was to watch a live stream, with cameras on. azaudit.org showing only a big picture where you don’t know what the listeners are doing.
On Tuesday, journalists were granted collective access to the audit, meaning that a journalist, photographer and videographer could be present at a time, in a designated area.
Journalists in the pool were in a roped press lounge area in the center of the Colosseum stands.
Journalists will post updates on Twitter using the hashtag #azauditpool.
Journalists can only observe the main counting floor. Elsewhere in the Colosseum, listeners examine the county’s voting machines. The media did not have access to this area and the live broadcast does not show this area either.
Arizona Department of Public Safety soldiers were on site Tuesday to provide security, another change from last week. Initially, DPS officials said they would not be in the facility.
Journalists were told by security on Tuesday that if they went anywhere other than where they were allowed to go, they would be arrested for trespassing.
“Everything that is going on at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, we try to make it as transparent as possible,” Bennett said.
This view is under judicial review.
A hearing will continue on Wednesday before a judge of the Superior Court of Maricopa County on the rules and procedures to be followed during the audit. The Arizona Democratic Party and Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Gallardo filed a lawsuit last week to end the business.
Andrew Oxford of the Republic contributed to this article.
Support local journalism. To subscribe to azcentral.com today.