How Arizona’s election review is providing a national playbook for disgruntled politicians

Republicans in the Arizona State Senate had commissioned a review of 2020 ballots in Maricopa County even though election officials found no large-scale fraud. But a partisan group called Cyber Ninjas undertook a controversial review of the vote and affirmed Joe Biden won Maricopa County and Arizona. Nate Persily, an election law scholar at Stanford University, joins William Brangham with more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The widely discredited election review in Arizona is over.

    But more than 10 months after the 2020 election, there is growing alarm about other efforts launched with no credible justification to sow doubt about elections past, present and future.

    William Brangham explains.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    It was Republicans in the Arizona state Senate who commissioned this review of ballots in Maricopa County, even though election officials in the state said there was no large-scale fraud in the 2020 election.

    But a partisan group called Cyber Ninjas undertook a controversial review of the vote, and they affirmed that Joe Biden in fact won Maricopa County and Arizona.

    And here with us to look at the larger context is Nate Persily, a scholar of election law at Stanford University Law School.

    Nate, great to see you back on the "NewsHour."

    I hesitate to call this an actual audit, what this organization did in Arizona. But they affirmed what we already knew, that Joe Biden won Maricopa County and he won Arizona. But what do you make of this when you look at this process?

  • Nate Persily, Stanford Law School:

    Well, you're right to hesitate in calling it an audit.

    Audits are good things. We know how to do election audits. Every state should audit its elections. But that is not what this was. This really was part of a coordinated disinformation campaign to try to undermine the legitimacy of the election. And we should not put too fine a point on it, that the whole goal here after the fact, many months after the fact, now almost a year after the election, was to cast doubt on the basic machinery of this election.

    And, as we have seen, even in the sort of public reception of this draft report, the fact that Cyber Ninjas did not find that it affected the outcome hasn't sort of decreased speculation or this lack of confidence that the whole audit process has generated.

  • William Brangham:

    And for people who haven't been following this rather circuitous process they took, I mean, this was a very bizarre process, the way they went about this. These people had no experience in election law.

    They spent a period of time searching for bamboo fibers, allegedly looking for counterfeit Chinese ballots. I mean, the whole process seems — bizarre is the official term, I think, for this.

  • Nate Persily:

    Well, one of the problems is that we don't really know what the basic allegation was as to why there might have been fraud, whether in Arizona or elsewhere.

    Throughout the last 10, 12 months, what we have seen are allegations, again, of Chinese ballots, as you were saying, in Arizona, of Italian satellites as having manipulated voting machines, or of Dominion voting machines not being secure, of dead people voting and the like.

    There's this very heterogeneous set of complaints. And so what Cyber Ninjas was doing was going on a fishing expedition to find out if there was anything that implicated the outcome.

    Now, they didn't find that the results would have been different. In fact, they had — from their results, they suggest that Joe Biden actually increased his vote totals through their audit than what was found on Election Day.

    But the fact that it may have sort of confirmed the result should not be any solace to those of us who worry about the lack of confidence that this type of process has engendered among the mass public.

  • William Brangham:

    And, as you say, if this were just Arizona, that might be one thing. We might be able to put this behind us, but this is going on in multiple other states now.

  • Nate Persily:

    That's right.

    This is now a playbook for other states. If you are a sort of disgruntled politician or one trying to make a name for yourself, then, whether it's in Pennsylvania or Wisconsin or some other states, Georgia, now that this is a pathway that they have chosen.

    Now, again, recounts and audits are part of our process. We want to encourage that in the month or so after an election, because we want to know that the election machinery is working as intended. But a year after an election, right, all this is trying to do is to undermine confidence in the result.

  • William Brangham:

    And it sounds like, on some level, that perpetual argument that is made is having an effect, there was a Monmouth University poll out a month or two ago that showed that a third of Americans believe that President Biden was elected only because of fraud and that Donald Trump should have properly won the election.

    I mean, from an election administrator standpoint, if a third of the country thinks that you're engaged in a widespread fraud, what does that do to their ability to run elections safely and soundly?

  • Nate Persily:

    Well, this is a very dangerous period, I think, for our democracy, that we have not seen this erosion of confidence in the basic infrastructure America, of the elections, in our history.

    We see lots of retirements among these veteran election officials. We see that many of them feel that they're taking their lives in their own hands because of death threats and the like.

    And so these are challenges we have not faced before, and they're a direct result of the concerted disinformation campaign that's trying to undermine the legitimacy the outcome.

    But these folks are heroes.

  • William Brangham:

    Nate Persily of Stanford University Law School, thanks so much for being here.

  • Nate Persily:

    Thank you.

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