Auditors won't knock on voters' doors in Arizona election review, Senate president tells DOJ
The Arizona Senate is dropping, for now, a controversial plan to go door-to-door to ask local residents about their voting history as part of its audit of Maricopa County's election.
The decision, which Senate President Karen Fann included in a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice on Friday, comes after federal officials raised concerns that the canvassing could violate civil rights laws aimed to prevent voter intimidation.
The Senate’s contract with Cyber Ninjas, the Florida-based firm it hired to manage the audit, said a “registration and votes cast team” has already worked with several people “in order to statistically identify voter registrations that did not make sense, and then knock on doors to confirm if valid voters actually lived at the stated address.”
But the company’s CEO, Doug Logan, would not say during a press conference on April 22 how his company identified the voters it would investigate. Instead, he said the work was based on a statistical analysis performed by someone else he would not identify and maintained that canvassers would not ask anyone how they voted.
In a letter to Fann on Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Justice said that similar efforts around the country in the past have raised concerns that such investigations are directed at minority communities.
"Such investigative efforts can have a significant intimidating effect on qualified voters that can deter them from seeking to vote in the future," wrote Pamela S. Karlan, principal deputy assistant attorney general in the department’s Civil Rights Division.
Several Democratic election attorneys also sent a letter to the Senate’s contractors in early April warning they might sue if canvassers were dispatched to knock on voters’ doors. They argued it would violate several federal laws, including the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which prohibits voter intimidation.
In a reply on Friday, Fann wrote that the Senate determined it would "indefinitely defer" that part of the audit.
Fann wrote that this decision was made several weeks ago, though Logan discussed it with reporters just a couple of weeks earlier and the Senate's liaison in the process gave no indication the work was canceled when fielding questions about it as recently as Thursday.
Fann left open the possibility that the Senate could undertake canvassing later but said voters and precincts would not be chosen based on race, ethnicity, sex, party affiliation or any other legally protected status. She also said canvassers would not ask which candidates voters supported and listed several steps contractors would take, such as telling any voters contacted that their response is entirely voluntary. They also would not be armed.
"If canvassing is necessary to complete the audit, we believe these protocols, which will be reinforced by thorough training programs, would permit the Senate to discharge its legislative oversight and investigation functions without compromising the rights or privacy of any voter," Fann wrote.
Audit a hotbed of conspiracy theories
The effort seemed similar to work that Liz Harris, a former Republican state legislative candidate, has done for months.
Harris initially told The Republic that her group was helping with the Senate’s audit, but she couldn’t say on what part because of a nondisclosure agreement. Harris later said she doesn’t know what her involvement may or may not be.
Harris has told The Republic that her group has knocked on voters' doors around the state for nearly four months.
While successive audits of last year's election results have come back clean, the Republican-controlled Senate's audit has expanded to embrace various theories brought forward by right-wing activists.
The Senate's recount of all 2.1 million ballots, for example, once included workers examining ballot paper with UV lights.
Shortly after the November election, QAnon conspiracy theorists claimed that former President Donald Trump and others secretly watermarked mail-in ballots to prove fraud.
A USA TODAY fact check and others found the claims false because mail-in ballots are designed by local governments and ordered from private printers.
After the UV light inspections prompted questions, it stopped occurring.
John Brakey, a Tucson activist involved in the audit, has also said the process has included looking for bamboo fibers in the ballot papers in response to a conspiracy theory that ballots were flown in from Asia. Brakey has said he does not believe this himself and Ken Bennett, the Senate's liaison for the audit, said he didn't know of the Senate's contractors specifically for bamboo fibers.
Counting of ballots continued Friday but as of the previous day, audit officials said only about 10% of them were tallied. The Senate's lease on the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, where it is storing the ballots, ends on May 14 and the next steps for the recount are unclear if it is not completed by then.
Jen Fifield contributed reporting.
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