Inside effort to canvass Maricopa County voters: Organizers deny audit ties as questions remain

Ray Stern
Arizona Republic
James Knox and Liz Harris address volunteers in Queen Creek on Aug. 28, 2021.

Volunteers arrived at the parking lot of Queen Creek High School before 9 a.m. on Saturday, a day the temperature hovered well over 100 degrees, eager to help prove former President Donald Trump really won the 2020 election.

Most of the few dozen people were over the age of 40, wearing shorts and T-shirts, and carrying clipboards and water bottles. They were ready to walk the hot streets of the East Valley town — a 30- to 60-minute commute for many of them — to talk to registered voters whose names, addresses and publicly available voting information appeared on a mobile phone app.

The voter canvassing event was one of many in recent months taking place as an unofficial — and controversial — piece of the ongoing Arizona audit headed by Liz Harris, one of the people who originally pushed the idea of an audit because of perceived election fraud.

Cyber Ninjas, the Florida firm conducting the audit for the Arizona Senate, had made canvassing voters part of its scope of work from the beginning, but in early May, state Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, canceled the official door-knocking plan after the U.S. Department of Justice warned it might constitute voter intimidation.

Audit liaison Ken Bennett and audit spokesperson Randy Pullen both have said that there were no official canvassing efforts related to the audit since Fann suspended them three months ago.

Yet Harris, who lost a race for the state Legislature in November, has led a canvassing effort known as the “Voter Integrity Project” since December, mobilizing thousands of volunteers. The group caused a stir on social media last week after a politically active Tempe resident posted images on Twitter of canvassers at her home, but most of its activities have been reported only by conservative media, if at all.

The Arizona Republic is the first mainstream news organization that the group has allowed to observe the canvassing.

Harris, who declined to speak with The Arizona Republic, was present for a short time to assist James Knox, a Queen Creek resident and conservative activist working as the lead organizer for Saturday’s operation. They paired up volunteers and went over the functions of the app, which puts the preloaded addresses into a map. After they reviewed the questions to ask voters, such as, “Can you verify the voters registered to this address?” and “Did you vote by mail or in person?”

Canvassing guidance:DOJ issues 'guidance' on post-election reviews

Harris and Knox climbed into the bed of Knox’s pickup to rally the crowd with a bullhorn before sending them into the neighborhoods.

“You’re my hero!” one woman yelled to Harris, who promised that the findings would show “whatever was supposed to happen in 2020.”

Tom Vanek, a volunteer canvasser from Phoenix, said he uses the app to canvass homes “most weekends” by himself, whether in his own West Valley neighborhood or elsewhere.

In visits to 12 homes Saturday, he and a trainee managed to reach voters, or people who knew them, at five homes in more than three hours. No strange voter registration activity or discrepancies were detected. People who answered the door in the newly developed neighborhood, in a town that voted largely for Trump, were receptive to the questions, answering them quickly and politely.

“We’re conducting a voter integrity survey,” he often said to kick off the short interview.

“I love it,” said one voter who answered the door. “I’m very opinionated.”

Vanek and the trainee recorded the answers they received with the mobile phone app, taking several minutes to input the data.

Are canvassing efforts legal?

While the Queen Creek operation may seem innocuous, it could be illegal, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York-based policy institute, which wrote an April 29 letter to the Justice Department that sparked the agency’s subsequent warning to the Arizona Senate.

“Regardless of the fact that these actions will occur after the 2020 election, they constitute intimidation because they seek to stoke fear amongst Arizonans of exercising their fundamental right to vote in future elections,” the center wrote. It noted that intimidation of voters is addressed in the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In June, some Yavapai County residents reported that people at their doors asking them about the 2020 election had claimed they were with the Yavapai County Recorder’s Office. That prompted a warning to residents from the local Sheriff’s Office that the recorder’s office wasn’t involved in the effort and urged any to call if they saw anyone impersonating an official.

Harris said later in one of her frequent video updates that while the group was canvassing in the region, its members hadn't misrepresented themselves. Yavapai County Recorder Leslie M. Hoffman said last week that her office had not received any more reports of people asking residents about how they voted.

The next month, the Justice Department issued even broader guidance on post-election audits that specifically mentioned restrictions regarding contacting voters. While the guidance didn't directly name the Arizona audit, it did cite a section on canvassing in the statement of work from Cyber Ninjas as having the potential for voter intimidation.

A Cyber Ninjas spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment about any past or ongoing canvassing coordinated by the company.

The Department of Justice has not released any further information about the frequency of ongoing canvassing efforts in Arizona or across the country. The department did not respond to requests for information on how it is tracking voter canvassing and dealing with it when it is identified.

Harris, in videos on the internet, dismisses the threats and insists that asking basic questions of voters is not illegal. She and Knox also deny any formal connections to the audit, but questions remain about who they’re working with and whether money from the audit or its contributors is funding the canvassing effort.

Controversy surrounds efforts

Canvasser Hayden Crume said he had recently driven from his home in Alford, Florida, to help the effort after hearing about it in a video he saw on the social media site Telegram by election-fraud conspiracy supporter Seth Keshel.

Crume doesn’t think the 2020 election result was accurate and is distrustful of government and “coordination” by the media, Crume said. He’s living out of his Jeep and hasn’t received any payment for his help, he said.

Yet some homeowners find visits by election conspiracy supporters troubling.

On Aug. 21, at least two Twitter users posted images of canvassers working in a Tempe neighborhood. One post, made by Democratic political activist Cathy Sigmon, drew dozens of strong responses, including implied threats to sic a dog on the canvassers or answer the door armed. Police intervened in one squabble between a homeowner and a volunteer, Harris said in a video she made in response to the controversy.

Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat who’s running for governor, posted on Twitter a “reminder” in English and Spanish that people “don’t have to talk to anyone” about their voting history, adding that the door-knockers aren’t election officials. Anyone feeling threatened or intimated could contact the Department of Justice, Hobbs wrote.

Sigmon, who also posted about the canvassers last week, said she considered the canvassing “borderline” illegal. The co-founder of Save Our Schools Arizona described how she peppered the canvassers with questions after they came to her door. She said they were polite but evasive before acknowledging they were part of Harris' group.

“They’re asking you about your voting habits. I can certainly see that it could be construed as intimidation,” Sigmon said.

Another Tempe resident, Cindy Mueller, the wife of Tempe Councilmember Jennifer Adams, said she was “unsettled” by the canvassers when they came to her door that day.

“There were three of them, and they were asking questions about voting, which is a really hot subject,” she said. “With all these laws being put into place to limit people’s voting, it’s disturbing.”

Harris, in her video, urged her followers to reply politely to Sigmon, but to push back on the idea that the canvassing wasn’t worthwhile. She’s made numerous claims about alleged fraud since the 2020 election and has become a minor celebrity in the election conspiracy world.

Who is organizing canvass of Arizona voters?

Liz Harris uploaded photos of herself with Mike Lindell, Patrick Byrne, and Sidney Powell in February.

A Chandler mom and real estate agent, Harris became a key figure in the audit’s founding after blaming voting errors for her loss in November in her bid to represent Legislative District 17 in the Arizona House of Representatives.

She’s acknowledged working with Bobby Piton who, along with former Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, met with several Republican Arizona lawmakers in November. Earlier this month, she said she's working with Keshel, who's connected to the broad national effort of the funders of the Arizona election audit to attempt to gain access to voting machines across the country. 

Keshel has analyzed election data for Mike Flynn, and he and Cyber Ninjas’ CEO Doug Logan were part of a team that analyzed voting machines through a court case trying to prove election fraud in Antrim County, Michigan.

Harris said in an April 11 video that she is a friend of Jovan Hutton Pulitzer, an inventor who claims his technology can help detect fraudulent votes. Text messages from February obtained by the organization American Oversight, which has sued the Senate for audit records, showed Harris and Pullen discussing the use of Pulitzer’s technology before the audit was launched.

Harris told The Republic earlier this year that she had signed a nondisclosure agreement as part of helping with the Senate's audit, but later said she's not sure of her involvement in the effort. Harris and Knox have made numerous claims about the canvass finding problems, but The Republic has not yet analyzed those claims.

Knox is a former Republican Montana lawmaker, serving in that state's Legislature from 2011-2012, who said he relocated to Phoenix two years ago. He publishes opinions regularly on Facebook, calling himself "James the Bearded Conservative,” and he’s ramped up his political activism since the election.

He spoke at the Stop the Steal Rally in Arizona on Nov. 14, and wrote on Facebook two days later that, "Anyone directly involved in this needs to be prosecuted for treason and executed."

After lunch on Saturday, which Knox said was not paid for by the group, most of the volunteers went back to the neighborhoods. Knox invited The Republic to his home, where he monitored computer screens and took calls from canvassers as they worked. He said that the volunteer turnout in Queen Creek was low and that he’s had 100-150 people at recent canvassing events. He estimated that the effort has so far reached 40,000-60,000 voters across the state.

Knox claimed that evidence of potential “fraud” was found and shared with people involved in the audit and will be released publicly at some point. The group also is helping with fundraising for the audit by directing its volunteers and others to several organizations paying for the audit, such as Michael Flynn’s The America Project.

He maintains that the volunteer effort is just that, though.

“Every single one of us pays out of our own pocket for our own stuff,” Knox said.

Knox’s training materials, posted online by opponents of the effort, calls the group “Liz Harris’s Voter Integrity Project." Knox said he wants to be as transparent as possible, yet declined to answer several questions posed by The Republic about the group’s connections.

Knox declined to say who acquired the public records they’re using to find voters or who provided the app used by the canvassers to work the neighborhoods where they’re assigned. He denied any formal connections between the canvassing group and the Senate’s audit, which he said is “probably because of that stupid DOJ letter.”

He and Harris, through recent videos, also deny they’re committing any kind of voter intimidation or asking people who they voted for.

Pulitzer, meanwhile, who Harris said in her April video is “a man of his word,” said in a podcast on Saturday that the canvassing effort was “taking funds” and is “part of the audit.” He added that such an effort is not “free.”

“You have to take care of the people. You have to put people up. You have to bring experts in. People have to crunch the numbers. You have to corral it all,” he said. “It does take funds. Don’t believe the lie it doesn’t.”

What canvassers say they've seen 

The canvassers don’t know all the details of the election records available to Knox and the group while they're working in the field. That includes the method of voting used in the election, though Vanek said he's come across names of people who don’t live at the address he’s checking, and once found a row of newly constructed houses that weren't finished in November. He claimed that county records showed people who were registered to some of the addresses had voted.

Knox acknowledged the group cannot be certain whether the perceived problems actually represent clerical errors or other minor problems that wouldn’t necessarily mean substantial systemic problems. But he claims that canvassers have logged problems on more than 30% percent of the households they’ve visited.

In a 36-page open letter published on Aug. 19, Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer points out that after the November 2020 election, a bipartisan group hand-counted more than 47,000 votes and compared them to what the county's ballot machines had counted. Then they did it again, using different ways to double-check. Each time, the results matched the machine count 100 percent, he wrote.

Richer has praised the county’s election system and post-election assessments conducted by his office, and in his recent open letter criticized the Senate audit, arguing that listening to “charlatans and grifters” who support the idea of massive election fraud is an “insult” to the conservative movement.

A response to Richer’s lengthy letter on a website dedicated to promoting Harris's efforts includes a guest column suggesting that a jail term is likely for county officials who won’t give the audit what it needs.

The nationally watched audit, originally expected to take a month, is still going on more than five months later. A preliminary report on the audit’s findings by Cyber Ninjas was expected Aug. 23 but failed to materialize in part because three people on the Ninjas’ team including Logan, its election conspiracy-supporting CEO, had come down with COVID-19.

However, the audit received a political boost Thursday, when state Attorney General Mark Brnovich released his conclusion that the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors violated state law over an unsatisfied, audit-related subpoena from the Arizona Senate. The Board has until Sept. 27 to comply or possibly lose hundreds of millions of dollars in shared sales-tax revenue.

The canvassing effort, Knox said, "will exonerate Richer or show those records were changed."

Arizona Republic reporters Lacey Latch and Jen Fifield contributed to this article.

Reach the reporter at rstern@arizonarepublic.com. Follow him on Twitter @raystern.

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