Another election audit coming? Arizona Senate considers using new technology for digital recount

Jen Fifield Robert Anglen
Arizona Republic

The Arizona Senate, apparently not satisfied with one recount, is close to signing a deal for its second review of Maricopa County’s 2020 general election ballots.

The effort would expand the ongoing audit and is expected to use a new and largely untested technology.

This second recount of all 2.1 million ballots would be done electronically, running the original digital images of ballots through a program that would count all votes cast for every race on the ballot. This is a different approach from the ongoing recount, which is being done by hand.

Senate Republican leaders are negotiating with Citizens Oversight, a California-based election transparency nonprofit, according to Senate liaison Ken Bennett.

Adding a second count is important for comparison purposes, Bennett said. The cost of such a deal is unknown at this point.

The organization's founder told The Arizona Republic this week that his company has never been hired to audit an election, and the technology has never been used in an official election audit.

“I would say absolutely this is a grand test,” Ray Lutz said. “I think it is certainly a big test for me, because I have put a lot of work on it for the last year and a half or so. We have enhanced it to the point now where I believe we can do a lot to provide information about how well (this election) went.”

Lutz, a San Diego area businessman and longtime activist, said he has conducted unofficial audits on election results in Florida and Georgia using a system he created called AuditEngine.

Lutz said Citizens Oversight would be hired by the Senate directly and would not be a subcontractor under Cyber Ninjas, the lead contractor the Senate Republicans hired to conduct the original audit.

Cyber Ninjas' CEO, Doug Logan, has promoted unfounded claims of election fraud on social media and has indicated the election was rigged against former President Donald Trump.

The Senate would pay the nonprofit, and Lutz said it would also accept outside donations, but not from political organizations or “from crazies.”

Asked specifically whether he would accept donations from the Republican nonprofit advocacy organizations that have been created to fundraise for the audit, he said he would not.

Lutz said he will be leading the audit and knows the AuditEngine system "inside and out."

Will this digital audit be accurate?

The second audit would not disrupt the current hand count because it would not use the actual ballots. Instead, Lutz’s team would use the digital image of each ballot.

Each time a ballot is fed into a vote-counting machine during the election, the machine creates a digital image of the ballot. The county was required to provide the Senate with those images along with the actual ballots, under the Senate’s subpoenas.

Bennett compared the separate audits to a bookkeeper’s role in managing deposits. He said if you got two different tallies, you’d want to do a third one to check which was the most accurate.

The question is whether either of the audits the Senate is performing will be accurate.

Nonpartisan election consultants have raised concerns about the lack of clear procedures of the hand count, the inexperience of the contractors hired to do the work, the fact that the procedures have changed in numerous ways since beginning and the lack of bipartisanship and transparency.

Lutz said he has tested his technology using the 2020 general election results from a handful of counties in Georgia and Florida, and those tests show his system is accurate. His organization is still finalizing the reports showing results from those audits.

Only one of the major voting system companies nationwide has software that can re-tabulate other company’s ballots, as Lutz is proposing to do, and that’s Clear Ballot. The company has been hired to conduct nearly 200 election audits, including nearly 9 million ballots in four states for the 2020 general election, said Clear Ballot Vice President Hillary Lincoln.

Senate President Karen Fann passed up a chance to hire Clear Ballot before the audit began. The company had proposed using its voting machines and software to rescan and recount the county’s ballots for $415,000, according to a proposal the company provided to The Republic.

Leon County, Florida, has used Clear Ballot for official audits since 2016. The county’s Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley was surprised to hear that Lutz said he had a technology that could do the same thing.

He said to complete valid and official audits, you need to use a system that has been tested repeatedly and comprehensively to ensure it can accurately count votes.

“This is a fly-by-night system,” he said, citing its lack of testing. “It won’t add validity to the election.”

Asked whether he was 100% confident that his system could be used to accurately audit Maricopa County’s election, Lutz said “sometimes we see mistakes that are made, on our side.”

“This is a new system that is valuable for the public to have and we can use for examining these elections and finding out what happened,” he said.

Lutz said that while Clear Ballot aligns itself with election officials, Citizens Oversight staffers are “outsiders who want to find whatever they can.”

John Brakey, an election transparency activist who has served as a consultant to Cyber Ninjas and Bennett, supports the digital audit and says Lutz is the best person to conduct it.

“He certainly can handle it,” Brakey said. “I’ve worked with him long enough and I’ve seen his expertise.”

Brakey runs Audit USA, a nonprofit focused on election fairness. He said the audit of images will serve as a critical check on the results of the hand count.

“The ultimate goal is to have this contract signed,” he said.

Open source technology aimed at transparency

Lutz said that his approach is different from that of Clear Ballot, mostly because of his transparent approach.

Clear Ballot uses proprietary software and contracts its services to election departments across the country. It does not share its analysis publicly.

Lutz, on the other hand, has created open source technology that operates on the cloud. He wants the public to be able to review his audit results by looking at individual ballots and the results from those ballots.

Ballots do not have any identifiers that would allow them to be tied back to a particular voter, and some states have decided to make their ballots available to the public for review. Lutz hopes that eventually all ballots will be public records.

Brakey and Lutz both push election transparency, and they said Lutz’s technology could lift a veil of secrecy surrounding ballot audits by putting the technology in the public realm.

“They could download images themselves, put it on their laptops or on their TVs,” Brakey said. “We are just trying to put confidence back into the election system.”

There’s just one major hurdle, at least for this audit.

In Arizona, ballot images are not public record. So for now, Lutz’s analysis of Maricopa County’s ballot images would not be publicly accessible.

Who is Ray Lutz?

While Lutz has not officially conducted election audits, he has been a government watchdog and elections activist for years.

Lutz founded Citizen Oversight in 2006. The nonprofit’s stated goal is “to promote civic engagement by citizens providing oversight over their local, state and federal governments.”

The nonprofit sued San Diego County in 2016, claiming it had inaccurately counted ballots in an audit of election results. Lutz said officials failed to include tens of thousands of mail-in ballots. A judge agreed with Lutz and ordered the county to adopt new procedures.

The organization’s website says it is expanding its election oversight functions throughout the United States.

A critical project, according to the website, is AuditEngine, which “can be used by election officials, campaigns, candidates, and oversight groups, to audit any election that uses hand-marked paper ballots and scanners that create ballot images.”

Boxes of Maricopa County ballots from the 2020 general election that have already been examined and recounted by contractors hired by the Arizona Senate in an audit are seen at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix on May 24, 2021.

Lutz, 63, lives in El Cajon, a suburb east of San Diego. He has a master's degree in electrical engineering and is president of Cognisys Inc., a consulting and product design company for the medical device industry.

Lutz is well known in San Diego County as an activist. He has not only advocated for election reforms but led efforts to remove nuclear waste from the now-defunct San Onofre Nuclear Power Generating Station.

He was also part of San Diego’s Occupy movement in 2011 and was arrested on trespassing charges when he refused to move a voter registration table.

In 2010, he ran an unsuccessful campaign for Congress. But he got significant local media attention by staging an 11-day hunger strike to force his opponent into a debate.

He set up a cot in downtown El Cajon, where he lay until his opponent agreed to a single debate, according to reports in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

How AuditEngine works

Lutz’s new technology works by mapping out where the ovals are on each ballot and then matching those locations with candidate names.

Lutz’s technology examines the oval along with the area directly around it to find votes.

Clear Ballot’s technology is set up in the same way. This is where some other vote-counting machines may miss votes, because voters either make an X or a dot outside of an oval, and those machines do not count those votes.

There were 8,475 “undervotes” in Maricopa County’s presidential race, and this analysis could tell if the voter had intended to vote for president but missed the oval.

The technology is also able to catch when a voter makes an X all the way down the ballot, rather than filling in the ovals.

“Our evaluation does a better job than theirs because we look at this using an advanced algorithm to say, how does this voter fill out all of the other bubbles on the page,” Lutz said.

His system does have a few kinks, though. It might pick up on a coffee stain in an oval, or the scan might not work properly. Those instances are rare, Lutz said.

“We aren’t looking for coffee stains or even this little stuff here,” he said. “We are looking for the big hack. We are looking for tens of thousands of votes that were moved. That can happen between when the votes are scanned and when the report is put out.”

He said he isn’t asking voters to trust him on his word — his system is created to be transparent.

“I’m saying we can show you every tiny bit of data,” he said.

Lutz explained that he tested his technology by using it to conduct audits of election results in three Florida counties as well as Bartow County, Georgia.

The results from his audits are not finalized, but he shared segments of a draft report with The Republic.

He singled out Volusia County in Florida, which is located on the Atlantic coast east of Orlando with a population of about 500,000, according to the 2010 census.

To get the ballot images and votes data there, he said he worked with election activists in Florida, who requested ballot images through the state’s public records laws.

Volusia County elections officials on Thursday confirmed turning over ballot images. But they could not say if they had been in communication with Lutz or anyone else over the findings.

“Trust me, they know what went on with this,” Lutz said.

Lutz may face roadblocks in Maricopa County

Maricopa County has a much larger population than the counties Lutz has audited.

It may take Lutz weeks to simply get set up to be able to do the work in Maricopa County.

To tabulate the results of every race, he will need to create a digital template for every single ballot style in the county. The county has about 1,800 ballot styles in English and the same number in Spanish. Each ballot style represents a specific neighborhood or area that might be voting on different races and propositions, such as the local city council or school board races.

Lutz said that setting up 16 ballot styles in Bartow County, Georgia, took him one or two hours. At that pace, it would take weeks to get set up in Maricopa County.

Lutz declined to say how many employees would work on the Maricopa County audit.

When Clear Ballot comes to a new county, Lincoln said, it takes “close collaboration with the county” to set up its system. The company had estimated it would take one week for setup in Maricopa County, given the ballot styles and full cooperation from the county.

Lutz also said that he might need to adjust his system to align with the barcodes that are on the county’s ballots.

If Lutz is hired, it’s unlikely he will get the county’s help. County officials have said numerous times that they will not provide information to the Senate’s contractors past what the subpoenas seeking ballots and equipment require.

Reach the reporter at jen.fifield@azcentral.com or at 602-444-8763. Follow her on Twitter @JenAFifield.