Is the Maricopa County election audit truly an audit? Here's what professional auditors have to say

Jen Fifield
Arizona Republic

What to call the activity at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum this month?

It’s not an "audit," according to many of those watching. It doesn’t meet the formal criteria, they say.

A better description would be a review or investigation — or, from some perspectives, "grift" or "clown show." Some have taken to calling it a "fraudit."  

Sierra Vista resident Ben Eaddy is one of many Arizonans who say calling this exercise an audit "lends it an appearance of legitimacy it simply does not deserve."

But many supporters of what the Arizona Senate's contractors are doing say that this is an audit and should be called one. They believe that the multiple tests the county did before this to verify its election results should not be called “audits.” 

Ah, partisanship. But those in the profession? They get the final say.

Most certified auditors contacted by The Arizona Republic, including accountants, internal auditors, and forensic auditors, say this is not an audit — or at least it doesn't appear to be following the generally accepted standards for one, from the outside. 

Professional auditors are impartial and objective, for example, they try to maintain a healthy working relationship with the entity they are auditing, and they do not release results early, said Laura Long, a former auditor for the Arizona Office of the Auditor General. None of this has been the case for the Senate contractors, she said.

"I've been calling it a partisan recount," she said.

At least one auditor by trade believes strongly this is an audit — he also happens to be helping run it. Randy Pullen, a former state GOP chairman who is helping the Senate on audit-related communications, is a certified public accountant and a former partner at Deloitte, the national audit and accounting firm. 

He said that the Senate's contractors are following strict procedures, as auditors do, and collecting detailed evidence that could be used in court. He disagrees that the contractors, as a whole, are biased, and said it simply was a mistake to release information early.

Whatever you call it, Senate President Karen Fann has said she expects similar efforts to occur elsewhere, too. She told the Senate's lead contractor at a recent hearing that the procedures being used here could serve as the "groundwork" for postelection reviews across the country.

Audits, by definition

The two Merriam-Webster definitions say an audit is:

  • A formal examination of an organization's or individual's accounts or financial situation;
  • A methodical examination and review.

Breaking it down by the type of audit helps a bit more.

The "internal audit" most commonly investigates the processes or financials of a company or government. Evidence of broken rules is used to recommend improvements, Long said.

Maricopa County ballots from the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors hired by the Arizona Senate on June 1, 2021, at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix.

A "forensic audit" is one that investigates to find fraud, with a purpose of using that evidence later in court, said Paul Updike, a forensic accountant and owner of Mesa-based EFM Consulting.

Then there's the "election audit," which Nikki Charlson, deputy director of the Maryland State Board of Elections, said is aimed at verifying that rules and laws in place for the election were followed. The results are used sometimes to confirm results, but other times to improve future elections. 

In this case, Senate Republican leaders have said repeatedly this is a forensic election audit. Pullen said it is checking for fraud and attempting to develop court-worthy evidence.

Maricopa County Supervisors Chairman Jack Sellers didn't back down from that threat in a recent comment: "Finish what you’re calling an audit and be ready to defend your report in a court of law."

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Objectivity is 'basis for the credibility'

Auditors typically have professional certifications and follow certain standards in their field, such as the International Professional Practices Framework or the Government Auditing Standards, which outline ethics and responsibilities — such as being objective.

"Auditors’ objectivity in discharging their professional responsibilities is the basis for the credibility of auditing in the government sector," according to the government standards, otherwise known as the Yellow Book. "Objectivity includes independence of mind and appearance when conducting engagements, maintaining an attitude of impartiality, having intellectual honesty, and being free of conflicts of interest."

A distinguishing mark of an auditor, the book says, is acceptance of responsibility to serve the public interest. The book talks at length about integrity, including performing work "with an attitude that is objective, fact-based, nonpartisan, and nonideological with regard to the entity being audited."

Florida-based cybersecurity firm Cyber Ninjas is leading this postelection review, and the CEO Doug Logan demonstrated a lack of objectivity by repeating on social media claims of widespread election fraud before the audit began

Logan has said his bias does not matter because of the many contractors, with developed processes, he hired.

Maricopa County ballots from the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors hired by the Arizona Senate on June 1, 2021, at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix.

"The big question should not be, ‘Am I biased,’ but ‘Will this audit be transparent, truthful and accurate?'" Logan said in a statement in April. "The answer to the latter question is a resounding ‘Yes.’"

However, Logan promised no bipartisanship at the recount tables. And there has been a clear partisan effort from Republicans to recruit ballot counters, while Democrats have stayed away.

Former state lawmaker Anthony Kern, a supporter of former President Donald Trump who attended "Stop the Steal" rallies and who was at the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection, was among those brought in to recount ballots.

Kern was removed days into the recount after media highlighted his involvement.

In typical audits, Long said, auditors often are screened ahead of time for any conflicts that would prevent partiality, or even the appearance of partiality, before they start working on an audit.

Long, an independent county voter, worked in the Auditor General's office from 2011 to 2019, helping the office do many special audits of agencies or entities, such as one on the Central Arizona Project. You won't see a lot of people from that office on social media, if at all, she said, because of the desire to stay as objective as possible.

"You want the findings and the recommendations to be taken seriously," she said.

Charlson said auditors try to approach audits with a neutral position, and even the appearance of partisanship "does disservice to the work."

A healthy working relationship?

One challenge that auditors face is getting all of the information they need to do a proper investigation.

In their study, Charlson and Linda Lamone, Maryland's elections administrator, found that the extent of the material available on the processes will dictate the success of an election audit, including whether it is doable.

"Ultimately, the auditor may find that this process cannot be audited as there are no written procedures against which he or she can test for compliance with the process," they wrote at the time.

In this case, the county has refused to answer the Senate and its contractors' questions about how the county conducts elections and stores ballots and election information after a judge ordered the ballots released, saying the information can be found in written manuals and guidelines.

For subscribers:A look at who's auditing Maricopa County's election, why it matters

County GOP leaders have been clear about what they think of the Senate GOP leaders' endeavor. County Supervisor Chairman Sellers called it "grift disguised as an audit," while Supervisor Clint Hickman said he knows audits from helping run his family business, and this "is not the way to do an audit."

Maricopa County officials are using the hashtag "#realauditorsdont" to try to make clear that they do not believe the Senate contractors' activities qualify as an audit. 

The county created the campaign to differentiate the Senate's activities from the county's election audits, said Fields Moseley, county communications director. Those audits included a ballot hand count conducted by representatives from political parties, a logic and accuracy test of voting machines and an in-depth examination of the county's voting machines by two outside firms.

No leap to judgment

One thing that's standard across different types of audits: Auditors don't release their findings early, before concluding their investigation.

On May 12, though, the Senate's contractors posted on Twitter that the contractors discovered that the county had deleted a directory of election files. Fann wrote the same thing in a letter to the county that day.

The contractor later said that he had "recovered" the deleted directory.

The county maintains that it did not delete relevant 2020 election files.

On an innately political issue, our nation's elections, the auditors' statements stirred a frenzy of allegations, including the former president of the United States jumping in to claim a crime was committed. This prompted the Republican county recorder to enter the fray and call Trump "unhinged."

'Fighting for democracy here':Election audit pits Maricopa County Republicans vs. Arizona GOP senators

Mark Lindeman, acting co-director of national election integrity nonprofit Verified Voting, said he finds this contractor's claim "deeply reprehensible."

Auditors should never release false and defamatory statements about the entity they are covering, he said, before, during or after their work.

"It underscores all of the concerns we have had all along about a process skewed towards discrediting an election rather than establishing a truth about it," he said.

Long said it would be a felony for the state Auditor General's Office to release information before a final report is ready, as well as bad practice. One reason is, if you release information later on and later the evidence shows something else, you don't want it to appear you've changed your mind.

“That just makes you look not credible at all," Long said.

Updike referred to releasing audit findings early as "the bad guy in the room for auditing." 

He said while he believes this should be called an audit, he isn't sure that it is a meaningful or unbiased audit.

"The nuance there makes all difference," he said.

Long said auditors also don't go into audits with conclusions. Rather, they take in information and claims and try to gather evidence to prove it.

For example, Updike said he currently is auditing a couple's financials. He said that he doesn't want to be seen as on one side or the other as he gathers information.

"If you aren’t independent and unbiased, you might not be able to do the audit well," he said.

Expertise in the subject

Skill matters, too.

When organizing external election audits, governments should consider bringing in "one or more objective individuals who are capable of understanding complex processes and evaluating documentation quality as well as being experienced or familiar with various auditing environments," Lamone, Maryland's elections administrator, wrote in a 2008 study for the Pew Charitable Trusts.

For that study, Lamone, Charlson and others researched general auditing best practices and how to apply those to elections. They recommended a few different types of firms that would be good choices, including accounting firms, law firms, forensic investigation firms and university staff — all with a good understanding of auditing. 

Cyber Ninjas does not have any prior experience with auditing. The contractor Logan hired to lead the hand recount, the technology company Wake TSI, only recently entered the election audit realm. Wake participated in a hand ballot recount in a rural Pennsylvania county last year.

But Wake is no longer involved with the audit, after deciding not to extend its original contract that ended May 14. The cybersecurity firm that took over, Scottsdale-based StratTech Solutions, does not list auditing or election experience or services on its website.

The auditors are not following every aspect of the state's election law, which is one argument for why it shouldn't be called an audit. For example, election law requires hand count audits to have bipartisan participation. 

But a court recently weighed in on whether this type of special post-election "audit" needed to follow the same procedures as the election audits mandated under state law.

The Libertarian party had sued the county for not allowing the party to observe the independent examination of the county's voting machines that the county commissioned in February.

Under state law, representatives from all recognized political parties in each county must be allowed to observe mandated election audits. In Maricopa County, that's the Republican, Democrat and Libertarian parties.

The judge ruled in favor of the county, saying that the political party requirement didn’t apply in this case.

Is it forensic? Is it an audit? Depends on who you ask

In a forensic audit, Pullen said, everything needs to be well-documented and must follow well-outlined procedures to use evidence in court.

He said that has been the case during this past month, although details remain unclear. It took a court case for the public to get detailed documents on what was happening at the coliseum, and those documents leave questions about the process.

Pullen said having an attorney present at all times also distinguishes this as a "forensic audit."

Updike said for the Senate's review to be considered "forensic," it would have to take an in-depth look at what happened for each voter from the time he or she got the ballot to when it was cast. That would be a multimillion-dollar project, he said.

While Maricopa County referred to its proceeding as a "forensic audit," Pullen said that he believes it wasn't comprehensive enough for the evidence to later be used in court. Asked why, he said the county did not have an attorney present at all times for the audit.

Rick Hasen, a national elections law expert, told The Arizona Republic earlier this month that "what is going on right now is not an audit. It's not an audit in any meaningful sense."

Hasen said that it is not following accepted standards for election audits, such as protecting the ballots. 

The Arizona Secretary of State's Office has many concerns about the processes the auditors have used for tracking ballots and keeping them secure, saying that the security at the coliseum has not been adequate and their observers have seen ballots misplaced and left unattended.

Cyber Ninjas has argued that its procedures are well-defined, and the ballots have been kept secure. 

‘Undermining confidence in our elections’

Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, is one of many who have begun to call this a "fraudit."

"People come from all over the country to work, raise families, and retire in Arizona," she wrote on Twitter. "It's the best state in the union. But this #fraudit is undermining confidence in our elections. It's making Arizona a national joke. It's bad for our brand, and bad for business."

Lindeman has said the postelection review has been offensive to election officials across the country who are trained to care more about fair and free elections than the winner of those elections.

On whether this should be considered an audit, Lindeman said he tries not to call it that. He said doing so would lend credibility to what participants are doing and could take away from the professional work of election officials.

"What scares me more is it takes credibility from work that actually should be done," he said. "I am passionate about good postelection audits. I don’t want high-quality audits to be confused with clown shows."

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

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