Senate hires conspiracy theorist and anti-vaccine activist for further review of ballots

Independent candidate for U.S. Senate from Massachusetts Shiva Ayyadurai protests being excluded from a debate between Sen. Elizabeth Warren and her Republican opponent Geoff Diehl in Boston in 2018. Ayyadurai has been hired by the Arizona Senate to conduct its review of voter signatures on mail-in ballot envelopes in Maricopa County.
Robert Anglen Jen Fifield
Arizona Republic

The Arizona Senate has hired an election conspiracy theorist and anti-vaccine activist to conduct its review of voter signatures on mail-in ballot envelopes in Maricopa County.

Cyber Ninjas, the Senate's lead audit contractor, hired the same man to review images of all 2.1 million ballots cast in the 2020 election.

Shiva Ayyadurai, or "Dr. Shiva" as he is known to far-right adherents, was tapped for both reviews in the waning weeks of the audit process, records show. However, he had participated in discussions with Arizona Republicans about challenging the state's election results as far back as November.  

The Arizona Republic found one of Ayyadurai's contracts among thousands of records the Senate released this week in response to a court order

Senate President Karen Fann acknowledged the envelope review on Tuesday but would not name who the Senate hired to conduct it. She said nothing about the review of ballot images even though Cyber Ninjas gave a copy of the contract to the Senate on Aug. 6.

Audit spokesperson and former Arizona GOP Chair Randy Pullen confirmed Thursday that Ayyadurai's company got separate $50,000 contracts in July and August for its audit work.

Pullen acknowledged the contracts after The Republic raised questions about the payments, scope of work and Ayyadurai's controversial claims of election fraud and ties to the "Stop the Steal" movement, which falsely claims the 2020 presidential election was rigged against Donald Trump.

"Everybody has controversies. Is he knowledgeable and experienced enough to do the work?" Pullen said. "I've talked to him. I'm confident he knows what he is doing and he is trustworthy."

Pullen cited Ayyadurai's work conducting signature reviews for banks as one of the chief factors in his hiring.

Benny White, a Pima County Republican, has done election and voter registration analysis for the Arizona Republican Party.

The digital reviews are supposed to augment the Senate's audit of Maricopa County election results, which was prompted by allegations, made without evidence, of voter fraud. 

"I don't know why it is that Senator Fann goes out of her way to find unqualified people to do this work," said Benny White, a longtime Republican data analyst in southern Arizona who lost a bid in November to become Pima County recorder. "It might be that she is looking for a particular result."

Ayyadurai, who lives in Massachusetts, did not respond to an interview request via his website on Thursday. He could not be reached by phone.

Ayyadurai appears with Rudy Giuliani in Arizona

Ayyadurai gained prominence in the early days of the pandemic for spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines. He criticized Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as a tool of the pharmaceutical industry intent on making vaccines mandatory.

In a YouTube video that racked up more than 6 million views in 2020, Ayyadurai accused Fauci of being a "deep state" operative and falsely claimed Vitamin C could be used to treat COVID -19.

He ran two unsuccessful campaigns for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts and has announced his intent to run again in 2024. After the 2020 primary he wrongly claimed on Twitter the state had illegally deleted 1 million ballot images from his race.

Twitter in February suspended his account without explanation. Ayyadurai blamed Massachusetts elections officials, saying their complaints about his posts prompted the social media company to block him.

Ayyadurai has four degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He claims to have invented email as a high school student in New Jersey in 1979, a claim widely disputed by technology writers and industry analysts.

Pullen said Ayyadurai first came to his attention on Nov. 30, when Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, met with Arizona Republicans at a hotel in downtown Phoenix to discuss concerns about Arizona's election.

The audit of the Maricopa County ballots from the 2020 general election continues on July 14, 2021, in the Wesley Bolin Building at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix. At right is audit spokesperson Randy Pullen.

Ayyadurai made a presentation via Zoom and talked about election challenges he had made in other states, Pullen said. Arizona Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, later vouched for Ayyadurai and made introductions.

Finchem is a Trump supporter who rallied for Stop the Steal and has raised money for the audit. He was in front of the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection and posted pictures on social media as crowds amassed on the east steps.

"Finchem was aware of him (Ayyadurai)," Pullen said. "He kind of hooked us up."

Fundraising questions: Katie Hobbs, Mark Brnovich spat widens to include state Rep. Mark Finchem

What work will Ayyadurai do?

The Arizona Senate signed a contract with Ayyadurai on Aug. 27 to review signatures on the envelopes of 1.9 million early ballots sent to the county.

Pullen said Ayyadurai's company will use algorithms to identify envelopes that were left blank or that contain questionable marks. He said the review is ongoing.

Records obtained by The Republic on Thursday show the Senate paid Ayyadurai's firm, EchoMail Inc., $25,000 in upfront fees on Aug. 27. It will pay another $25,000 when the work is completed Sept. 20.

Pullen said the final audit report will come in three parts that he hopes to release this month. Those will include a report on the hand count at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the separate machine count of ballots and Ayyadurai's envelope review.

The results will be compared against Maricopa County's results and flag any suspicious ballots, he said.

The second contract to Ayyadurai's company, dated July 28, was routed through Cyber Ninjas.

Cyber Ninjas founder and CEO Doug Logan is a Trump supporter who has pushed unfounded election fraud claims as part of the "Stop the Steal" movement.

The contract sought to hire Ayyadurai's company to review all 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa County's 2020 election — work that is now in limbo.

Pullen said Thursday the contract with Cyber Ninjas was supposed to be "confidential" and not publicly available.

However, the contract and an email to Pullen confirming it were included in the records made public Tuesday by the Senate after a court order.

Two judges ordered the Senate to disclose more than 22,000 documents, emails and texts related to the audit after legal challenges filed by a nonprofit watchdog group called American Oversight and The Arizona Republic.

The Republic also is seeking audit records from Cyber Ninjas.

Arizona election audit updates: Follow the news on azcentral.com

County disputes claims on images

Ayyadurai's image review would look at only the presidential and federal races, although such reviews typically use computers to analyze ballots for every race, providing a full picture of election results.

Pullen on Thursday said Ayyadurai's contract for the ballot images was sidetracked because the data was corrupted. He said only about 60% of the ballots were accessible.

"We couldn't do anything with it," he said. "The vast majority was corrupted ... . The corruption was done at the county."

The county Elections Department disputed Pullen's claim, saying ballot images turned over to the Senate were fully accessible. A spokesman said the data was tested again Thursday after The Republic contacted the department.

"Prior to providing the images to the Senate, we verified the ballot images would open," Maricopa County Elections Department Communications Director Megan Gilbertson said in an email.

"Today, we checked our cloned version of the hard drive, which was an exact copy of the drive provided to the Senate, and confirmed it was working properly." 

Additionally, Gilbertson said, the county provided the cast vote record for the 2020 general election to the Senate on Jan. 21.

A cast vote record is a list of an individual voter's ballot choices created by the voting system. It essentially converts the ballot image into readable form.

Senate Republicans in December issued subpoenas to the county requesting the 2.1 million ballots cast in the county's general election. They also demanded all of the county's voting machines, voter rolls, routers and tabulators used in the 2020 election.

The Senate in July issued a new subpoena for election materials the board had earlier not provided, including routers, passwords and various log books.

Attorney General Mark Brnovich said last month the county broke the law by refusing to hand over the materials and gave the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors until Sept. 27 to comply with the subpoena or face severe financial sanctions.

Senate rejected other offers for review

Election experts say the ballot image and cast vote record is critical to ensuring the accuracy of the hand count conducted by the Cyber Ninjas. They say it could also serve as the most accurate way to verify the county's election results.

A California-based election organization called Citizens Oversight for months tried to convince the Senate to do this type of review using new technology it developed and tested against election results in Florida.

The Senate abandoned those plans after audit supporters launched an online protest to kill any deal.

White said he proposed conducting a full ballot image review in November, as election fraud claims were gaining steam. He said the Senate declined his offer.

Only one of the major voting system companies nationwide has software that can re-tabulate other companies' ballots, 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.

Fann passed over Clear Ballot and instead hired Cyber Ninjas.

Fann, R-Prescott, maintains she launched the audit to ensure election integrity. But election experts say the audit is mired in partisan politics, relies on inaccurate and untested methods and say the ever-changing process will not deliver accurate results.

Others warn the audit is undermining the electoral process by those who want to unseat President Joe Biden and return Trump to the White House. They say the involvement of conspiracy theorists and Trump loyalists in the audit's setup, structure and funding taint any findings.

White questioned Ayyadurai's credentials and ability to do a review of ballot images. He said turning the audit over to right-wing elements poses a threat to elections.

"We can't survive as a country if we continue to do this kind of nonsense," he said. "At some point, people need to stand up and say this is wrong."

White said being a Republican doesn't matter — he has "zero confidence" in the Senate's audit. 

"You don't start out with the result and then fudge it," he said.

Republic reporter Mary Jo Pitzl contributed to this article.

Robert Anglen investigates consumer issues for The Republic. If you're the victim of fraud, waste or abuse, reach him at robert.anglen@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-8694. Follow him on Twitter @robertanglen