The Republican-led Arizona state Senate audit of the 2020 election in the state's most populous county will have to be paused on Friday because the firms conducting the review of ballots must clear the facility being used so that high school graduations can take place in the venue.
Despite prior multiple state audits that found no issues of concern in the 2020 election, the Arizona Senate ordered another review, taking possession of Maricopa County's nearly 2.1 million ballots and almost 400 election machines by subpoena earlier this year. The audit is being run by companies that include one whose CEO promoted debunked election fraud theories after the election.
The ballots and equipment will need to be stored until workers can return to the facility next weekend. About 25% of the ballots have been reviewed so far.
President Biden is the first Democrat to win Arizona since 1996, defeating former President Trump by 10,457 votes. Democrats also won the state's U.S. Senate race. The audit's results will not overturn Mr. Biden's victory.
"This has nothing to do with going back and trying to change the results of the November 2020 election," Ken Bennett, a former GOP secretary of state and the Senate's audit liaison, told CBS News. The audit is scrutinizing the ballots and equipment, searching for evidence of election fraud stemming from farfetched and debunked conspiracy theories.
CBS News watched workers photographing ballots looking at the way they were folded and checking the thickness of the paper. Other observers have noticed workers examining ballots with UV lights looking for a rumored watermark on the ballot because one theory held that the Trump administration had watermarked the ballots. The county elections department issued a statement affirming there are no watermarks. Other workers have been looking for signs of bamboo fibers because of another conspiracy theory that thousands of ballots had been flown in from Asia.
"If that didn't happen, then we will dispel that," Bennett said.
CBS News asked Bennett if he believed that thousands of ballots had been flown in from Asia.
"No, I don't personally," Bennett responded. "But there are a lot of people that do or did."
Arizona's Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs has received death threats over her opposition to the audit, which she said is "making a mockery of our election." She applauded the Justice Department for recently warning that the audit may be violating election laws and is worried that Arizona won't be the last state to see this type of effort.
"This is unprecedented, and it's not sustainable to think this will be the future of how we handle elections," Hobbs said in anon CBSN Friday.
There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Arizona. Officials found no issues when election equipment was audited before and after the election, which is standard procedure. A partial hand-count audit of ballots after the election affirmed Biden's victory. Two additional audits of election equipment conducted in February also found no issues.
Republican state Senator Michelle Ugenti-Rita, who voted for the outside review, said it's appropriate to take another look. She said workers are reviewing equipment, technology, software, machines and ballots.
"I think checking is appropriate and that's what we're doing," Ugenti-Rita said. "I think it's going well. There's been some ups and downs and that's to be expected. The scale of it is quite large."
"I'm very anxious and eager to get the results," she added.
Republican state Senate President Karen Fann sent a letter to the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday where she alleged the county continues to not comply with legislative subpoenas, raised concerns about the ballots' chain of custody and claimed some data was deleted. She invited officials to a hearing next Tuesday at the Arizona State Capitol.
In a statement issued on Thursday, Jack Sellers, the Republican Chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, said the letter contained allegations that are "false and ill-informed." He said the claim that employees "deleted election files and destroyed evidence is outrageous, completely baseless and beneath the dignity of the Arizona Senate."
"It is clearer by the day: the people hired by the Senate are in way over their heads," Sellers said. "This is not funny; this is dangerous."
Bennett, the Senate's audit liaison, confirmed that former Arizona Republican State Representative Anthony Kern is no longer counting ballots. Kern was on the November ballot as an elector for President Trump and was at the United States Capitol on January 6, according to the Arizona Republic.
"He hasn't been here for two weeks," Bennett said. "He was here for two or three days and once it was identified that that wasn't the best optic, I think the contractor removed him from the counting team. So that's been resolved."
Other election experts have raised concerns about Cyber Ninjas, the firm coordinating the review and the processes it is using. The CEO of Cyber Ninjas, Doug Logan, has previously promoted the unsupported theory that there was fraud in the 2020 election, according to a review by the Arizona Mirror of his now deleted Twitter account.
"It's not a firm that has experience in election audits and it's a biased firm," said Sara Chimene-Weiss, counsel at Protect Democracy. "The head of the firm has already, without looking at a ballot, without seeing any evidence, has already declared that there was fraud in the 2020 election. And that's just not something that would happen with a legitimate audit."
Logan has pledged that the audit would be transparent and said he wouldn't "touch a single ballot." Cameras are livestreaming the process online. In a statement, Logan said, "Cyber Ninjas is the coordinating firm of four companies conducting components of the audit" and added, "each member of our team has been part of election audits, including Cyber Ninjas, which was part of election audits in Michigan and in Georgia." Officials in those states told CBS News that Cyber Ninjas wasn't involved in any of the audits carried out by election officials.
Grant Woods, a former Republican Arizona Attorney General who left the Republican Party during Mr. Trump's presidency, is among those who have dismissed the audit's significance.
"This is a clown show," Woods said. "This is hurting our democracy, the state Senate should know that and they should call it off, if they won't do it the Department of Justice needs to step in."