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All eyes turn to Pennsylvania after Arizona’s ‘audit’ affirmed Biden’s presidential victory

It remains to be seen how Pennsylvania Republicans will respond to the Cyber Ninjas' findings, but lawmakers in Harrisburg have insisted their “forensic investigation” is different from Arizona’s.

FILE - In this May 6, 2021, file photo, Maricopa County ballots cast in the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors working for Florida-based company, Cyber Ninjas at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix.
FILE - In this May 6, 2021, file photo, Maricopa County ballots cast in the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors working for Florida-based company, Cyber Ninjas at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix.Read moreMatt York / AP

Pennsylvania now stands to become ground zero in the movement to “audit” the election after former President Donald Trump’s efforts to discredit the 2020 election results failed in Arizona.

A monthslong partisan review in Arizona affirmed President Joe Biden’s victory there, according to findings made public Friday of the so-called “forensic audit” of the election results in Maricopa County, a linchpin county. That review had been widely criticized by experts for failing to follow best practices and was led by a company called Cyber Ninjas that had no previous experience with elections.

Lawmakers in Harrisburg have insisted their “forensic investigation” is different from Arizona’s.

Asked about the results there, State Sen. Cris Dush — the Jefferson County Republican leading the Pennsylvania probe who traveled to Phoenix in June to tour the facility where the Cyber Ninjas team counted ballots and inspected machines — issued a brief statement Friday night that said: “Protecting the integrity of Pennsylvanians’ election system is not only critical to the overall function of our country, but also secures Pennsylvania’s unique role as a state within the fabric of our nation by allowing Pennsylvanians to express our state’s culture, demographic, and geographic diversity through our voting process. It is for these reasons, that Pennsylvania and other states must have certainty in the oversight and integrity of their state’s voting system.”

Trump and his supporters more pointedly attacked the findings and the media reports about it, and suggested the investigation there was incomplete. But election experts said the developments in Arizona should serve as a warning to other states pursuing their own partisan reviews.

“It’s an unfortunate fact that after this abject failure in Arizona, after the embarrassment this biased and untransparent effort brought to the members of the Arizona Senate that pursued it, there are elected leaders in states including Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and now Texas, who are seeking to import this chaos to their states,” David Becker, founder of the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation & Research, said Friday.

Why we're not calling it an audit
The Inquirer is not currently referring to attempts by Pennsylvania Republicans to investigate the 2020 presidential election as an audit because there's no indication it would follow the best practices or the common understanding of an audit among nonpartisan experts. When asked by The Inquirer, lawmakers leading the effort have not explained how it will actually be run, including whether and how best practices will be followed; who will be involved, including the extent to which Republican politicians will play a role; how the review will be documented; how election equipment and ballots, if obtained, would be secured; and what the scope of any review would be. Joe Biden won Pennsylvania by more than 80,000 votes. State and county audits affirmed the outcome, and there is no evidence of any significant fraud.

Wisconsin Republicans have undertaken multiple reviews, including one led by a former conservative state Supreme Court justice, and late Thursday the Texas secretary of state’s office announced its own “forensic audit” of four major counties.

Ben Ginsberg, a veteran GOP elections lawyer who served as counsel to George W. Bush and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns, said the Arizona review “was a designed process that gave the Trump forces everything they wanted” to investigate the election results.

“That means that if the Cyber Ninja report doesn’t produce solid, smoking gun, irrefutable evidence of a fraudulent election with evidence that stands up to scrutiny, Trump and his allies fail,” Ginsberg told reporters Thursday. “ … If Trump and his supporters can’t prove it here with the process they designed, then they can’t prove it anywhere.”

Biden won Pennsylvania by more than 80,000 votes, almost double the margin by which Trump carried the state in 2016. Extensive litigation and post-election audits turned up no evidence of widespread fraud.

Still, Pennsylvania Senate Republicans voted this month to subpoena records from Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration, including all 9 million registered voters’ nonpublic personal information, including the last four digits of their Social Security numbers and driver’s license numbers. They say they want to verify who cast ballots in the 2020 election and whether they were properly registered or fraudulent.

Senate Democrats and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, have sued to block the subpoena and the investigation. “No surprise in Arizona,” Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, wrote on Twitter Friday. “I won’t let Pennsylvania Republicans bring this circus here.”

Here’s what we know — and don’t know — about the Pennsylvania review:

What’s an election audit?

Elections are complex and never perfect, and audits are one way officials verify the legitimacy of the results, identify issues, and improve the electoral system. Generally speaking, election audits focus on one of two things: checking the results to confirm whether votes were tallied accurately, or reviewing how the election was run, including what policies and procedures were followed.

A recount, for example, can be considered a type of audit, checking the accuracy of the vote count.

“The reason why you perform an audit in the first place is you want to have confidence in the outcome,” said Trey Grayson, a Republican and Kentucky’s former top elections official.

» READ MORE: What to know about Pennsylvania Republicans’ ‘forensic audit’ of the 2020 election

Pennsylvania Republicans call their efforts a ‘forensic audit’ or ‘forensic investigation.’ What does that mean?

Professional election experts sometimes conduct such reviews to make sure voting systems work as they should. For example, shortly after the 2020 election, a county board of supervisors in Arizona hired auditors to ensure voting machines weren’t infected with malicious software and that tabulators weren’t connected to the internet.

But the phrase “forensic audit” really took off after the Arizona Senate launched yet another probe in late 2020 and hired Cyber Ninjas, a contractor with no previous experience to review all 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa County and inspect machines. Even widely discredited by professionals, that review became a rallying cry for Trump supporters.

Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre) says he’s not an expert on what constitutes a “forensic” review.

“That’s somehow become a political term …,” he said in September. “What we’re going to do is an investigation, right? Perception is reality. … You know, there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of Pennsylvanians that have had concerns about the way the last election went.”

How will Pennsylvania’s review work?

A lot is still unknown about the review, including what, exactly, the review will entail or how it will work. That’s in part because of the messy way it started, its sudden speed, and the lack of general agreement about its goals and processes.

Details so far have largely become known as they’re decided in real time. We know there will be hearings, and Republicans issued a subpoena for voter information from the state.

Republicans say they’ll follow best practices in areas such as preserving the security of sensitive materials, but it’s not clear whether they ultimately will and how they would do so.

Best practices for post-election audits include that they are routine and happen shortly after elections, using specified procedures, said Mark Lindeman, a director at Verified Voting, a nonprofit that focuses on the role of technology in election administration.

“What’s extraordinary about what’s increasingly happening around the country — and the sort of bandwagon that Pennsylvania seems to be climbing on — is it’s not routine, there are no defined procedures, and even the objectives, beyond airing grievances and paranoid fantasies about the 2020 election, are radically unclear,” he said.

Is Pennsylvania’s review similar to the Arizona one?

Dush traveled to Arizona in June with state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin) to get a firsthand look at the partisan “audit” there — a trip Trump praised. Corman has said he has spoken with the leaders of the Arizona Senate.

But he told The Inquirer the review in Harrisburg is “Pennsylvania-specific.”

“I’m not looking to Arizona,” he said. “If we learn some things after they’re completed, that might be helpful, we’ll certainly find out.”

Didn’t Pennsylvania already audit the election results?

Yes. State law requires Pennsylvania counties to review a random sample of at least 2% of all ballots or 2,000 ballots, whichever is fewer, to ensure they were tallied correctly. Those audits were completed last year before the Pennsylvania secretary of state certified Biden’s victory, and they were accessible to the public.

In addition, 63 of the state’s 67 counties participated in what’s known as a “risk-limiting” audit, a gold-standard method in which election workers hand recount a random sample of ballots and compare the tabulations to the overall vote count recorded by machines.

The audit of more than 45,000 randomly selected ballots was completed in February. The sample matched the certified results within a fraction of 1 percentage point, further confirming the election’s accuracy.

Grayson said it’s too late to conduct a new audit.

“One of the most important things is to do it at the right time,” he said. “The election has been certified. There’s really nothing that can be done right now.”

Why are Republicans doing this?

They say their constituents have concerns about the election. Trump and his supporters have also publicly pressured GOP leaders to undertake an Arizona-style “forensic investigation.”

“My constituents — I say this all the time — have been outraged. … Their questions have gone unanswered,” State Sen. Judy Ward (R., Blair) said in September. “They want us to look at the process. It is paramount to our democratic process. We must restore their trust and the trust of all Pennsylvanians.”

But Republican voters’ concerns about the election have largely been fueled by Trump’s lies about it being somehow rigged or otherwise illegitimate. And his supporters are a potent political force on the right, turning baseless election conspiracy theories into mainstream political issues.

It’s trickled down to the local level. Kathy Barnette, an unsuccessful GOP congressional candidate from Montgomery County, spent months hunting for voter fraud in the Philadelphia suburbs. Now she’s running for U.S. Senate. And a small town in the Lehigh Valley illegally tried to ban mail voting, an effort led by a township supervisor who attended Trump’s Jan. 6 rally in Washington that preceded the deadly Capitol riot.

What are the stated objectives?

Republicans say they are performing their legislative oversight function and want to find out if anything went wrong, improve state law, and restore voters’ confidence in the process.

“One of two things will happen,” Corman said during a September hearing. “Either we will find things where we can better improve our laws, or we will find nothing, and that will then dispel a lot of people’s concerns, and we all can be more confident in our system moving forward.”

» READ MORE: Pa. Republicans started their ‘forensic investigation’ of the 2020 election. It’s still unclear what that means.