Jennifer Morrell for WaPo Outlook:
When Arizona’s secretary of state asked me whether I would serve as an observer of the Arizona Senate’s audit of Maricopa County’s ballots, I anticipated that I would see some unusual things. Post-election audits and recounts are almost always conducted under the authority of local election officials, who have years of knowledge and experience. The idea of a government handing over control of ballots to an outside group, as the state Senate did when hiring a Florida contractor with no elections experience, was bizarre. This firm, Cyber Ninjas, insisted that it would recount and examine all 2.1 million ballots cast in the county in the 2020 general election.
So I expected it to be unconventional. But it was so much worse than that. In more than a decade working on elections, audits and recounts across the country, I’ve never seen one this mismanaged.
I arrived at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum on the morning of May 4. Security was conspicuously high: At three stations, guards checked my ID and my letter from the secretary of state. No bags were permitted on the floor, and I had to surrender my phone, laptop and smartwatch. I was allowed a yellow legal pad and red pen to take notes, and provided with a pink T-shirt to wear so I would be immediately identifiable. The audit observers hired by Cyber Ninjas, in orange T-shirts, followed me wherever I went and reported random things about me they found suspicious. Several times someone asked to test my pen, to ensure it really had red ink. Once, they even demanded that I empty my pockets, in which I carried that pen and a pair of reading glasses. I was allowed only to ask procedural questions of the Cyber Ninjas attorney; I couldn’t talk to anyone else performing the work. The atmosphere was tense.
I was stunned to see spinning conveyor wheels, whizzing hundreds of ballots past “counters,” who struggled to mark, on a tally sheet, each voter’s selection for the presidential and Senate races. They had only a few seconds to record what they saw. Occasionally, I saw a counter look up, realize they missed a ballot and then grab the wheel to stop it. This process sets them up to make so many mistakes, I kept thinking. Humans are terrible at tedious, repetitive tasks; we’re especially bad at counting. That’s why, in all the other audits I’ve seen, bipartisan teams follow a tallying method that allows for careful review and inspection of each ballot, followed by a verification process. I’d never seen an audit use contraptions to speed up the process.