Janine Jackson interviewed Voting Booth‘s Steven Rosenfeld about the Arizona election “audit” for the February 4, 2022, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: When there are people transparently, fervently invested in presenting election results they don’t like as endlessly arguable, ultimately bendable to the will of whoever yells loudest and longest, it’s important that there be some evidentiary anchor. But when that evidence is provided, it’s still largely up to news media whether or not it anchors public conversation.
We are at a moment where corporate news media are unfortunately reflecting A.J. Liebling’s view of the press as the weak slat under democracy, narrating more than resisting the overt decision of Republicans to shore up power by suppressing the vote. Beyond all of what ought to be sufficient human rights reasons to talk up a fight for something like democracy in this country, there are also journalistic, interesting stories there to be told.
Our guest is on that beat. Steven Rosenfeld is editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He joins us by phone from San Francisco. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Steven Rosenfeld.
Steven Rosenfeld: Thank you, glad to be here.
JJ: When we spoke in early November 2020, Donald Trump had already announced, “As soon as that election is over, we’re going in with our lawyers.” The contestations, the lawsuits, the Big Lie propaganda were not unexpected, and yet they’re somehow still startling.
And an epicenter of that was Arizona, where we read about Trump loyalists demanding something called a “forensic audit” that did not go the way that people—hoping to convince or confuse a wider audience into thinking Trump really won the state—hoped it would. A lot of listeners might know that upshot, but they might not know why it happened the way it happened. You watched that all up close and personal, and I’d just like to ask you to talk us through it.
SR: Sure. The Arizona Senate Republicans basically hired people who were known election deniers. And some of them had worked in Michigan to create these reports that claimed that votes were stolen, reports that were basically later debunked. And they went in to try to manufacture a result or manufacture evidence where they could claim that Trump won.
What ended up happening was you had some progressives who were trying to go on the inside and work with Republicans and basically convince them and sneak documents out, and that was one of my sources.
But you also had some retired election technologists who figured out that they could basically box the Cyber Ninjas in, and show that they really didn’t know what they were doing. And the way that they did that was they turned to public records, which are different data sets that accompany different stages of the voting process, and they used them to try to basically rebut and confront the most common false claims or cliches.
So if you think about how big lies are built from lots of little lies, a lot of those little lies are these kind of dumb cliches, like 40,000 voters were somehow manufactured out of thin air, and ballots were smuggled in while nobody noticed on election night, and of course they came from China. You know, stuff like that. There’s just lots of those types of lies, and they generally are: voters were illegal, or that local election officials are cheating somehow and they’re altering totals, or that the machinery is being secretly programmed to steal votes.
So anyway, I ran into people who used public records to basically refute these. And it wasn’t the media, and it wasn’t the secretary of state, and it wasn’t the Democratic Party’s lawyers, and it wasn’t the election policy think tanks. And we could talk about literally what they did. But the point of all this is, they came up with explanations before anybody else.
Now, it was after Biden got inaugurated. But they showed, for example, in March, but this could have been done in November, that there were tens of thousands of people who voted for majority Republican candidates, but they didn’t vote for Trump. And that was several times the statewide margin. And these were basically from the wealthy Phoenix suburbs.
But nobody else did that. I could tell you how they did that. And they also found out that there weren’t tens of thousands of fraudulent or made-up voters. And they did this by using different public records. And that’s because elections have lots of little subsystems and lots of stages. And if you know what you’re doing, and you know how to work through this data—and these guys, because they were in this industry for years, knew that—they could produce these very focused and simple explanations. So that’s what I was reporting on.
JJ: There’s so many questions out of that, but let me start with the human beings. Because listeners may have heard of the Cyber Ninjas, this company which apparently has just shut down, but they were brought in as, supposedly, election experts. They were people who had no expertise in this. But they were brought in as Trump dead-enders who were basically charged with saying that Arizona had voted for Trump.
But against these Cyber Ninjas, we have the Audit Guys. And I just love the story of who these folks were and what they did, and if you could just take a minute and say, because if folks google “Cyber Ninjas,” you’re going to get a lot of hits. Look for “Audit Guys”? Not so much. Who were these folks, and then a little bit about, you know, they didn’t do something that no one else could do; what they did was something that no one else did.
SR: Right. That’s really, really true. And the thing is, you had a longtime Republican election data analyst from Tucson. His name is Benny White. And he ran for recorder, which is the county-wide local election official, and he lost last November. And he was the kind of person who always looked at voter lists of, were the registered voters up to date, and then list people who actually voted. And he tried to compare that, to make sure that there wasn’t any fraud going on. There were three of them. He was one.
The second was this fellow, a Democrat, Larry Moore. And he created this company called Clear Ballot. They’re the only federally certified auditing company that looks at the digital images that are made after a paper ballot is scanned, and uses them to match it with the paper and match it with the final results, to see if everything lines up. And what’s great about that is you can, using computers, you can zero in on every single vote on every single ballot, and you can see if it’s sloppy and messy, and then you can grab the piece of paper and look at it and fight over the real thing, instead of something hypothetical.
And then Larry’s chief technologist, Jim Halverson, who’s an independent libertarian, he was retired also. So the three of those guys knew election records. And what they did was Larry and Benny were talking, and Benny said that he was looking at his race in November, and he was seeing a lot of people in Tucson, Pima County, which is smaller than Phoenix, he noticed that a lot of these precincts with majority Republicans had an inordinate amount of votes for Biden.
They didn’t do anything about it. And all you could do was, you could look at the subtotals, because that’s how things are actually generated at that level in the election results. But in March, he got together with Larry Moore, and he said, let’s really dig into this stuff and go after these Ninjas. Because what happens is, these guys are coming in, and they’re claiming that they’re experts. They have no idea what they’re doing. And literally, we saw that in the spring. They were recounting the second-largest jurisdiction in the country, Maricopa County, which is Phoenix and the suburbs, they were just ripping open boxes and trying to, you know, count stuff. We’re talking about 2.1 million pieces of paper.
Anyway, what these guys did was they really, methodically, they knew where to look in all these election records to figure out how to debunk these small lies that become the big lies. So the first thing they did was, they took a look at the final, giant database or spreadsheet of every single vote in every single race. So if you think of a chart that has 2.1 million rows: It’s 2.1 million rows deep and it’s 800 rows across, because you have everything from school boards to presidents in a giant county, second-largest county jurisdiction in America, what you see on that spreadsheet, which is so critical, is you can see where people did not vote. The only record that shows what people did not vote for.
So if you know how to do database searches, and these guys knew how to do this, you could figure out where people were voting for a majority of candidates from one party, but not from one person in particular. So they found something like 60,000 people in Maricopa County, Phoenix, who voted for majority Republicans but not Trump, and about 15,000 people who voted for a majority of Democrats but not Biden. So those are the Bernie Bros. And then you can go deeper, you can even figure out, you can’t identify people, but you can identify precincts or neighborhoods. So you can figure out where these people live. You can go talk to them.
SR: So that was the first thing that they did, they came up with these simple explanations that tens of thousands of people who were loyal Republicans voted for most of the Republicans on the ballot, but not Trump. Now that’s a non-technical explanation.
SR: Where all you’re hearing from election officials is trust us, you know, these technical explanations and things like that, our systems are accurate. This was a different, kind of common-sense thing. Republicans have been yelling and screaming about voter fraud as a big excuse, made-up voters, to pass all these restrictive measures for years. And the parties have the actual data that can prove that it doesn’t exist on any scale that affects election results. And they’re not using it.
SR: But these guys did. They accounted for every single voter, with the exception of people whose names are kept hidden because they’re judges, cops or domestic violence victims. So to me, this was unbelievably exciting and interesting. And it’s a template that could be used because, again, the big lies are built on top of lots of little lies, and these little lies are lots of dumb cliches.
What are the dumb cliches? Oh, voters are being made up and somehow casting ballots, tens of thousands at a time. Or election officials are somehow altering totals, tens of thousands at a time. Or the systems are being secretly programmed and no one’s watching, even though everything is on video camera, especially after all the Russian hacking in 2016, or the attempts. So this is really low-lying fruit, if you’re willing to believe or look for hard data.
Now, a lot of people are not going to believe this. But I think enough people in the middle, who are not cultists on the right or cultists on the left, would actually believe enough of this and lower the temperature in the room. But that’s always my hope as a journalist, that facts matter.
JJ: I want to just ask you, finally, about news media’s focus, not on those fundaments, but on the shadows on the cave wall. And you address, in this recent piece, this New York Times piece that says that, when it comes to these baseless claims of voter fraud, debunking them was always a fool’s game. And it seems to sort of suggest that giving oxygen to these baseless claims, that somehow that’s the same thing as shining a scrutinizing or a disinfectant light on them. And those things are not the same; there is a role for journalists here. But it has to do with facts over narrative.
SR: What ends up happening is that there’s a lot of resistance from election officials for a whole bunch of different reasons to having people look over their shoulders.
SR: They’re constantly aware of how partisans will take the smallest things and try to blow them up to make it sound like the sky is falling. But there’s also this resistance to releasing the data that they have, or working with it or presenting it, because they’re busy doing other stuff, and they think that their systems are good enough, and all you have to do is look at all the lawsuits that Trump lost to show that, yeah, they weren’t able to prove anything.
But as one person said to me, a retired election official who I really admire: He said, that’s fighting the last war. The entire election administration establishment is so concerned with cyber security, and they’ve been so focused on preventing hacking and all that sort of stuff, at the expense of generating trust. So that the last war is fighting, is trying to stop Russia in 2016, that kind of stuff, instead of the disinformation that’s out there in the age of Trump. Right there, that’s the problem.
So a lot of these folks don’t feel like you can convince anybody whose minds are made up, because they’re cultists. But the thing is, I’m not suggesting we’ve got to convince those folks. I am suggesting that there are lots of people in the middle who are intelligent enough to make up their own minds, and would welcome quickly produced, easily understood, focused, common-sense explanations right after election day.
Imagine if in mid-November, in states like Arizona, people are able to understand or be shown that, hey, there were tens of thousands of Republicans who voted for most Republicans on the ballot, but not Trump. What would that have done to slow down the Big Lie? We don’t know, because it didn’t happen.
JJ: All right, then; we’re going to continue this conversation going forward. But for today, we’ve been speaking with Steven Rosenfeld. His piece, “Meet the Trio Who May Have Figured Out How to Save American Democracy,” first appeared on NewRepublic.com. You can find the Voting Booth project and their work at IndependentMediaInstitute.org. Steven Rosenfeld, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
SR: Oh, thank you so much. It’s always a treat.
This content originally appeared on FAIR and was authored by Janine Jackson.