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Tamper seals and deleted databases: Arizona audit myths and facts

The Arizona Senate’s 'audit' team and the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors have been dueling over a litany of accusations that 'auditors' bombastically pronounced on Twitter last week and that have sparked new conspiracy theories.

The county has contended that the claims made by the audit team, headed by Florida based Cyber Ninjas, are false and released a 14-page letter, along with exhibits, to refute the claims made by the auditors. They have called for an end to the audit, which is on a week-long hiatus because it is weeks behind schedule and Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum — the 60-year-old former basketball stadium where the audit was being conducted — is now being used for high school graduations.

The Arizona Mirror delved into accusations made by the Senate auditors and the response by the county to create this guide on what we know about the allegations, their truth and their falsehoods.

Deleted data

Last week, auditors made a bold statement on Twitter by announcing that the County had deleted data and called it a “spoliation of evidence,” sharing a screenshot from what appeared to be a database reading system. The tweet has been retweeted more than 12,000 times.  

But on Tuesday during a special Senate hearing, Ben Cotton, CEO of the cybersecurity firm CyFir, one of subcontractors for lead auditor Cyber Ninjas, admitted to lawmakers that his team was able to access the files. He said once the harddrives on which the data was stored were configured properly, auditors were able to access the data, although Cotton continued to say the files were “deleted.”

The county said it supplied auditors the actual server they requested, but auditors appeared to have created a copy of that server to work on to conduct their analysis. By doing this and conducting the analysis in third-party software, it gave the appearance that files were “missing” or “deleted” because the copy was not in its original place, the county theorized.

“There could be other explanations as well, including the possibility that your ‘auditors’ inadvertently, or purposefully, moved—or even deleted—certain data,” the county said in its letter.

Since the end of the hearing Tuesday, the Arizona Audit Twitter account has unpinned the tweet claiming files have been deleted. But the tweet has not yet been deleted.

Chain of custody

Auditors claimed there was no chain of custody on ballots and that boxes were not sealed with any type of tamper-proof tape.

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“Most of the ballot boxes were sealed merely with regular tape and not secured by any kind of tamper-evident seal,” the letter says.

“We are stunned that you are asking us this question,” the county’s response says.

The county says that the ballots were stored in boxes with tamper-evident seals and observed by Maricopa County Sheriff Deputies when leaving the facility before being escorted to the Coliseum.

“All the tamper-evident seals were photographed by the Senate’s contractors as well as by County representatives to confirm that the seals were still intact,” the letter says. “And, (Ken) Bennett or his designee personally observed each seal being broken before the trucks were unloaded.”

The county provided signed letters from the Senate’s liaison, former Secretary of State Ken Bennett, showing that he signed for the ballots along with the manifest from the trucks.

“In short, both the Senate and the County have been given sufficient chain of custody documentation for the ballots, which currently remain in your custody,” the letter says. “Your suggestion to the contrary is demonstrably wrong.”

Auditors also raised questions about seals they found at the bottoms of boxes of ballots. The County had an easy explanation for that, as well. All Election Day ballots are transported by bipartisan teams from their respective vote centers to the Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center, and after the official canvass, teams of bipartisan employees take the bags of ballots and put them in the long-term ballot storage boxes that the Senate and the auditors now possess.

Cyber Ninja’s CEO, Doug Logan, said the county gave a “great clarifying answer” in regards to why ballots were inside sealed bags.

As for the “regular tape” that auditors were concerned about?

That is the County’s practice for long-term ballot storage, as required by state law.

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Discrepancies in ballot counts

Auditors also raised concerns with the county about discrepancies they said they’ve begun to notice in the number of ballots in a batch and the number written on the slip which comes with the batch.

“In most of these instances, the total in the pink report slip is greater than the number of ballots in the batch, although there are a few instances where the number is lower,” the Senate’s letter says.

The slips in question are called Early Voting Transmittal Slips, and are part of a process in which ballots returned by early voters are accessed by non-partisan teams at MCTEC to decide if they can be put through a machine tabulator or not.

Unreadable ballots are sent for ballot duplication; some of the slips that auditors are reading indicate that ballots were unreadable. For example, on one slip auditors cited, two ballots were filed in the column of unreadable and were thus not placed in the ballot box and were sent to be duplicated, making for the number discrepancy.

After ballots are duplicated and then tabulated again, they are put in a different box in order to maintain number consistency, according to the county’s letter.

“We likewise determined that, based on the Daily Tabulator Log slips for Batches 9276, 9278, and 6359, the ‘discrepancies’ you identified were not discrepancies, but rather accurately reflected damaged ballots being sent from the tabulation center to be duplicated because they could not be read by the tabulator,” the letter says.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.


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Courtney Pedroza/The New York Times/pool

A man in a forklift moves boxes containing ballots from the 2020 general election to a truck for storage at Veterans Memorial Coliseum on May 14, 2021. The Maricopa County ballot recount is scheduled to continue after a hiatus for high school graduations.

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