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'Audit' under way in Maricopa County, Arizona.

Screenshot from azaudit.org

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The "big lie" that President Joe Biden was not legitimately elected is not going away. One reason is Americans who care about their democracy are not learning how votes for president in 2020 were counted and verified — neither from the big lie's promoters nor from most of its fact-driven critics.

Most visibly, the absence of a clear and accurate explanation can be found among former President Donald Trump's ardent supporters. As seen in a July 15 briefing in Arizona's legislature, the contractors hired by the state Senate to assess the 2020 election's results unleashed a new thicket of finger-pointing and innuendo that fans doubts about Maricopa County's election administration and votes for Biden.

Critics of the big lie, who range from state officials (including Republicans) to voting rights advocates — and, of course, Democrats— have mostly emphasized that the Arizona Senate's inquiry and copycat efforts in other states are bad faith exercises led by Trump supporters who lack election auditing experience.

These competing narratives lack clear explanations of what matters when counting and verifying votes, and, by extension, what does not matter and is a sideshow. With few exceptions, easily understood explanations of how 2020's votes are counted and verified have been missing in the election's volatile aftermath.

Most of the arguments used by those trying to dispel 2020 election myths focus on labeling the big lie a propaganda narrative, or sweepingly dismissing Arizona's audit as a partisan-led hoax. But these don't seem to be nearly as effective as a different approach—one that focuses on demystifying the wonky details of the voting and vote-counting processes.

Two examples of the latter, more rigorous and successful approach stand out: the post-Election Day daily briefings by the Georgia Secretary of State office's Gabriel Sterling, which were widely covered by the media and attested to Biden's victory in that state and the victory by Democrats in its U.S. Senate runoffs; and ongoing efforts by a self-funded team of experienced election auditors in Arizona, which have attracted some coverage by using hard evidence from public data sources.

The team of experienced auditors includes a longtime Arizona Republican Party election observer; the retired CEO of Clear Ballot, a federally certified auditing firm; and the retired chief technology officer of Clear Ballot. They have drawn on Maricopa County's official 2020 election records to provide a baseline to assess the accuracy of its presidential election. Their nuts-and-bolts approach has been missing from almost every other report criticizing the state Senate's inquest.

Among their early findings were tens of thousands of ballots where most of the votes were cast for Republicans, but not for Trump — and many were cast for Biden, which provided a factual explanation for Trump's loss. More recently, the auditors' documentation of 2020 ballot inventories and vote count subtotals has pushed the Senate's contractors to start a new recount of Maricopa County's 2020 ballots.

Sources with access to the contractors' operations have told Voting Booth that the contractors now know that their hand count of 2.1 million ballots was initially sloppy, and cannot account for thousands of ballots in the official results. (Hence, a new count.) But what the contractors are doing in private, behind locked doors in a Phoenix warehouse, is the opposite of what they have been saying in public, which is pedaling vote-theft conspiracies.

Because the public's picture of the Senate's inquiry has a notable absence of clear descriptions articulating the building blocks of counting votes, there is a void that keeps being filled with misinformation, as exemplified by the contractors' July 15 briefing for Senate Republicans in Arizona's capitol.

Their statements, not given under oath, exemplified this charade. The contractors repeatedly spoke with indignation and bluster about technicalities in the corners of Maricopa County's election infrastructure, suggesting that the county's handling of the presidential election was deeply amiss. Not only were these technicalities hard for almost everyone, including the senators, to follow, but their presentation and tone supported conspiracy theories (which dominated pro-Trump media). In reality, the issues raised have little to do with validating voters, ballots and votes.

The contractors said, for example, that Maricopa County's central tabulators could have been hacked because key passwords and antivirus software had not been updated. They implied that officials had covered up their Election Day actions because activity logs on the tabulators were erased in March 2021. The lead contractor, Cyber Ninjas' Doug Logan, said there were several categories of suspicious ballots, all involving volumes of votes that exceeded Biden's statewide margin.

It is no surprise that fervent Trump supporters are invested in perpetuating doubts about his loss while their investigators fan diversions that hide their incompetence. Mostly, the Arizona Senate's contractors have discovered Maricopa County could have done better with managing some aspects of conducting the 2020 election. It is not headline news that election administration is complex, that officials do make mistakes, and — crucially — that the process usually catches and corrects them.

But what is going on here is far more cynical and intentionally dishonest.

In April, the Senate's contractors were told what was needed to conduct a credible audit, but they rejected that accounting-style approach. They were urged to compare the starting and finish lines of the vote-counting process to see if the figures matched. That involves three sets of records: the hand-marked votes for president on 2.1 million ballots; the digital images of every ballot immediately created by the scanners to start the electronic counting process; and the official results spreadsheet that lists every vote cast on every ballot. If the starting and finish line votes and totals matched, the election's outcome is legitimate.

Instead, the Arizona Senate's agents raced ahead with a hand count that did not even try to compare its step-by-step results with the building blocks of the official results. Now, inside observers have told Voting Booth that the Senate's contractors are backtracking in private to make more specific comparisons. (They also are trying to figure out if the hand count missed thousands of votes, which is why they are recounting the number of ballots but not the presidential votes.) But, publicly, the Senate contractors are not telling anyone what is going on. Instead, they are suggesting with bluster that they are hot on the election theft evidence trail.

The Senate Republican leaders are either falling for this masquerade or helping to perpetuate it. Not once during the July 15 hearing did senators ask their contractors why the Senate had to spend additional thousands to rent machinery to reconfirm the volume of ballots. The contractors urged the Senate to subpoena more data from the county, including voter signatures, in that briefing.

A new subpoena could lengthen the Senate's inquest, and, if some records are not released, it would provide a pretext for the contractors to claim that they cannot conclude their inquiry because evidence was withheld. Arizona Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Warren Petersen telegraphed this scenario in his closing remarks, saying, "it [the inquiry] will be incomplete if we don't have those items."

The session ended with Arizona state Senate President Karen Fann reciting her oft-stated disclaimer that the inquiry was not about overturning her state's 2020 presidential results, but merely addressing the doubts of Republican voters. "At no time have we ever implied or inferred that there is any intentional misdoings here in any way whatsoever, and, in fact, we certainly hope not," she said. "But we do need to have this information and answer these questions."

After the briefing, Trump issued three statements falsely claiming election fraud. And several days later, another Arizona Senate subcontractor, Jovan Pulitzer, who has led its inquiry into forged ballots, said the same thing without evidence—that election fraud had deprived Trump of Arizona's 2020 Electoral College votes.

"Finally, you get to see the truth that there is such a thing as election fraud," he told Arizona pro-Trump activist Liz Harris on her July 19 podcast. Pulitzer was interviewed while on a private jet en route to Arizona to meet other funders and organizers (those featured in the new pro-Trump film, The Deep Rig). Pulitzer praised the patriotism of the donors who have funded the inquiry and the 1,500 volunteers who "made this happen," saying, "The Arizona Senate only paid $150,000 for what ends up being a $9 million audit."

But inside the Phoenix warehouse where the Senate contractors are continuing their work, people know that the documentation and methodology provided by the independent outside auditors have not only unmasked their hand count's flaws; they also keep pointing toward the conclusion that Biden won Arizona's presidential election, and that Maricopa County's administration of that election, while not perfect, was not fraudulent.

There are Arizona Republicans who know what is going on inside the Senate's investigation, but whether they are willing to stand up to Trump's supporters is another question. That task would be easier if the public knew more about the building blocks of counting votes.

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Sean Hannity

Photo by Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters

On July 21, Sean Hannity went on a long radio rant denying that he ever recommended his viewers get the vaccine. He later repeated himself on his Fox show.

This endorsement of vaccine hesitancy messaging from Hannity came after days of positive mainstream press for the Fox News host. Following a viral out-of-context tweet, reports in places like Politico Playbook, The Atlantic, The New York Times, NPR, and The Week framed pieces around Hannity supposedly endorsing the vaccines, even though he never did any such thing. The funniest version of this was the Fox News version, which was never shared to any of its social accounts, per Crowdtangle. (The former Republican governor of North Carolina, Pat McCrory, shared the piece and lauded Hannity, writing, "Thank you, Sean Hannity. Vaccines work and they will save lives.")

CNN host Alisyn Camerota, Hannity's former colleague at Fox, waxed poetically on multiple occasions about Hannity endorsing vaccines. Other outlets, like The Washington Post, Vox, and The Associated Press, correctly noted that Hannity's acknowledgment of vaccine science was immediately preceded and followed by anti-vaccine segments. (Longtime Hannity watchers know what a real change of position from him looks like.)

If this media cycle sounds familiar, it's because mainstream outlets had the exact same "new tone" problem with Trump, suggesting over and over, incorrectly, that he was changing his approach. Now the cliche is deployed for Trump's henchman, to the same results.

Interestingly, Hannity's anti-vax radio remarks came in response to anti-vax criticism of Hannity from the generic right-wing content mill of radio host Wayne Dupree, a Sandy Hook truther who has falsely claimed that the parents of a Sandy Hook victim were "actors" and the shooting was a "hoax."

So, not only does Hannity distance himself from the vaccines, but he's doing so to appease a far-right conspiracy theorist who has written about crisis actors. Why is Hannity acting like this? Because he's scared.

Recall that Hannity is the comparatively responsible one about vaccines on Fox News prime-time shows. And the Murdoch/vaccine problem isn't even limited to North America!

Next time, don't listen to Fox News' PR spin. Just listen to what Fox hosts say.

From Hannity's radio show:

SEAN HANNITY (HOST): For some reason, me saying take COVID seriously has finally caught up with the mob and the -- and the media. Now, I think they've got ulterior motives. They monitor this show and TV every night, and I think it has to do with the fact that -- you know, there's been this attempt to blame conservatives for the vaccine hesitancy.

And, you know for example, Yahoo News: "Suddenly Sean Hannity and other Fox hosts are urging their viewers to get COVID-19 vaccines." Suddenly? Well, first of all, I'm not urging people to get the COVID-19 vaccine, because I'm not a doctor. That is not what I said. I said to take it seriously, it can kill you. I said to do a lot of research. If you have a phone, do your research. I said to consult your doctor and doctors, and medical professionals you trust. I said to consider your unique medical history that I know nothing about. I said to also look at your current medical condition and, in consultation with your doctors, take -- don't not do this. Do the research.

...

You know, Biden suggesting that people like me had an altar call on vaccines -- no, I haven't.

...

"Sean Hannity basically begs his viewers to get vaccinated." No, I didn't. I'm begging everybody, don't mess around with this thing. Take it seriously.

...

It would be wrong of me, not knowing your medical condition, to tell you what to do. It's not right.

...

Now, we do have therapeutics. I mean, they could be saying, "Wow, studies show that people like Hannity were right on hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin and therapeutics like Regeneron," but we're never going to hear that either.

...

I am encouraging people to really, really do the right thing for them, because I don't know. And yes, enough people have died, and yeah, I want you to take it seriously, and no, I don't apologize -- and I was being pressured heavily early on to tell people what to do. I'm not qualified to tell you what to do, I'm not. I bring on doctors and experts, some of whom I agree with or disagree with so you can have more information at your disposal.
"Hannity's pro vaccine speech is welcome" -- I mean, what -- why are they saying something I didn't say? I said I believe in the science, I believe in the science of vaccinations, and then I said, but I can't make these decisions for anybody. "Hannity urges viewers, get COVID vaccine." I never said that. I said, if it's right for you, after you do all of your research, after you talk to your doctor, doctors, medical professionals you trust, I said, after -- you really need to take it seriously, and then make the decision that is best for you. So, these headlines are wrong.

...

By the way, whatever happened -- what's wrong with Wayne Dupree? I thought Wayne Dupree was a friend of ours, Lynda. Right?

LYNDA MCLAUGHLIN (PRODUCER): Yeah, started out as a caller on the show.

HANNITY: "Sean Hannity is skating on very thin ice with his supporters. Did he finally cross the line?" and he does this whole bit -- and then I'm reading it, and sweet baby James prints this out, and goes "you need to see this," because -- you know Wayne Dupree. We -- we always liked Wayne Dupree, we've never had a problem with Wayne Dupree. He's a good guy, but then he's saying, "He's very passionate about people taking the vaccine, and he's pushing it a lot on his show."

Hey Wayne, if you're gonna say something about me, get it right. I said -- let me -- let me say it slowly, so everybody hears me -- this thing has killed enough people. Take it seriously. Everybody knows about masks and social distancing and that there are three vaccines available. Everybody knows. I can't make the decision for you. But --
MCLAUGHLIN: Actually, Sean, let's do one better. Let's play what we have. I think it deserves to be played at this point.

HANNITY: By the way, should I dedicate it to our old friend, apparently, Wayne Dupree, who I've always liked?
MCLAUGHLIN: Well, let's give him the benefit of the doubt and say maybe he didn't hear it. So, Wyane we hope you are listening, and maybe you understand what's really going on here and stop listening to fake news.

...

HANNITY: Wayne Dupree, I'll accept your apology.

From Hannity's Fox News show:

SEAN HANNITY (HOST): Now a brief message from me to the mob in the media.

I have no idea why, but it was only in the last week my coverage of coronavirus, COVID-19 got the attention of the liberal press, and their attempts to paint this great network of ours which has varying opinions, which is actually fair and balanced, to paint us as a dangerous anti-vaccine network.

They watched this program and were shocked to discover what I said and what I had been saying for months, and months and months.

Business Insider reports, quote, "Suddenly, Sean Hannity and other Fox hosts are urging their viewers to get COVID-19 vaccines." Here's another headline, "Sean Hannity basically begs his viewers to get vaccinated." Another quote, "'The View': Sunny Hostin calls Hannity's vaccination endorsement 'Too little, too late.'"

These reports are all false for multiple reasons. First, I touted Operation Warp Speed since the beginning. In January 2020 I was predicting that I had so much faith in American researchers, the medical community, scientists and, as usual, it was my prediction that it would likely be American ingenuity and genius that will help us find therapeutics and vaccines and answers. And I praised the efforts of all of the scientists and medical professionals. Those involved in developing therapeutics, there are three vaccines that are now on the market, and literally dozens of others, in terms of therapeutics.

But I have never told anyone to get a vaccine. I have been very clear. I am simply not qualified. I am not a medical doctor. I know nothing about your medical history or your current medical condition. I think it's inappropriate for me to do so. Instead, for over a year now I have been warning my viewers, you make my career possible

Language has been updated for clarity.