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Arizona's 'audit' of the 2020 election is a con artist's dream

Arizona Senate Republicans were conned into buying a monorail, if you know what I mean.

Karen Fann probably has some regrets. Fann, the Republican president of the Arizona Senate, advocated for an outside team of contractors to conduct an audit of the 2020 election in March. Since then, an army of auditors has searched for some crumb of voter fraud that would back the conspiracies that former President Donald Trump spread, quickly becoming a mortifying spectacle for the state and a wedge between the state's GOP elected officials.

I hate to say it, but I have to give Doug Logan props for what appears from the outside to be a truly successful con job. His Florida-based company, Cyber Ninjas, was granted a $150,000 contract to recount the 2.1 million ballots cast last year in the state's largest county. By snagging the deal, Logan positioned himself to pull in potentially millions in private donations from Trump supporters, many eager to see their man vindicated.

Logan also reportedly promoted election conspiracies himself, but whether he genuinely believed the lies or was signaling to fools he would soon part from their money, I can't really say. (Is there even really that much of a difference these days between the two in this corner of the GOP?)

Either way, Logan clearly knows how to pick 'em. A good con artist can spot a mark who will believe whatever tale he's prepared to tell on this particular day. But a great con artist, someone on the level of Trump — and, it seems, Logan — understands that the best marks are the ones who are sold before he even opens his mouth. And boy, did Arizona's Senate Republicans want to be conned here, desperate for evidence to support the lie that Trump won the election, at least in their state.

Phoenix is a bit bigger than the fictional town of Springfield, where "The Simpsons" is set. And yet I can't help but picture Logan sweeping into town like Lyle Lanley, the two-bit scammer with his eyes on the town's $3 million windfall in the classic episode "Marge vs. the Monorail." Lanley is clearly modeled on Harold Hill, the protagonist of the musical "The Music Man." And much like Hill, he rallies the crowd into paying him handsomely for his services through the power of song.

Jeff Martin, one of the show's producers in 1993, explained to Vice why the town's gullibility in throwing cash at Lanley's boondoggle makes it such a fan favorite:

Mindless groupthink is a recurrent theme on "The Simpsons," and I think the monorail episode is the best — and certainly my favorite — example of Springfield mob mentality, Watching the episode, I decided to go ahead and time it. From Lanley whistling in the back of the auditorium to the entire town marching on the town hall steps singing “Monorail!” is a little less than two minutes. I think it took Harold Hill at least four minutes to whip up River City.

At no point in the episode does anyone who's bought into Lanley's shtick admit having been subjected to a grift. It's deeply embarrassing to admit being outwitted by such a clear huckster — and like so many people caught in this position, Fann is doubling down on her support of the audit despite a torrent of evidence that Cyber Ninjas has no idea what it's doing.

"I have said from the get-go I am relatively sure we weren't going to find anything of any magnitude that would imply that any intentional wrongdoing was going on," Fann said Tuesday. "I believe that we were going to find what we've known all along, and some of the things is we could do a better job."

That's clearly not how the auditors have been viewing this little project. Cyber Ninjas' counters have spent the last few weeks hunting for bamboo fibers on the ballots, trying to find evidence that fake ballots were shipped in from South Korea and shining UV lights on them, possibly to check for watermarks that QAnon conspiracists think Trump added post-election. Meanwhile, they've completely eschewed normal auditing procedures like, you know, keeping track of how many ballots each table is counting at any given moment, according to Jennifer Morell, a former election official who observed the Maricopa County process last week.

"In more than a decade working on elections, audits and recounts across the country, I've never seen one this mismanaged," Morell wrote in The Washington Post.

This week, the recount went from sideshow to the center ring, as Fann and the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors have made their feud into national news. Fann accused the board of deleting an election records database in a public letter, based on what Cyber Ninjas had told her. (One of the subcontractors hired to conduct the audit said during a public meeting Tuesday that he was able to "recover" the files. Whoops.)

The five-member board, four of whose members are Republicans, didn't hold back in its response, released on Monday:

That the Senate would launch such a grave accusation via Twitter not only before waiting for an answer to your questions, but also before your so called “audit” demonstrates to the world that the Arizona Senate is not acting in good faith, has no intention of learning anything about the November 2020 General Election, but is only interested in feeding the various festering conspiracy theories that fuel the fundraising schemes of those pulling your strings. You have rented out the once good name of the Arizona State Senate to grifters and con-artists, who are fundraising hard-earned money from our fellow citizens even as your contractors parade around the Coliseum, hunting for bamboo and something they call “kinematic artifacts” while shining purple lights for effect. None of these things are done in a serious audit. The result is that the Arizona Senate is held up to ridicule in every corner of the globe and our democracy is imperiled.

It's still unclear how much longer this farce is going to continue. High school graduation ceremonies have overtaken the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, where the counting is being done. The state Senate signed a new lease for the count to resume on Sunday; given the slow pace so far, it may be the end of June before the counters have gone through all of the ballots.

But I doubt that will be the last time we hear from Cyber Ninjas. The company has been hustling hard to spread the Big Lie since last year. Logan has prepared presentations on alleged voter fraud for other clients, including a document titled "Election Fraud Facts & Details," which he provided to U.S. senators who wanted to object to certifying the election results in January.

Cyber Ninjas also provided "analysis" in support of a lawsuit in Michigan seeking to launch an audit like the one in Arizona. Circuit Judge Kevin Elsenheimer, a former Republican state lawmaker, dismissed that case Tuesday — but I'm sure it won't be the last one filed with Cyber Ninjas' support, not when there's still more cash to rake in from the people waiting to be told what they want to hear.

Remember: By the time Lanley hit Springfield with his song and dance, he'd already bilked the residents of Brockway, Ogdenville and North Haberbrook. That didn't stop him from running his con one more time. When all this ends, however it ends, Cyber Ninjas won't be around to bear any consequences. It will already have packed its suitcases full of cash and hightailed it out of town, ready to find the next mark. And there's always a next mark.