There’s an old joke that goes: “What’s the difference between tragedy and comedy? Time.” The idea is that the further removed you are from an event, the easier it is to laugh at the absurdity that shines through the pain you felt at the time.
Despite originally being scheduled to end in mid-May, the hand recount portion of Arizona’s “audit” of the 2020 election is reportedly due to wrap up this week. Watching the latest developments in the slapdash affair, I have to say the inanity that was so captivating at the beginning is giving way to genuine trepidation.
The grift unfolding there wasn’t lacking for bits that would seem a bit much in fiction — Cyber Ninjas! Bamboo fibers! UV lights hunting secret watermarks!
The grift unfolding there wasn’t lacking for bits that would seem a bit much in fiction — Cyber Ninjas! Bamboo fibers! UV lights hunting secret watermarks! The latest twist in the saga feels like it should be in that same vein, at least at first.
This month, local outlets like Arizona Mirror learned that copies of some of the voting system data being analyzed — a term we use very loosely — might not still be in Arizona at all. A report from CNN last week confirmed that the data had been shipped more than a thousand miles away, to Montana via truck.
On the surface, the details of the report are ridiculous; they left CNN reporter Gary Tuchman walking down a Montana road that may or may not have a secret “secure powerful laboratory” to go through the forensic data. CNN even went through the length of getting aerial footage and checking real estate listings to figure out what the property that might have the data looks like:
Funny, right? Except former President Donald Trump, who for a con man makes for a deliciously easy mark, believed as recently as late May that the audit “could undo” the results of the 2020 election, therefore putting him back in office. And that belief is what takes this whole affair from being a farce to a threat to elections around the country.
This is a case where the emperor clearly is strolling the street naked as a jaybird.
Now, this is a case where the emperor clearly is strolling the street naked as a jaybird. There’s nothing that these fraudsters can find that would delegitimize that results of the 2020 presidential election. But as is the case with almost all GOP politics these days, there’s no telling that to Trump or his supporters — and so the hangers-on and would-be successors must compliment the fine thread work and delicate embroidery of the nonexistent fabric.
As NBC News reported on June 10, the arena where the hand-count has been taking place has become a pilgrimage site for some of the most devotedly pro-Trump Republicans. They tour the facilities and praise the audit’s efforts, even as nobody can really explain how this is all supposed to make voters feel more secure during the next election. Those same voices are also loudly clamoring for more of these scams to be carried out in other states around the country.
Like I said in May, this is all clearly, at best, a method to bilk Trump supporters out of their money. That cash grab — which may have brought in over a million dollars in private donations— would have to be appealing to other small-scale hustlers who see an opportunity in this chaos. But there are two main worries I have, beyond the people losing money to these flimflammers.
Imagine a world where Georgia state legislators mandate a “digital forensic audit” take place by law every election.
First, that this Arizona-style “audits” becomes the new normal in U.S. politics. Picture it: After every election, some firm or another sweeps into town and offers local officials their services. Voters spend months on tenterhooks as these costly enterprises play out, leaving them even less certain about the ballots that they cast than before. Some begin to refuse to accept election results unless these audits are carried out, making them particularly vulnerable to the predations of the demagogue of the day.
Second, and more troubling, would be if these audits start merge with the GOP’s state-level efforts to change how elections are decided. Imagine a world where Georgia state legislators mandate a “digital forensic audit” take place by law every election. Under the latest changes to the state’s election law, the GOP-controlled Legislature has more control over the State Election Board. Say that Board decides to approve whatever result said auditors provide them — regardless of how transparent the methods they use to come up with that result are.
It may sound farfetched, but we’re already in a world where voter data is being hauled across state lines to a secret lab that may or may not be testing it for … something! And whatever that subcontractor eventually says they found is likely going to be both unbelievable and completely unverifiable — but that won’t stop people from believing it. And as Slate’s Jeremy Stahl wrote in May, “if and when that new and inaccurate result is made public as part of an official audit report, local leaders believe the consequences will be grave.”
I was laughing at the start of the Arizona audit. Not so much now.