Ever since Arizona Republicans began their review of 2.1m ballots from the 2020 election, a huge question has loomed over the effort: who exactly is paying for it?
The Arizona senate, which authorized the inquiry, only gave $150,000 to fund it, an amount not expected to cover the entire cost (which is unknown). The rest of the money is being paid for by private donors, but the firm running the effort, called Cyber Ninjas, has refused to disclose who they are.
That lack of transparency has drawn harsh criticism from those who have characterized the review as shoddy and an obvious partisan effort to undermine confidence in elections. Why should the public have reason to believe the effort is unbiased, they say, if they can’t see who’s funding it?
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working with Anna Massoglia, a reporter at OpenSecrets, to see if we could better understand where the money was coming from. We found that people tied to Donald Trump who fanned election conspiracies were opening their wallets.
One of them is Patrick Byrne, the former chief executive of overstock.com, who launched a group aiming to raise $2.8m for the inquiry, and who says he has contributed $1m to the effort. He has made numerous baseless claims about the election. He was part of a December meeting with Trump, Sidney Powell and Michael Flynn in the Oval Office in which Powell suggested using government resources to seize voting machines. During the meeting, described by Axios as the “craziest of the Trump presidency”, Byrne screamed at White House officials who he said were not doing enough to overturn the election.
More funding for the inquiry is pouring in from Voices and Votes, a group started in March by Christina Bobb, a correspondent on the far-right One America News Network. The group has raised at least $150,000 for the inquiry, including a $50,000 donation from the non-profit of L Lin Wood, a pro-Trump attorney who filed several baseless lawsuits last year. Bobb has continued to cover the inquiry, even as she raises money for it.
There are also ties between the review and Powell, the Trump ally who has continued to claim the election was stolen. Wake TSI, a subcontractor that played a huge role in the inquiry, worked on behalf of Defending the Republic, Powell’s charity, to inspect election materials in Fulton county, Pennsylvania, last year. The company initially submitted a draft report showing there was nothing unusual with the process, the Washington Post reported. But the final version of the report suggested there could have been problems with the election.
We also reviewed messages among audit supporters on the Telegram app in which they pushed Arizona senate officials to hire Jovan Pulitzer, a treasure hunter and inventor, and to use his technology in the review. The effort appears to have worked – Pulitzer’s equipment is reportedly being used to examine the quality of ballot paper, including searching for bamboo fibers in an effort to prove a baseless conspiracy theory that ballots were shipped in from China. Even John Brakey, an activist who was brought in to help run the inquiry, is skeptical.
“This guy is nuts,” Brakey told me in May. “He’s a fraudster.”
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Democrats in Washington are scrambling to advance a sweeping voting rights bill. Last weekend, the West Virginia senator Joe Manchin, a key Democratic vote, authored an op-ed saying he did not support the legislation nor did he support getting rid of the filibuster, a procedural rule that requires 60 votes to bills such as this one. It’s unclear how Democrats will find a path forward, or if there is one at all.