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Audit In Arizona Is 'A Threat To The Overall Confidence Of Democracy,' Critic Says

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For the past month, a private company with no experience in elections has been scrutinizing ballots in Arizona's largest county. The Republican legislature in Arizona ordered the so-called audit to quell doubts from Republican voters about Joe Biden's victory, but NPR's Miles Parks reports the process is looking like a master class in misinformation.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Matt Masterson knows an election audit when he sees one. He was a senior adviser in the Department of Homeland Security in the Trump administration, working on cybersecurity and misinformation issues around the 2020 election. But he can't believe what he's seeing right now in Arizona.

MATT MASTERSON: It's a circus. It's a complete clown show.

PARKS: What it isn't is an audit.

MASTERSON: It's an audit in name only when, in fact, it's performance art. It's a threat to the overall confidence of democracy, all in pursuit of continuing a narrative that we know to be a lie.

PARKS: It's also a simple exercise in how misinformation spreads and takes hold. Step one - create a false set of facts by calling something an audit that isn't.

MASTERSON: Auditors apply process, procedures and controls to evaluate. None of that applies in this process at all. There are none of those things being applied, and yet they hold this out as an audit, which gives the appearance of credibility.

PARKS: Step two - get it covered in the media, especially the media your voters trust and believe. An NPR analysis of social media data from the company NewsWhip found that the top 10 most-shared articles online about the audit were all written by conservative publications, amplifying the false election narrative. Step three - harness that doubt and use it. A recent Fox News poll found that 82% of Trump voters said illegal voting was a major threat to the stability of the country.

MASTERSON: Now we have a playbook out there where if you don't like the results - by the way, in an election that wasn't particularly close - you just claim you didn't lose and, in fact, the process itself was rigged against you.

PARKS: Masterson is worried that this will now become the norm. Private audit efforts are now sprouting up in other swing states too, like Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia, all following that playbook. Lawmakers justify them by saying people have doubts, and we're just asking questions. In Arizona, the president of the state Senate, Karen Fann, made exactly that point while talking to CNN last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAREN FANN: I don't know what's legit, what isn't legit, but why wouldn't we want to answer those questions? Do we just...

KYUNG LAH: You're just questioning democracy.

FANN: No, I'm questioning the integrity of the election system.

PARKS: But experts say the way they're going about it won't answer those questions. It only raises more. Jennifer Morrell is a former election official and a national expert on election audits. She says what's going on in Arizona is completely unreliable.

JENNIFER MORRELL: They were sort of making up the process. And as I would find over the course of my time there, they were improvising as they went along.

PARKS: For a week, she observed the Arizona process in person and came away appalled.

MORRELL: It's terrifying because we've suddenly said it's OK - right? - to hand our ballots over to a third-party organization with political bias, with no experience, who get to make up the rules and then make a determination or a decision based on what they do as to whether or not, you know, the outcome of the election was correct.

PARKS: In reality, election officials in Maricopa County already audited the results before they were certified last year. Morrell says she's positive this latest recount won't match the official tally. In the disinformation playbook, that disconnect works because sowing doubt is the point.

Miles Parks, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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