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Arizona election database is not missing

May 19, 2021 GMT

CLAIM: The election database in Maricopa County in Arizona has been deleted, seals were improperly broken on boxes that hold the votes and ballots are missing.

AP ASSESSMENT: False. Maricopa County maintains databases of election data that are backed up, and none were deleted. Seals were not improperly broken on ballots, they were opened as designed before the ballots were put in long-term storage, according to county officials. Ballots are not missing. Some damaged ballots were duplicated so they could be read by tabulation machines, and they were documented on an alternate set of logs.

THE FACTS: A contested, unprecedented audit of the 2020 election is being used to spread false information about the vote in Arizona’s largest county.

Maricopa County’s 2.1 million ballots were counted by election officials in November, validated in a partial hand recount and certified by Gov. Doug Ducey. Two extra audits found no issues in the election that gave Biden a narrow margin of victory of less than 10,500 votes in the battleground state.

Yet Republicans in the Arizona state Senate used their subpoena power to take possession of all county ballots, the machines that counted them and hard drives full of data, and hired a Florida-based cybersecurity firm to comb through it. The firm, Cyber Ninjas, is run by a supporter of former President Donald Trump who has promoted election conspiracy theories.

On May 12, Senate President Karen Fann sent a letter to the chairman of the Republican-controlled Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, Jack Sellers, accusing county officials of deleting election databases. The letter also questioned why there were discrepancies between certain batches of ballots and log sheets, and why broken seals were found in ballot boxes.

A Twitter account associated with the audit that uses the handle, “Maricopa Arizona Audit,” tweeted that day: “Breaking Update: Maricopa County deleted a directory full of election databases from the 2020 election cycle days before the election equipment was delivered to the audit. This is spoliation of evidence!”

The false claim was picked up Saturday by Trump, who released a statement echoing Fann’s letter: “The entire Database of Maricopa County in Arizona has been DELETED! This is illegal and the Arizona State Senate, who is leading the Forensic Audit, is up in arms. Additionally, seals were broken on the boxes that hold the votes, ballots are missing, and worse.”

The false claim has spread across social media.

At a meeting Monday, county officials refuted the allegations and issued a 14-page response to Fann, calling her accusations “false, defamatory, and beneath the dignity of the Senate.” The letter, along with a separate technical memo, detailed the procedures around the vote and explained how they had been misunderstood by those running the audit.

To support the allegation that a database was deleted, Fann relies on a screenshot from a software recovery program which appears to show digital files missing and a modification date of April 12. The county officials’ letter points out that the county shut down the server on April 12 to turn it over to the Senate, which made it appear data was modified on that date.

“Nothing in this screenshot indicates that any file was deleted or spoiled,” the county officials said in their letter.

In refuting the claim, the county listed a number of technical mistakes that may have been made by those running the audit when they configured a copy of the data and searched for the files in question.

On Monday, Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, a Republican, said: “Every file the Senate has asked for is there. No files from the 2020 elections have been deleted, we deleted zero, zero election files.”

Furthermore, Megan Gilbertson, communications director for Maricopa County Elections Department told The Associated Press: “The county backs up and archives all of its election data.”

On Tuesday, a firm working on the audit walked back the claim that data had been destroyed by acknowledging it had accessed the data in question.

Ben Cotton, founder of a computer forensics firm, told key senators he had recovered all data. “I have the information I need from the recovery efforts of the data,” said Cotton, founder of CyFIR LLC.

Fann’s letter questioned why the bags in which the ballots are stored were not sealed and why cut seals were found at the bottom of the boxes. County election officials explained that the ballots were delivered to the Senate in sealed boxes not bags.

Black canvas bags with tamper evident seals are used much earlier in the process, on election night, to transport Election Day ballots from vote centers to the county’s elections facility. Batches of those ballots are checked in hand recounts, and the seals are checked for tampering before they are opened to recount the ballots. After the election results are finalized, bipartisan teams transfer the ballots from the bags, along with the previously used seals, to long-term ballot storage boxes that are closed with packing tape.

Matthew Weil, associate director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Democracy Project, said there is nothing unusual about the procedure.

The county response also refuted the allegation that ballots were missing. If a ballot cannot be read by the tabulation machine, it must go through a distinct process and be duplicated, which can lead to what appear to be discrepancies on logs for those who do not understand the system. The county maintains a separate set of logs to track those ballots.

“They’re basically looking at the wrong tracking sheets, the wrong documents,” said Liz Howard, senior counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. Howard noted that election administration is “increasingly complex” and those running the audit have little experience in it.

Ryan Macias, a former acting director of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, who is serving as an expert observer for Arizona’s Democratic secretary of state during the Senate’s audit, told the AP that his observations on the ground “align with what was in the county report.”

Election integrity experts who reviewed the county’s documents said the evidence supports that the county followed established protocols, but those conducting the audit lacked professional election experience to understand what they were examining.

“From the very beginning of this extra-legal activity, experts have raised concerns over how those conducting this review would not know what they were looking at and that they would draw incorrect and malicious conclusions to support their own agendas,” said Tammy Patrick a former Maricopa County official and senior advisor to the elections program at Democracy Fund. “This letter plainly details why the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, Sheriff, and Recorder have drawn a line in the sand and will no longer tolerate perpetuation of these conspiracy theories.”

Fann did not respond to a request for comment.

Some of the misleading claims on social media about Maricopa County’s election also suggested that Wisconsin “just approved a full forensic audit.”

But Reid Magney, a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Elections Commission, said that a performance audit of election administration practices not ballots was approved in February and is ongoing.

“It is not anything like the audit being conducted in Arizona where they are examining ballots and voting equipment,” Magney said.

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This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to fact-check misinformation that is shared widely online, including work with Facebook to identify and reduce the circulation of false stories on the platform.

Here’s more information on Facebook’s fact-checking program: https://www.facebook.com/help/1952307158131536