Audit or Fraudit? Trump supporters bank on Arizona

Trump supporters rally outside the ballot counting headquarters

Trump supporters rally outside the ballot counting headquarters

Democracy relies on winners and losers – but there is a section of the US electorate that won’t trust results when Donald Trump is the loser.

Volunteers in a bright green, blue and yellow t-shirts use matching spinning turntables to review stacks of ballots. Others photograph them or scrutinise folds in the paper.

It was June 2021, and ballots from the 2020 presidential election were still being counted here in a stadium in Maricopa, Arizona’s largest county.

The unusual, Republican-led audit of the state’s election result, in which Joe Biden was declared the winner of the race in Arizona by the slimmest of margins, began in April.

The process is hailed as a “forensic” truth finding mission by former President Donald Trump and his supporters – but critics consider it a “fraudit” fueled by sore losers.

The audit results have yet to be released. They will not change the outcome of the election. But the continuing effort has pitted populist voters who back Mr Trump against traditional Republican conservatives, and threatens to split the party.

Trump supporters praying

About a dozen Trump supporters pray as the audit goes on

“There’s a lot of people in Arizona that questioned whether the 2020 election was done correctly and so the State Senate asked for an audit,” said Ken Bennett, a former Arizona Secretary of State and an audit spokesman. “We’re out here counting every ballot.”

Mr Bennett says they are just trying to identify any fraud or irregularities to improve the system.

But many – including some of the volunteers recounting ballots – believe that the results could be overturned and that Donald Trump could be reinstated US president this summer (he won’t).

The temperature outside the stadium stood at 111°F (44°C), but despite the sweltering heat, a dozen Trump supporters were gathered to pray. A handful of others sat under a pop-up shade tent with signs reading “Expose Voter Fraud” and “Ban The Machines.”

“We want the truth to come out. We just want the truth,” said one of the men in the shade, surrounded by Trump 2020 signs.

I didn’t catch his name because I was politely asked to leave the private car park by a man armed with an assault rifle, which can be legally openly carried in Arizona.

Maricopa County sunset

Sunset over Maricopa County

The security detail for Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs arrived first at the café where I met her on a blistering hot day. Since the 2020 election, she has received death threats and armed protesters have turned up outside her home.

“It’s a sham,” she said of the ballot counting. “This is not a real election audit”. But the exercise could cause real destruction.

“I’m very concerned about what Trump’s followers’ response is going to be when their audit report comes out,” she said.

Secretary Hobbs is a Democrat, but her sentiments are shared by many Republicans who fear their party and country are being further divided by the audit. Every elected official in Maricopa County – most of them Republicans – signed a letter dismissing it as a “circus”.

The audit “is a black eye to the state of Arizona and Maricopa County and it needs to stop,” said Bill Gates, a Maricopa County supervisor, adding that it’s “tearing at the foundations of our Democratic Republic”.

Stephen Richer, the Maricopa County Recorder, agreed. He is “100 percent confident” that the election results in Arizona were accurate, he said, and feared this audit will discourage voters from turning up at future elections.

“I just don’t see how it’s a logical campaign approach to go around telling people that the system’s rigged, their vote doesn’t matter, but please vote for us in 2022,” Mr Richer said. “That seems silly.”

Signs outside the Arizona audit

Signs hung up by Trump supporters outside the stadium where Arizona’s 2020 election audit is taking place

Yet the audit has become a regular stop on the campaign trail of Republicans trying to align themselves with Mr Trump and his supporters. Delegates from more than 12 battleground states have visited the audit site in the last few weeks and many have called for something similar to be replicated in their states.

It’s put Republicans in a tricky position. Arguably, Donald Trump remains the most popular Republican in the United States – rejecting his conspiracies and claims of voter fraud risks losing the votes of his most ardent supporters.

But that’s only about 30% of the Republican party and no matter how engaged they are, elections can’t be won with such a slim fraction of votes.

“The whole effort is drawing the Republican Party into this minority party that’s never going to be in a position to win significant elections,” said Mr Gates. The Maricopa supervisor wants his party to get back to Reagan-style, traditional, small government values.

“We need to win on ideas, not on insults.”

Mr Bennett, the audit spokesman, said he wished Democrats would join the process. He invited Secretary Hobbs to be his co-liaison between the Cyber Ninjas and the Senate.

Ms Hobbs is unlikely to show up any time soon. The Democrat, now running for governor, is focused on the 2022 elections. Many Republicans in Arizona wish their party would do the same.

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