State senate granted access to Maricopa County ballots, but what happens now?

Posted at 7:13 AM, Mar 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-03 09:26:25-05

Republican state senators, including Warren Petersen, Kelly Towsend, and President Karen Fann have led the charge in demanding to look over ballots cast in the Maricopa County 2020 general election.

The fight became official in December when the Senate issued subpoenas to the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, commanding they hand over election materials, including Maricopa County's 2.1 million physical ballots to the Senate.

Maricopa County argued turning over ballots to any entity, including the Arizona Senate, was against state law. In legal briefs, county attorneys cited ARS16-624 which states elections officers in charge of the election "shall deposit the package or envelope containing the ballots in a secure facility manages by the county treasurer, who shall keep it unopened and unaltered for twenty-four months for elections for a federal office or for six months for all other elections, at which time he shall destroy it without opening or examining the contents."

After months of legal battles between county and senate officials on whether the subpoenas violated state statute, Judge Timothy Thomason sided with the Republican-controlled Senate last week, ruling the Senate's subpoenas were lawful and enforceable. The ruling meant Maricopa County must comply and turn over all requested materials.

This week, county elections administrators got to work. They've packed, sealed, and organized 73 pallets, each holding tens of thousands of physical ballots, per the Senate's request and court order to produce them to the Senate.

On Tuesday, attorneys representing the Arizona Senate on the matter asked Maricopa County for a delay in their compliance.

"...the Senate’s preference is to maintain the materials in the County’s facility until the Senate has made suitable arrangements for storing the materials elsewhere," said Kory Langhofer in an email to county attorneys Tuesday. "We are hoping that the Senate will have firmed up its plans in the next few days."

State law requires any entity in possession of ballots ensure their protection by storing them in a secure facility. Maricopa County's Tabulation Center has kept ballots inside a fire suppression vault since November, but once custody of ballots is transferred to the Senate, it's their responsibility, according to Judge Thomason, to ensure their security,

"Does it surprise me? No. Does it concern me? Yes," said Julie Haven from Chandler. "Where are our ballots? Where are they going to be? And who’s going to do the audit? That’s really important to me as well.”

Some Republican senators spent months condemning Maricopa County for refusing to produce ballots until after a judge compelled them to do so. Some accused the Board of Supervisors of "grandstanding," and 15 GOP senators voted to hold Supervisors in contempt of the legislature for failing to turn over all materials requested. The state senate was just one vote shy of doing so, which would have authorized the arrest of elected officials.

Senate leaders have not confirmed whether they've chosen a firm to conduct what they call a "forensic audit" of ballots. Earlier this year, ABC15 learned state senators were considering Allied Security Operations Group for the job. The company is most recently known for performing an audit on elections equipment in Atrim County, Michigan, and claiming to have discovered evidence of overwhelming errors, later proven false by Michigan Election officials after conducting a full-hand recount.

Last month, two separate, independent audits of the 2020 election found no issues with the county's voting machines, or software used.

Both audits were conducted by federally accredited firms hired by Maricopa County.

ABC15 reached out to a spokesperson for the Arizona Senate Tuesday, to confirm the request for a delay in delivery of ballots to the Senate. Communications Director Mike Philipsen said:

"I’m not sure why the County is not treating this third audit like the previous two, when they invited the auditors to the County facilities. The Senate made it clear that was its intention for this audit." A follow-up response later said, "The question is, why are they even sending them? The Senate expected to go to the County to do the audit, just like the other two independent audits. And the County knew that."

Maricopa County officials quickly refuted Philipsen's statement, telling ABC15:

"The subpoena commands the Board produce documents and equipment and deliver them to 1700 W. Washington. There has never been a discussion or agreement to conduct another audit on Maricopa County property and that is not what the subpoena compels. Maricopa County invited legislative leaders to participate in the two forensic audits conducted this year. The chairman also invited them to tour the facility, view the equipment, and learn more about the processes during the 2020 election season. The Board has serious concerns about allowing anyone other than Election Department and County Recorder staff into sensitive areas during the current Goodyear election and other municipal elections scheduled during 2021."

It's unclear if Maricopa County plans to move forward and transfer custody of ballots to the Senate. The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors met in an emergency executive session Tuesday but did not hold a formal vote on taking any action in response to the request from the Senate.