PHOENIX (AP) — Democratic members of a U.S. House committee on Thursday questioned Arizona officials on the potential damage that a partisan review of the state’s 2020 election results had on trust in American elections.
Two Republican leaders of the county subjected to the recount that ended last month and showed that now- President Joe Biden beat Donald Trump testified in Washington that they believed the damage was severe.
“This is without a doubt the biggest threat to our democracy in my lifetime,” Maricopa County Supervisor Bill Gates told the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. ”If elected officials continue to choose party over truth, then these procedures are going to continue on, these privately funded government-backed attacks on legitimate elections.”
Gates and board Chairman Jack Sellers have been pushing back all year against fellow Republicans in the Arizona Senate who issued subpoenas and fought court battles to allow contractors they hired to review the certified election results.
Both said the election in the state’s most populous county was free, fair and accurate, and that they remain baffled that fellow Republicans were willing to risk trust in elections because Trump raised unfounded claims of election fraud.
“As a Republican who believes in democracy, I dreamed of one day going to a nation that was trying to build a democracy and help them out,” Gates said. “I never could have imagined that I would be doing that work here in the United States of America.”
Republican committee members, meanwhile, worked to show the review conducted for the GOP-controlled Arizona Senate found significant issues with how the election in the county that includes Phoenix was conducted and said it should be common practice to conduct full election audits.
They called former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, who served as a go-between Senate Republicans and the contractors they hired to review the ballot count, election machines and computer software, to testify. Bennett said that while the recount showed that Biden actually picked up some votes, there remain unresolved issues involving voter registration, mail-in ballots and computer security.
County officials and outside election experts have panned the findings, saying most if not all are based on the Senate contractors’ flawed and amateur “audit” and easily debunked. Republican Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who is running for U.S. Senate, launched an investigation based on the audit’s findings.
“Auditing elections is not a threat to our democratic republic” Bennett said. “Anything we can do to make sure our elections are transparent, trackable, and publicly verified only strengthens our country.”
Bennett said he supports changes in Arizona election law to boost security on mail-in ballots and other aspects.
Democrats on the committee called efforts in Arizona and other Republican-controlled states to enact new election restrictions a recipe for voter suppression. The Brennan Center, a non-partisan law and policy group that pushes for greater access to voting, has tracked more than 200 proposed laws this year that add new voting restrictions, mainly prompted by Trump’s claims of voter fraud. More than 20 became law.
“Although the audit in Arizona failed to uncover any evidence of widespread fraud, it was successful in achieving its bigger goal to pave the way for election subversion laws that are spreading across this country,” said Rep. Cori Bush, D-Missouri.
The county leaders got pushback from GOP lawmakers, including Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs. Biggs pointed to what the review said were violations of ballot chain of custody, computer security and verification of signatures on mail ballots during the election.
“I’m trying to understand — my colleagues, not my colleagues but my friends over here from Arizona, are saying they’re OK with those laws, the statutory violations,” Biggs said.
“I frankly don’t believe there were any statutory violations,” said Sellers, the county board chairman.
Biggs took the lead in questioning the three Arizonans who testified at Thursday’s hearing.
“They ripped everything they possibly could about the audit,” Biggs said of the county leaders. “And at the same time that they were attacking the audit, they simultaneously argued that it buttressed their position as to who won the election.
“I view that as specious, inconsistent, fallacious,” he said. “I was asked who won in Arizona. I don’t know.”
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Maryland, asked Sellers and Gates what they thought would be the effect on democracy if fellow Republicans continue to question election outcomes despite recounts, audits and other reviews that show they were free and fair.
“It’s very troubling, because when you give people the facts, and they still do not accept them, that’s a problem,” Sellers said.