After all the scurrying, searching, sifting, speculating, hand-counting and bamboo-hunting had ended, Republicans’ post-mortem review of election results in Arizona’s largest county wound up only adding to President Biden’s margin of victory there.
But for those who have tried to undermine confidence in American elections and restrict voting, the actual findings of the Maricopa County review that were released on Friday did not appear to matter in the slightest. Former President Donald J. Trump and his loyalists redoubled their efforts to mount a full-scale relitigation of the 2020 election.
Any fleeting thought that the failure of the Arizona exercise to unearth some new trove of Trump votes or a smoking gun of election fraud might derail the so-called Stop the Steal movement dissipated abruptly. As draft copies of the report began to circulate late Thursday, Trump allies ignored the new tally, instead zeroing in on the report’s specious claims of malfeasance, inconsistencies and errors by election officials.
Significant parts of the right treated the completion of the Arizona review as a vindication — offering a fresh canard to justify an accelerated push for new voting limits and measures to give Republican state lawmakers greater control over elections. It also provided additional fuel for the older lie that is now central to Mr. Trump’s political identity: that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
“The leaked report conclusively shows there were enough fraudulent votes, mystery votes, and fake votes to change the outcome of the election 4 or 5 times over,” Mr. Trump said in a statement early Friday evening, one of seven he had issued about Arizona since late Thursday. “There is fraud and cheating in Arizona and it must be criminally investigated!”
For Mr. Trump, Republican candidates vying to appeal to voters in primary races, and conservative activists agitating for election reviews in their own states, the 91-page document served as something of a choose-your-own-adventure guide. These leaders encouraged their supporters to avert their eyes from the conclusion that Mr. Biden had indeed won legitimately, and to instead focus on fodder for a new set of conspiracy theories.
“Now that the audit of Maricopa is wrapping up, we need to Audit Pima County — the 2nd largest county in AZ,” Mark Finchem, a Republican candidate for secretary of state in Arizona who supported the effort in Maricopa, wrote on Twitter. “There are 35k votes in question from multiple sources & I want answers.”
Even Republicans who do not subscribe to false claims of election fraud are using investigations to justify more restrictive voting laws. In Michigan, State Senator Ed McBroom, a Republican who leads his chamber’s elections committee and wrote an unsparing report in July debunking an array of Trump-inspired fraud claims, said Friday that the discovery of potential avenues for election fraud — not evidence of fraud itself — was reason enough to pass new voting restrictions.
“Just like we found in Michigan, it’s good that we found that these vulnerabilities weren’t exploited to any important extent in this election,” Mr. McBroom said in an interview. “It doesn’t mean that somebody might not use them in the future.”
Cherry-picking from the report on Friday, the former president and his allies cited a series of eye-popping statistics that, on first glance, appeared to bolster their case, trusting that their supporters either would not digest the document in full or would not trust the mainstream news outlets that laid out its complete contents.
Peter Navarro, a former adviser to Mr. Trump, falsely claimed on Twitter that the report had shown that 50,000 potentially illegal votes were cast in Maricopa County. That number was in fact the tally of ballots that the report — through questionable methodology — described as problematic in some way.
Liz Harrington, a spokeswoman for Mr. Trump, pointed on Twitter to “23,000+ Phantom Voters.” This was apparently a reference to 23,344 mail-in ballots that Cyber Ninjas, the company assigned by Arizona Republicans to carry out the review, had claimed came from voters listed under prior addresses. (Such claims were quickly refuted by the Maricopa County elections board, which said that “this is legal under federal election law.”)
Proponents of the Arizona review seized on vague suggestions by the report’s authors that “canvassing,” or the common political campaign practice of knocking on doors, was needed. Without defining what sort of canvass they had in mind, many Republicans in Arizona and beyond made the word a new rallying cry in the hunt for election fraud.
“Canvass Maricopa,” Wendy Rogers, a Republican state senator in Arizona, wrote on Twitter.
The Arizona review, and similar partisan election investigations around the country, are one spear in a multipronged effort by Mr. Trump and his allies to dispute the outcome of the 2020 race and to overhaul future American elections.
That push has alarmed Democrats, good-government groups and historians, who point to the ways that Mr. Trump undermined democratic norms while in office, including his fight to subvert last year’s election, an effort that culminated in the Capitol riot.
New evidence for their arguments emerged this week in the form of a memo unearthed in a new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa of The Washington Post. According to the memo, drafted by John Eastman, a Republican lawyer who worked with the Trump campaign, by refusing to accept the results, Mr. Trump could help prompt a state legislature to send an alternative slate of electors to Congress.
The memo concluded that, with multiple slates to consider, former Vice President Mike Pence and allies in Congress could refuse to certify the states in question, which would nullify the election results and lead instead to a vote in the House of Representatives on the president, with each state delegation receiving one vote.
In 2020, Republicans held the advantage in state delegations, with 26, meaning that Mr. Trump would have successfully overturned the election in this scenario.
Trump’s Bid to Subvert the Election
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Now, as Mr. Trump continues to deny Mr. Biden’s legitimacy, Republicans around the country have embarked on a mission to upend the electoral process. They have sought to give Republican-controlled state legislatures more control over how American elections are run; aggressively pushed to limit voting, passing more than 30 such laws in 18 states; and recruited candidates who have espoused election conspiracy theories to run for positions like secretary of state and county clerk.
Support for election reviews like Arizona’s has become a litmus test in Republican primary elections.
“Arizona must decertify!” former Gov. Eric Greitens of Missouri, who is in a crowded G.O.P. primary for an open Senate seat in the state, wrote on Twitter on Friday. “We MUST have forensic audits across the country!”
Even candidates in states Mr. Trump won easily last year have echoed his calls to revisit the results.
“In states like OHIO where Trump won by massive margins, he probably actually won by even larger margins were it not for the Democrat cheating,” Josh Mandel, a Republican running for Senate in Ohio, said on Twitter.
Democrats, voting rights advocates and moderate Republicans reacted to the Arizona election report’s release with a mix of resignation and fury, calling the endeavor a waste of time, money and attention. But some darkly expressed an understanding that the flow of lies about the 2020 election would not ebb.
Katie Hobbs, who as the Democratic secretary of state in Arizona pushed back forcefully on the review, wrote in a fund-raising appeal that “I wish I could tell you that I’m excited to put all this to rest, but I’m not naïve.” Ms. Hobbs, who is running for governor in 2022, added, “I know far-right Republicans and conspiracy theorists will continue to come after me regardless of the results.”
In some states where Republicans control the levers of government, the effort to undermine confidence in elections has been incorporated into official policy.
Late Thursday, the Texas secretary of state’s office announced that it would review results from four large counties, three won by Mr. Biden and one carried by Mr. Trump. Pennsylvania legislators have sought the personal information, including driver’s license numbers, of roughly seven million voters as part of a sprawling Republican review. And in Wisconsin, the Republican speaker of the State Assembly tapped a conservative former State Supreme Court Justice to conduct an election investigation — days after Mr. Trump threatened the state’s G.O.P. leaders with consequences if they did not take action.
None of it has been enough to satisfy Mr. Trump or his most fervent supporters.
In Wisconsin, a right-wing group called Rise Up, led by David A. Clarke Jr., a former Milwaukee County sheriff known for spreading conspiracy theories and wearing audacious cowboy hats, has for months applied public pressure on Republican lawmakers to carry out an Arizona-style review of the state’s 2020 results.
But on Friday morning, after news of the Arizona report had circulated for hours, the group sent supporters a warning: “Arizona is either going to support our efforts in Wisconsin,” it wrote, “or it will cause us to be a dog with our tail between our legs and run for the hills!”