An ongoing “audit” of the 2020 presidential election in Maricopa County, Arizona, is taking its cues straight from a man intimately tied to the QAnon conspiracy theory.
President Joe Biden won Arizona—and Maricopa County—in the 2020 election, a victory that was upheld by multiple bipartisan reviews. But last week, a Republican-led coalition launched its own recount of Maricopa County’s votes, a process helmed by a conspiracy-tweeting tech CEO and funded by an unknown slate of donors.
The counting has just begun, but already the audit has become almost inextricable from the far-right internet. There, audit-watchers share tips and concerns about security offered by Ron Watkins, a man suspected of helping birth the QAnon craze.
The audit, it should be noted, is nonbinding. Arizona’s Republican governor, secretary of state, and state Supreme Court chief justice all previously certified Biden’s victory. Nevertheless, the recount has been embraced by a conspiratorial set seeking to cast doubt on the 2020 election, including former President Donald Trump himself.
Watkins is a former administrator of 8kun, the forum that hosted the QAnon conspiracy theory, which falsely accuses Trump’s foes of Satanic pedophilia and cannibalism. A new HBO documentary argues that Watkins is one of the authors behind the conspiracy theory. Watkins, who did not return a request for comment, denies that he is the anonymous “Q.”
That hasn’t stopped him from imbuing an outlandish process with an extra dose of paranoia.
Even before the audit kicked off, Watkins suggested that it might be attacked by rioters. “Will Maricopa county deploy police to protect the auditors from rioters?” he posted on his Telegram channel in mid-April. “Will the police end up standing down? You cannot have information security without physical security.”
He wasn’t the only QAnon-adjacent person stoking those fears. Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn claimed, without evidence, that anti-fascists and Black Lives Matter activists would attack the audit. “I’m telling you now, I’ll say it today, because we have intel that they may be bringing people down from Portland and Seattle to disrupt,” Flynn said during a speech this month. “I mean to disrupt finding the truth, discovering the truth?“
Watkins has continued to imply the left was traveling to protest the audit—a process virtually no one outside of the far right has taken seriously. “If you have proof, chat logs, or information regarding BLM or antifa booking rooms in Arizona to protest the audits, please email me,” he wrote several days later.
So far, any threat has yet to materialize. Outside the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, where the audit is being held, much of the ire appears reserved for Maricopa County’s Republican-majority board of supervisors, who previously certified the vote that gave Joe Biden the state’s electoral votes. “Board of supervisors are enemies of the nation,” read one flag, photographed by the Arizona Republic.
But after months of “Stop the Steal” memes about phantom voter fraud, the security theater has been steadily escalating—with some semi-official help.
The event is currently receiving security from the Arizona Rangers, a civilian law enforcement auxiliary that has raised more than $130,000 on GoFundMe since it began patrolling outside the audit. On Monday evening, the two most recent donations (each for $100) read, “Because I want the truth out once and for all, plus I want the right President back in Office, and that is Trump” and “THEY CANT STOP WHATS COMING! WWG1WGA!” (“WWG1WGA” is a QAnon slogan.)
Observers on the right aren’t satisfied. They want even more heightened security, with Trump calling on Gov. Doug Ducey to hire more guards. “The Republican Party is demanding that Gov. Ducey of Arizona immediately provide large-scale security for the brave American Patriots doing the Forensic Audit of the 2020 Presidential Election,” Trump wrote in one recent statement.
On Facebook, the Arizona Rangers shared an article about Trump’s comments, from the fringe site Gateway Pundit. The article concluded with the claim that, “The Coliseum is well guarded and there are contingencies if someone tried to bully their way in. But the Democrats are desperate and will do anything—even steal an election to gain power.” (The Rangers, a group of more than 400 officers, do not receive state funding and do not have the full powers of a police force. They did not return a request for comment.)
Watkins’ connections to the audit have previously drawn scrutiny. The recount is being steered by a Florida-based firm called Cyber Ninjas, whose CEO Doug Logan has promoted conspiracy theories about the election and tweeted multiple times at Watkins. Watkins’ Telegram posts about the audit are also shared frequently in groups dedicated to tracking the pointless process.
But in Arizona, these channels are more than just group chats. A spin-off of the largest channel claimed to host a live Q&A with a state Senate-appointed official in charge of monitoring the audit. (That official could not be reached for comment on Monday.)
Also on Monday, Logan, the Cyber Ninjas CEO, argued in court that his auditing methods should remain a secret and that a court hearing on the recount should be closed to the media and the public. That commitment to secrecy comes even as conservative outlets are promoting what they claim are the audit’s yet-to-be-announced findings.
One image, which appeared on far-right network OAN and some similarly conspiratorial blogs, shows a tally of supposed Arizona ballots flagged as suspicious for reasons like “absentee ballots cast from addresses other than where voters legally reside.” The result, the unsourced graphic claims, is more than 250,000 “possible illegal votes.”
The provenance of the graphic is unclear. A spokesperson for Logan and the audit effort did not return a request for comment on the graphic, or whether the audit had even processed 250,000 ballots to begin with. Hosts of OAN, which promoted the graphic, have been involved in launching a fundraiser for the audit. Despite the recount’s ongoing status, one of those hosts recently appeared in an OAN broadcast in which she declared that the process "will unravel the Democrat schemes from 2020."
Another standard riff on the unsourced graphic came in a blog post that announced “It’s happening Patriots! The truth is coming out… TRUMP WON!” (Trump did not win.)
That post was shared by Bobby Piton, the manager of an Illinois-based financial planning firm. Piton has previously promoted theories about voter fraud in Arizona (a USA Today analysis rated those claims as false).
Reached by phone, Piton told The Daily Beast he was working on the audit in an unofficial capacity, after Logan asked him for his assistance. Piton said he and Watkins had been in touch last year and had recently reconnected to discuss the Arizona audit.
“He just reached out and said, ‘I see you’re doing God’s work,’” Piton told The Daily Beast. “And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m trying, I’m trying.’ And, you know, he feels the same way about what he’s doing. And we just, we just kind of spoke about, I guess about the ballots. We were just talking about the UV lights [auditors are shining UV lights on the ballots]. We just kind of kick the tires around that and different technologies that could be used to expose voter fraud in the future, how we can maybe come up with ideas that we share with the public and collaborate.”
Piton said he didn’t know much about QAnon and that Watkins had denied being Q. That said, Piton noted, he wouldn’t really care if Watkins was behind the conspiracy theory.
He just wanted to proceed with the absurd exercise in Arizona.
“I have no idea what his involvement is or anything like that,” Piton said. “Frankly, it doesn’t really matter for what I’m working on with them.”
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