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The claim that Maricopa County “purged machine records before audit started” was made by the leaders of the Republican-sponsored review of the county’s ballots.
Maricopa County said that its records were not “purged”; they were archived before the forensic audit, in part because the ballot tabulation machines have storage limits.
One elections expert and former Maricopa County elections official said such archiving is standard practice before a forensic audit. If the official results were left on the machines in perpetuity, the auditors would risk mixing them in with the tests they run.
The Republican-led hunt for election fraud in Arizona is over. But while the partisan ballot review failed to prove that the 2020 election was stolen, it inspired torrents of online misinformation.
One rumor said Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, eliminated files before the firm hired by the state’s Senate Republicans began its review in April.
"Maricopa County official purged machine records before audit started," said one headline that was shared in an Instagram post and flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
The same claim was made by the leaders of the review, who presented their findings Sept. 24. A slideshow from Ben Cotton, founder of the firm CyFir, claimed that an unnamed Maricopa County official "purged the general election results" in February from its election management system, EMS, just before a forensic audit commissioned by the county.
"Some individual went into an application, and they chose specifically to run something that would clear all records in the system that was used to generate the official results, the day before an audit started," said Doug Logan, CEO of the Cyber Ninjas firm that led the review.
The Maricopa County Elections Department and elections experts disputed the claim about "purged machine records," calling it "misleading." They said the November election data was archived and backed up elsewhere — not "purged" — as is standard practice before a forensic audit of ballot tabulation equipment like the one Maricopa County had in February.
The claim is also undercut by the fact that the forensic audit was completed in February, and the Cyber Ninjas’ review was completed in September, with neither changing the original outcome.
"We have data archival procedures for our elections and have archived the 2020 November general election data on backup drives," said Megan Gilbertson, communications director for the Maricopa County Elections Department. "It’s also important to point out that we provided the Senate with the Windows event logs, network logs and other data from the tabulation equipment in January 2020. We cannot keep everything on the EMS server because, like all equipment, it has storage limits. We also had a statutorily mandated election to prepare for in March."
The EMS database was backed up daily, Gilbertson said, and while the files remain secured, the state Senate never subpoenaed them. The county said the same in tweets fact-checking claims from the Cyber Ninjas, who had never audited an election before.
"Nothing was purged," it said in one tweet. "Cyber Ninjas don’t understand the business of elections. We can't keep everything on the EMS server because it has storage limits."
We have data archival procedures for our elections and @MaricopaVote archived everything related to the November election on backup drives. So everything still exists.
EXPLANATION: The Election Management System (EMS) database does not store election information forever.— Maricopa County (@maricopacounty) September 24, 2021
In a statement, Cyber Ninjas spokesperson Rod Thomson argued that "it was not a storage issue," and that while the county may have archived its data elsewhere, "they did purge that information from the machines" before the forensic audit.
"That they now claim it was archived does not explain why they waited until literally the day before the equipment was to be handed over to the Senate for the audit, to purge the information," Thomson said. "That timing seems obviously suspicious."
Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser to the elections program at Democracy Fund, said the storage issues the county cited are real.
"In a large jurisdiction such as Maricopa County, with millions of voters and thousands of ballot styles, the system would quickly be overwhelmed and bogged down," said Patrick, who served until 2014 as the federal compliance officer for the Maricopa County Elections Department.
"It’s clear that records are not kept on local machines forever," added Matthew Weil, director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Elections Project.
There’s also nothing suspicious about Maricopa County archiving its data before a forensic audit like the one it held in February, Patrick said. The ballot tabulation machines were cleared of their official results so that the audit could properly test that they were counting votes accurately.
"Before you want to have anyone run an audit or run additional test ballots through a piece of equipment, you want to archive live results so that you don’t have things get commingled or mixed up," Patrick said. "By removing it and archiving it, that’s the only way to 100% protect it in that snapshot in time before there’s any other activity on the system."
Patrick added: "It happened the day before (the forensic audit) because it was the official record and they needed to remove the official transactions from that system prior to having the audit."
"We were readying the EMS server so our certified auditors could test the equipment for accuracy," Gilbertson told PolitiFact. Maricopa County tweeted that this was "standard practice."
Overall, Patrick said the claim that machine records were "purged" shows a misunderstanding of the way that elections are run. The records weren’t deleted.
"The individuals who did this exercise in Arizona do not understand the terminology of elections or the procedures and policies or elections," Patrick said. "They misrepresent what they see because they don’t understand what they’re looking at."
An Instagram post says "Maricopa County official purged machine records before audit started."
The Maricopa County Elections Department said it archived and backed up all November election data, and that nothing was deleted. Elections experts said this is standard procedure ahead of a forensic audit.
We rate this post False.
Instagram post, Sept. 25, 2021
Right Side Broadcasting Network, "Breaking: Maricopa County Official Purged Machine Records Before Audit Started, Report States," Sept. 24, 2021
Maricopa County on Twitter, Sept. 24, 2021
Maricopa County on Twitter, Sept. 24, 2021
AZ Mirror, "Arizona ‘audit’: A multitude of unsubstantiated claims and no proof of fraud," Sept. 24, 2021
The Associated Press, "Election data in Arizona’s largest county was not ‘purged,'" Sept. 24, 2021
The Associated Press, "GOP review finds no proof Arizona election stolen from Trump" Sept. 24, 2021
The Associated Press, "AP FACT CHECK: Pro-Trump auditors spin election falsehoods," Sept. 24, 2021
12News, "Arizona GOP audit: County denies claims staff deleted data," Sept. 24, 2021
Reuters on YouTube, "LIVE: Presentation of Maricopa County, Arizona, election audit," Sept. 24, 2021
Arizona Senate Republicans, "Presentation from Ben Cotton, CyFir Founder," Sept. 24, 20212
Maricopa County, "Maricopa County Elections Updates," May 18, 2021
Maricopa County Government on Medium, "Auditing Elections Equipment in Maricopa County," Feb. 23, 2021
PolitiFact, "No proof for Trump claim that a database for 2020 election in Ariz. was deleted," May 19, 2021
PolitiFact, "Ask PolitiFact: Why are Arizona Republicans auditing election results?" May 4, 2021
Email interview with Megan Gilbertson, communications director for the Maricopa County Elections Department, Sept. 27, 2021
Email interview with Rod Thomson, spokesperson for the Cyber Ninjas, Sept. 27, 2021
Phone and email interviews with Tammy Patrick, senior adviser to the elections program at Democracy Fund, Sept. 27, 2021
Email interview with Matthew Weil, director of the Elections Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, Sept. 27, 2021
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