Fact check: No evidence 'lost votes' or 'ghost votes' affected Arizona's election outcome

·9 min read

The claim: Thousands of 'lost votes' and 'ghost votes' in Arizona indicate the 2020 election was stolen

The votes have been counted, recounted and audited. Federal, state and local elections officials have confirmed the result: Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election.

But online, some conspiracy theorists are still claiming voter fraud helped put Biden in the White House.

"BREAKING – HUGE: Results of Canvassing in Arizona Released – ELECTION STEAL IS NOW CONFIRMED," reads the headline on a Sept. 8 article from the Gateway Pundit, a conservative website that has previously published misinformation about election fraud.

The article accumulated nearly 7,000 shares on Facebook within two days, according to CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool. Similar articles and posts have racked up tens of thousands of interactions.

The Gateway Pundit article is based on an 11-page canvassing report from Liz Harris, an Arizona real estate broker and Republican who unsuccessfully ran for office in 2020. Among its claims: There were more than 173,000 "lost votes" and 96,000 "ghost votes" in Maricopa County, home of Phoenix.

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"Two primary categories of ineligible ballots and election mishandling, encompassing hundreds of thousands of votes, render the 2020 General Election in Maricopa County uncertifiable," reads the beginning of the report.

They don't.

Arizona and Congress have both certified Biden's win. Local elections officials, media outlets, independent fact-checking organizations and legitimate election experts have refuted Harris' report. There is no evidence widespread voter fraud affected the election outcome in Arizona.

"It reminds me of Mark Twain's quote regarding lies, damn lies and statistics," Kenneth Fernandez, a political science professor at the College of Southern Nevada, said in an email.

USA TODAY reached out to the Gateway Pundit and Harris for comment.

The audit of Maricopa County's ballots from the 2020 general election continues on July 24, 2021, in the Wesley Bolin Building at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Ariz.
The audit of Maricopa County's ballots from the 2020 general election continues on July 24, 2021, in the Wesley Bolin Building at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Ariz.

Report doesn't prove 'lost votes' claim

Arizona elections officials and survey experts have debunked the report's claim about "lost votes" in Maricopa County.

“The allegations presented in this so-called report are baseless and were quickly disproven by local media," Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, said in a statement emailed to USA TODAY. "It’s yet another attempt to undermine the integrity of our elections."

The canvassing report is based on data from 4,570 registered voters in Maricopa County. The claim of "lost votes" stems from 964 interviews with people whom the county indicated did not cast a ballot in the election.

Volunteers working with Harris found that, of that group, about 34% said they had actually voted.

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"Overall, there were 505,709 people in the county registered to vote who did not have a vote recorded in the election," reads the report. "Extrapolating these results to the entire county, which can be done at a scientifically correlated confidence level of 95%, it is estimated that 173,104 voters had their votes stolen."

Experts told USA TODAY there are a couple of things wrong with that conclusion.

Since there was a "full" canvass in one part of Maricopa County and partial canvasses with different sampling rates in other areas, "not every registered voter was equally likely to be surveyed," said Philip Stark, a statistics professor at the University of California-Berkeley.

"Unless the sample was appropriately random and nonresponse was low and taken into account appropriately, there's no basis for extrapolation from the sample to the county as a whole," he said in an email. "A 'partial canvass' is not a random sample."

Fact check: Arizona audit hasn't found 275,000 fraudulent votes

Stark, who has helped develop methods for auditing elections, also said the response rate in the report is "so low that nothing useful could be said about the county as a whole even if the sample had been truly random."

"Only 4,570 of 11,708 attempted contacts gave data. That's a 61% nonresponse rate," he said. "That makes the estimates and confidence intervals meaningless."

Then there are problems with the general approach of Harris and her volunteers.

Research indicates post-election surveys regularly overestimate voter turnout because people tend to exaggerate their voting behavior. Fernandez said panel studies have found voters "even change their story in who they voted for, sometimes switching their story and recalling that they voted for the winner of the election."

"The bottom line is that what Ms. Harris has found in Arizona is simply another example of turnout over-reporting that we see in pretty much every single election survey," Brian Schaffner, a professor of civic studies at Tufts University, said in an email. "This is not evidence of lost votes, but rather just another example of how people tell little white lies to make themselves look better when answering surveys."

Audit spokesperson Randy Pullen (center) looks through paperwork, July 19, 2021, in the Wesley Bolin Building at the Arizona State Fairgrounds, Phoenix.
Audit spokesperson Randy Pullen (center) looks through paperwork, July 19, 2021, in the Wesley Bolin Building at the Arizona State Fairgrounds, Phoenix.

Claim of 'ghost votes' also debunked

Local media outlets and elections officials have also refuted the report's claim that there were more than 96,000 "ghost votes" in Maricopa County.

The claim is based on data from 3,606 registered voters whom Maricopa County indicated had voted in the election, 2,897 of them by mail. Of that group, Harris and her volunteers found 164 mail-in voters who were "unknown to the resident or known but having moved prior to the election registration deadline."

"This represents 5.66% of all mail-in voters on which data was gathered," reads the report. "Overall, there were 1,702,981 mail-in votes tallied by the in (sic) the election. Extrapolating these results to the entire county, which can be done at a scientifically correlated confidence level of 95%, it is estimated that 96,389 mail-in ballots should not have been cast due to this issue."

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Data collection issues aside, the only examples Harris gave in the report didn't check out.

The original cover photo of the report claimed to show a "vacant lot ... that cast two mail-in ballots." But both Stephen Richer, the Republican recorder of Maricopa County, and Garrett Archer, a data analyst for KNXV-TV, found a home that had been on that site since 2005, according to records from the Maricopa County Assessor's Office.

Harris later changed the cover photo to show another vacant lot that purportedly cast a mail-in vote in 2020. But that example was quickly debunked, too.

"There is a valid registered voter at that address and a mobile home park in December of 2019," Archer tweeted Sept. 8.

After reaching out to the Maricopa County Elections Department, Archer wrote in a follow-up tweet that the lot was "a mobile home park in 2020 before it was demolished" and the voter in question "requested the ballot be sent to a temporary address."

Election data reported by KNXV-TV indicates 2,089,756 voters were checked in and 2,089,563 ballots were counted in Maricopa County during the election. The discrepancy is due to rare occurrences like mail-in votes not containing ballots, elections officials told the TV station.

"It is irresponsible and silly to claim 100,000+ errors and offer only 2 alleged inaccuracies, both of which are easily debunked," Richer tweeted Sept. 8.

USA TODAY reached out to Maricopa County for comment, but it did not provide one on the record.

No evidence of fraud in Arizona election

Claims that thousands of fraudulent votes affected the 2020 election outcome in Arizona haven't panned out.

Multiple hand counts have confirmed the election results in Maricopa County, which went for Biden by more than 45,000 votes. A forensic audit of voting machines found no malfeasance. Lawsuits challenging Arizona's election outcome have been dismissed and rejected.

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The Associated Press reported in mid-July that, of the more than 3 million ballots cast in Arizona, elections officials have found fewer than 200 cases of potential voter fraud.

"Maricopa County stands by the results reported by its elections professionals, confirmed by hand counts, two independent audits, and several court challenges, and certified by the Secretary of State, Governor, and Congress," Jason Berry, a spokesperson for Maricopa County, previously told USA TODAY.

Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that thousands of "lost votes" and "ghost votes" in Arizona indicate the 2020 election was stolen. State elections officials from both political parties have refuted the findings in Harris' report, as have local media outlets. Political science and statistics experts told USA TODAY the report's methodology is flawed and cannot be used to make conclusions about Arizona's election outcome. There is no evidence widespread voter fraud affected the state's results in 2020.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Arizona voter fraud not proven in viral canvassing report