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July 31, 2021, 10:56 a.m. EDT

Fundraising for Republican vote ‘audits’ raises alarm among election experts

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Associated Press

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The first donation came in early May, for $50, and with a message: “GOD BLESS THE USA!!”

In just over a month, the crowdfunding page dedicated to bringing an Arizona-style review of the 2020 presidential election to Pennsylvania had collected $15,339 from 332 donors. Today, the effort has morphed into a full-fledged campaign to “Audit the Vote PA.” The website offers a six-week course on the Constitution and encourages supporters to become a “walking billboard for a forensic audit” by purchasing various hats and T-shirts.

Still prominent is the “donate” button. But unlike the initial crowdfunding page, it’s hard to tell how much money the group is bringing in or how the money is being spent. Multiple requests for information sent to an email listed on the site received no replies.

Efforts to expand Arizona’s controversial, Republican-led review of the 2020 election to other states are growing, fueled by former President Donald Trump’s false claims of victory and funded by a network of groups operating with little oversight. Election officials and experts have raised the alarm about these private fundraising efforts and what they see as a broader push by candidates to raise money off conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.

“It has become profitable both politically and financially for people to lie about the election and denigrate American democracy,” said Matt Masterson, a top election security official during the Trump administration. “The sad part is that they are doing this by lying to voters and folks who have concerns about our democracy, and they are taking their money in pursuit of their lies.”

While some fundraising details have come to light, little is known about how much has been raised and from whom. That’s the case in Arizona, where a review of Maricopa County’s election ordered by Republicans who control the state Senate has drawn widespread criticism, including from fellow Republicans. On Wednesday, the firm behind the review — Cyber Ninjas — said it had received $5.6 million from five groups connected to prominent supporters of Trump’s efforts to cast doubt on the 2020 election results.

That’s in addition to the $150,000 in state taxpayer money set aside by Republicans in the legislature.

From the archives (May 2021): ‘Big Lie’ allegiance dividing Republicans into Trump loyalists and a Cheney-Romney-Kinzinger wing

A group aligned with the pro-Trump One America News Network contributed $605,000, and a group set up by Patrick Byrne, the former CEO of Overstock.com /zigman2/quotes/200022359/composite OSTK +3.56% , gave $3.2 million, according to Cyber Ninjas. Both are set up as nonprofit organizations with limited financial reporting requirements and do not have to disclose all their donors.

Byrne said he does not plan to disclose donor information, saying they were mostly small-dollar contributors. He did say he has personally donated about $2 million to the effort.

“It is suboptimal versus having publicly funded, serious forensic audits, but preferable to not having serious forensic audits at all,” Byrne said.

Arizona’s ballots have been counted, audited and certified. Trump lost the state.

Still, his allies in the GOP-led state Senate secured access to voting equipment, software, ballots and other voting materials to conduct what they describe as a “forensic audit” of Maricopa County. Election experts say their methods are flawed and have compromised the security of the county’s voting machines.

See: Arizona Republicans’ election-review contractor Cyber Ninjas asks judge to keep details of process under wraps

Also: Justice Department concerned over privately run ‘audit’ of November election in Arizona’s Maricopa County

“There’s no credibility to this process, and the funding aspect is just one measure of that,” said Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat who has objected to the review.

In Pennsylvania, it’s not clear where the money will come from to pay for a similar “forensic investigation” envisioned by its backers, led by Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano. He has left key questions unanswered, such as who will do the work, how it will be funded and where such a vast amount of documents and equipment would be stored.

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