The leader of a small East County nonprofit says independent audits should be conducted after all U.S. elections. He has sought or gained access to ballot images in states including battlegrounds Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Wisconsin.
“We want every county audited,” says the group’s president. “Georgia … was a very critical election this time around. And there were a lot of questions about whether it was done right or not. In fact, even recently there was all this talk about ballots being brought in suitcases and Rudy Giuliani was down there. Haven’t you been watching the news?”
Another Republican-led effort to cast doubt on Joe Biden’s victory?
Citizens’ Oversight Projects founder Ray Lutz of El Cajon is a Democrat.
He’s known for his fight over San Onofre nuclear plant waste disposal, going on an 11-day hunger strike as a 2010 congressional challenger of Republican Duncan D. Hunter and being arrested near San Diego City Hall at a 2011 Occupy Wall Street demonstration.
And his 2017 lawsuit against then-Registrar of Voters Michael Vu sought access to ballots, fearing “possible tampering of the early [vote-by-mail] ballots in the 2016 primary election.” Lutz lost.
His motto might be: “The only way to stop a bad guy with an audit is a good guy with an audit.”
Since 2019, Lutz, 64, has been promoting his “AuditEngine,” which recruits up to 10,000 Amazon Web Services computers to inspect images of paper ballots. By not overlooking bubbles being circled or checkmarks next to names, his tool is more accurate than official machine counts, he claims. It also detects when ballot images get corrupted through “stretching” by scanner rollers.
“About 93% of the time, we do a better job of evaluating voter intent than these voting systems,” he told Times of San Diego. But the difference is 0.1% to 0.2% — “and that’s going to be evenly split between both [parties] — so it really doesn’t shift the result.”
(He adds: “There’s a lot of feedback to the election officials that we can provide to improve their process that is not at the level of overturning the election.”)
An expert with the nonpartisan Verified Voting Foundation agrees that post-election auditing is a good idea. But the scholar, Senior Policy Associate C.Jay Coles, worries about the accuracy of ballot-image audits. More on that later.
In mid-June, Lutz wrote to Republican Karen Fann, president of the Arizona Senate, touting his system as “extremely transparent.”
Referring to the Cyber Ninjas audit of 2.1 million ballots in Maricopa County, Lutz wrote: “The hand count of the paper ballots and the count of the ballot images act as a check on each other to ensure a fair and accurate outcome and increase public confidence in the outcome.”
He proposed to do audits of Pima (with Tucson) and Pinal counties as well as Phoenix-home Maricopa, “which combined … would cover about 80% of the electorate. If we add Yavapai, Mohave and Yuma Counties, that will cover 90%.”
Hours later, Fann responded via email: “Thank you Mr. Lutz. I will discuss with the team. I very much appreciate your insight.”
The upshot? Negotiations over hiring Lutz broke down over control of his audit’s final report.
“Essentially, the big stumbling block from our side is the fact that they wanted to make it very secret, and nontransparent,” he said.
Even so, Cyber Ninjas offered Lutz $50,000 to conduct a ballot-image audit, which he declined.
“We would only work directly for the Senate,” he said. “[Cyber Ninjas] had too many restrictions on the result, with no guarantee that they would not shelve it, and we could not invite observers to witness the audit process.”
Fann’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment. Neither did Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs nor Ken Bennett, a former secretary of state Lutz worked with, and other allies, including former Arizona GOP Chairman Randy Pullen and “elections integrity advocate” John Brakey of Audit-USA.
Undaunted by Arizona, Lutz is working to acquire November 2020 ballot images in 27 of Georgia’s 159 counties. He tested AuditEngine in Volusia County, Florida, which includes Daytona Beach. And he says a right-wing legal firm wanted to hire his team to verify results in the top eight counties in Wisconsin.
“They wanted to treat us as a subcontractor, and I can’t do that as a nonprofit,” Lutz said. “If … they use it in a lawsuit, I have violated the mission statement of our charity.”
On July 25, Lutz wrote the county clerk in Dane County, Wisconsin, which includes the heavily Democratic college town of Madison.
“The reason for this letter is to inquire about an inconsistency we have discovered in the ballot image and Cast Vote Record data compared with the official results,” Lutz said. “Let me reassure you that this is only an inconsistency in the data rather than any concern of your official results.”
Lutz said the county website’s official count of ballots cast was 345,645, but the total number of records in the CVRs was 343,322. He said 336,679 unique ballot IDs were found in ballot image archives.
“Ballots cast that are not in the CVR records [total] 2,323,” he added, along with “ballots in CVR records that are not in ballot image archives [number] 6,643” for a total of 8,966 missing ballot images.
On Aug. 26, Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell sent a detailed response.
“We discovered ballot images that were missing from our website that you did not indicate were missing,” he wrote. “An explanation for those missing ballot images is included as well.”
Among other things, he said, poll workers were required to write voter ID numbers on the backs of ballots.
“Without redaction, it would be possible to match a voter with their specific ballot,” McDonnell wrote. “Redaction is a time consuming process due to the number of ballots involved. Currently we are short staffed and dealing with multiple open records requests, marriage licenses, etc. There may be quicker methods to produce a partial image that would include the relevant data.”
The clerk concluded: “The vote totals for each ward were verified at the Dane County recount … last November. The actual ballots represent the election totals, not the images. The single most important security feature is the integrity and retention of the actual cast paper ballots.”
In Volusia — two-thirds up Florida’s east coast — Lutz cited a “very critical concern” involving Omaha-based Election Systems & Software gear. He said ES&S equipment didn’t show 4,904 ballot images.
Even though official results were accurate, he said, the ballot-by-ballot and aggregated figures were different.
Wednesday night, a spokeswoman for ES&S responded by saying her company provides training and standard operating best practices to election officials using its voting systems.
“Additionally, we continually work to update, maintain and enhance our systems to meet the highest levels of voting system security and accuracy,” she said. “ES&S voting systems have been proven successful in thousands of elections and are certified by the EAC and multiple states.”
“The election officials did a really good job,” Lutz said of Volusia. “And I actually went there and gave them a certificate of recognition for doing such a good job.”
But he likens ES&S software to a “rickety old car” with “severe” requirements for checking software. “You know you have to pump the brake and wiggle a lever and stuff … to make it run. … They don’t … give a revision every week like Microsoft likes to do. … They’re using the same software that’s certified by the state years ago. So there are these problems with it.”
Also problematic: ballot image audits.
Coles of Verified Voting — a 34-old former city clerk (and elections supervisor) in Meridian, Idaho — wouldn’t comment specifically on the Lutz audit system but cites a 2020 doctoral dissertation at the University of Michigan that cast doubt on image audits.
In “Election Security is Harder Than You Think,” computer science and engineering student Matthew Bernhard wrote that: “While image audits can help detect human error and aid in adjudicating mismarked ballots, we show that they cannot provide the same level of security assurance as audits of physical ballots.”
Under “adversarial conditions,” he said, ballot images are disconnected from the “actual source of truth”— physical paper ballots —and “do not necessarily provide reliable evidence of the outcome of an election.”
In an experiment called UnclearBallot, Bernhard wrote, a scanning machine’s tabulator was able to change marks on 34% of the 180,000 ballot images in the 2018 election in Clackamas County, Oregon, “while leaving no visible anomalies.”
(UnclearBallot is a play on the company Clear Ballot, which offers a service similar to AuditEngine.)
Coles also notes that no federal agency, including the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, certifies post-election auditors like Lutz.
“There is no such accreditation or certification outside of the EAC,” which has a test laboratory for voting systems and certifies them for state use, he said.
Echoed agency spokeswoman Kristen Muthig: “The EAC does not certify or accredit auditors or auditing systems. Information on the EAC’s testing and certification program, certified voting systems and accredited VSTLs can be found here.”
Coles said he wouldn’t classify what the Cyber Ninjas was doing in Arizona as an audit. (Indeed, Democratic Secretary of State Hobbs calls it a “fraudit.”)
“But if Ray Lutz and his group want to look at the images,” he said, “I would never recommend — unless statute requires — that a post-election audit examine every single ballot… If you ask election administrators across the country how much work that is to do … the costs associated with it, the time and the stress that goes with that — if it’s unnecessary— it’s very daunting.”
Instead Coles favors a “risk-limiting audit,” which begins with random samples of the original paper ballots. (Verified Voting coached Rhode Island and Pennsylvania on how to conduct such audits.)
Under this audit, errors can be caught, he contends.
“If the system says: Yes, you met the risk limit, then the audit is done,” Coles said in a phone interview from Boise, Idaho. “If the system says: No, you did not meet the risk limits, you need to audit more ballots, then you go into a second round. So essentially this audit could go into a full hand recount if it continues to detect certain anomalies between the reported results and what you’re hand-counting essentially.”
Why does Lutz see it necessary to audit an already certified election?
Lutz said it’s about improving the quality of the election systems.
“Legally, the law says that it’s done. … Now should you ever use science to find out if the law is correct? What if the law says that the Earth is in the middle of the solar system? … Should you do science to find out if that’s true? Or just say: I believe the law. The law isn’t always right.”
The website of Lutz’s nonprofit, also known as COPs, archives virtually every communication he’s had. But it doesn’t show his IRS records. Times of San Diego asked for his Form 990, and received one for the 2019 tax year.
Besides himself, he lists four directors — his wife, Jill, sons Austin, 32, and Garrett, 29, and a fellow nonprofit leader — Lakeside native and securities broker Mark Hanson of the Heartland Coalition. (Hanson didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
COPs’ stated mission involves education, training and support of citizen activists, encouraging “increased engagement by the public in the operation of … government to reduce waste, fraud and abuse by public officials.”
It listed net assets of $447,000 in January 2020, with $427,000 as unspecified “miscellaneous revenue.” Via email, Lutz clarified:
In 2019, COPs received intervenor compensation (through the lawsuit over the San Onofre closure costs with Southern California Edison and the CPUC). This compensation has been kept by COPs as a promissory note from me, as I am an engineer and participated in the hearings at the CPUC over the closure of the plant. So these funds are earmarked to be used only to produce accrued value from securities investment, and as needed to fund the development of AuditEngine, with the goal of setting up fundraising to fund it from the public. Then it may be “returned” to me to the extent it can, as I will forgive the rest. I am pretty certain AuditEngine will be self-funding. As of now, I do not collect a salary from COPs, but I spend every waking moment working on it. We have received private donations from a few individuals as well, which is earmarked for election integrity.
Hanson and Lutz’s family members also receive no pay, says the Form 990. (Ray Lutz reported working 50 hours a week, and each of the others an average of one hour a week.)
Lutz chafes at the suggestion he’s fueling the “Stop the Steal” movement.
“I think that’s complete crap,” he said. “The idea that we should not be able to look at the evidence of the election because somebody might feel like it’s enabling them? That is just over-the-top ridiculous.”
In Georgia, he said, it’s likely his audits would confirm the official results.
On Arizona, he added: “I’m not saying that we think that Trump won, or anything like that. But I do think that … you had audits that were insufficient to make people satisfied that the result should be trusted.”
Lutz noted Biden’s 0.31% margin of victory over President Trump in Arizona.
“What should have been done by the Secretary of State was a statewide hand count,” he said. “A full hand count of all the 15 counties, organized by the Secretary of State, not by the Senate. The Secretary of State didn’t do her job. Had she done that, then she would have thwarted any of this stuff going on.”
He doubts supporters of what he called the “Stop the Steal racket” will fund his efforts.
“I’m not asking them for money,” he said. “There are plenty of people that are interested in getting … audits. It’s easy to raise money among hundreds of thousands of voters that are interested in having an additional audit being done.”
One such Lutz appeal is on GoFundMe.
“ROOT OUT ELECTION FRAUD!” is the headline on his drive to raise $50,000.
“CITIZENS’ OVERSIGHT is now introducing the AuditEngine platform for auditing elections, and they need support to audit as many counties as possible in this current election,” says the page created Dec. 12, 2020. “Ballot image auditing reviews all of the ballot images that were originally created when the ballots were scanned at the precinct or when mail-in ballots were scanned. This means that the tabulation can’t be changed by hackers or compromised [by] insiders at election offices.”
He called Citizens’ Oversight a nonpartisan organization “not linked to any campaigns or lawsuits you may have heard about. It is essential that we GET TO THE TRUTH and provide increased voter confidence. Please contribute and put a stop to attempts to thwart the true election outcome.”
As of Wednesday night, Lutz had raised $0.
“Become the first supporter,” the page says. “Your donation matters.”
Updated at 10:08 p.m. Sept. 8, 2021