‘Time to Get Out’: Arizona’s Election Security Chief Quits Over Threats and Conspiracies

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A supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump holds a sign at a “Stop the Steal” protest as President-elect Joe Biden is declared the winner of the U.S. presidential election, in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S., on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020. 

Ken Matta helped run elections in the Arizona secretary of state’s office for more than 19 years. For the last six, he was head of election security. As of last week, Matta was gone: He took a job in the private sector, leaving behind an election administration system under threat. 

Arizona is ground zero for stolen-election lies operationalized. Republicans launched an “audit” that became a symbol of voting conspiracies and made the Cyber Ninjas a household name. They transformed former President Donald Trump’s attacks into a draconian new round of election subversions. They even asked voters to be willing to die to defend the “stolen election.”

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Matta told the world he’s leaving his job and decried the handover of election integrity to politicians and TV pundits, many of whom have a vested interest in destroying it. We chatted this week, and his warnings about basic election integrity and the future of democracy are dire. Our conversation has been edited for length.

You announced to the world just the other day that you’re leaving your longtime job running elections in Arizona. Why’d you leave?

KEN MATTA: I had a great offer from a great company. It was really hard to pass up. But in this environment, it’s a perfect time to get out of elections. A lot of people are fleeing because right now it’s a caustic and dangerous work environment.

That’s a little scary. What do you mean? 

Right now with the threats, the hostility, the public bashing of election workers and election officers based on misinformation, disinformation, and mal-information, it’s tough to stay. The job is fairly thankless anyway; we only get bad press. 

Actually, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis praised his state’s clean and secure election in 2020 before turning around and pushing a bunch of voting restrictions in the name of election integrity. 

Oh, really? I’d missed that. But these people never signed up to be harassed. They never signed up to be answering these horrible, harassing phone calls and emails and texts. In my part of the industry, we’re career people. None of us would have ever assumed we’d be doing that for a job.

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What kind of harassment did you experience?

Working out of the Arizona secretary of state’s office, you can imagine we got hit pretty hard. Just mean abuse, horrible and harassing language. Just hundreds of them. For a while there, a good part of my day was just listening to these horrible messages.

I started carrying a gun. When they started sending me to the partisan review in Maricopa County, what some people call an “audit,” as I’m driving through, there’s people out front with full autos and assault rifles. They’re looking in our cars, they’re seeing who’s going in and who’s going out. I decided I was going to start carrying. I have a concealed-carry permit in Arizona. 

Arizona has earned a reputation as, like, a top-three election conspiracy fever swamp. I guess a delirium desert? In an institution like yours, that’s got to be jarring. 

Trump attacks the election on election night, and your heart just sinks. Then it was one thing after another. When we found out that the partisan review of Maricopa County was going to happen, that was just one of those gotcha moments, like, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” People have been perfecting election security for hundreds of years. Our election rules in Arizona are covered in a statute called Title 16. It’s a thick, heavy book. There are hundreds, thousands of rules, policies, procedures, audit systems and security steps, built in. 

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So when somebody tells you that 20,000 Chinese ballots with bamboo have been injected into the system, anybody who knows elections would know that’s ridiculous. We have checks for that. We have audits for that. It just could not happen.

But there’s an entire political movement based on the fantasy that it did happen. You’re leaving, you describe many others leaving, and the question becomes, who replaces you? 

A lot of the people coming in to take those empty spots are going to be election deniers or conspiracy theorists. We have a lot of concerns about their entry into the process. This is really important: In the elections community, I can still say everybody is on board with the rules-based integrity of their jobs and the importance of elections. I can say I’d still trust my vote to any of these people. That will not continue to be true, starting in 2022 and definitely in 2024. It’s just impossible for that to remain true nationally.

It’s important for authoritarians to destroy faith in institutions, especially those that hold any influence or authority: academia, news media, scientific experts, election administrators. It sounds like your warning about that is fairly desperate. 

You know, I see that happening here. This is how democracy is done. This is about our country, and the sustainability of our country. I look around at other countries that have lost faith in their election process. We don’t want to be there. We need to wake up.

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I don’t know if you noticed, but (Arizona GOP chair and Cyber Ninjas “audit” champion) Kelli Ward is getting into NFTs.

Really? We’re seeing that everywhere. “Hey, the election was stolen and they’re trying to silence me. Buy a pillow!

Sign your friends up for Breaking the Vote before buying that pillow! You’ll sleep way better. 

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T.W.I.S.™ Notes

If you haven’t heard what happened This Week in Subpoenas, thank you for now being, uh, served. The January 6 committee finally ended the will-they-or-won’t-they and subpoenaed House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy and five other GOP lawmakers known to have participated in some aspect of the coup attempt, or to have spoken to Trump about his plans or reactions, or both. 

Committee Chair Rep. Benny Thompson pointed out that each of the lawmakers had been invited to appear voluntarily, and each had refused. Based on what’s already in the committee’s hands and in the public record, they’re hiding plenty: Rep. Jim Jordan spoke to Trump on Jan. 6 (this clip, forever) and texted with Mark Meadows and others about how to overturn the election; Rep. Scott Perry sat in on meetings where acolytes lobbied Trump on seizing voting machines, and also tried to help Trump turn the DOJ into his personal coup operation. Reps. Andy Biggs and Mo Brooks got subpoenas too. Brooks told the Jan. 6 morning-rally crowd that it was the day for them to start “kicking ass,” then fell out with Trump and revealed how Trump tried to get Brooks to remove President Biden and call a special electron to return Trump to the White House. 

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The reality here is that these lawmakers, already deep in the cover-up of the insurrection and coup attempt, likely won’t honor their subpoenas. It’s unclear if the committee would try to enforce shirked subpoenas with contempt referrals, or if  Attorney General Merrick Garland would ever enforce them by charging members of Congress with contempt. McCarthy is on tape lamenting Trump’s culpability in the riot and gaming out Trump’s resignation. He later lied about it. He also openly threatened political retribution against those who cooperate in finding out the truth. 

McCarthy said again yesterday that the committee is “not conducting a legitimate investigation.” Nevermind that multiple federal judges, including Trump-appointed ones, have already thrown out that argument. But he also didn’t outright say he won’t comply.

 It’s a huge, unprecedented step for the committee to subpoena sitting members of Congress. Some have pointed out that subpoenaing McCarthy all but guarantees retribution against some high-ranking Democrats if and when McCarthy becomes speaker. That’s likely true. But it’s cautionary only in the sense that it predicts how willingly the likely next Speaker of the House will use his office to punish Trump’s enemies. And how voraciously his party demands a cover-up.

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Eastman’s side hustle

Lawyer and coup conjurer John Eastman had some brand-new emails outed, this time showing that his end of the plot ran way deeper than previously known. Yes, Eastman is already under subpoena for his role in trying to pressure Vice President Mike Pence into rejecting electors. Now we know he also spent early December 2020 advising state lawmakers on how to nullify votes for Joe Biden to justify fake electors for Trump. 

The emails come from Eastman’s time at the University of Colorado, before the Pence pressure campaign happened. UC is a public school, so the government transparency group Colorado Ethics Institute was able to get them via public records requests. They show Eastman having trouble getting his in-flight WiFi reimbursed but also scheming with Pennsylvania GOP legislator Russ Diamond to declare mail-in ballots for Biden invalid, and provide “cover” for Republicans in the state assembly to nullify Biden’s electors and replace them with Trump’s. 

This shows that Eastman’s election subversion activities went well beyond trying to get Pence to reverse the election on the floor of the House of Representatives on Jan. 6. But, as the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent noticed, it also points to an extremely dangerous strategy for 2024. Eastman isn’t alone in his right-wing opinion that state legislatures have the “authority” to override voters and appoint the electors they want. And with all the acolytes and stolen-election conspiracists Trump is trying to install in the states, why wouldn’t they? 

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Meanwhile, House Democrats urged a federal judge not to let area podcaster and high-value subpoena target Steve Bannon off the hook for contempt of Congress. Bannon is trying to wriggle out of his two-count felony trial, which is due to start in July.

As for the public January 6 hearings due to start next month… there are, as they say, tapes.

What’s all that racket? 

Normally, there would be comfortably little to learn about a former President of the United States from the local prosecution of a famous rapper. But you, BtV reader, scoff at “normally.” Which brings us to rap star Young Thug, and Donald Trump, old thug. 

Young Thug, aka Jeffrey Lamar Williams, was arrested this week and charged with dozens of others in a sprawling, 56-count indictment. That has nothing to do with Trump. But the prosecutor–Fulton County DA Fani Wills–and the Georgia racketeering statute she’s using to charge him, sure do. 

VICE News’ Greg Walters and Trone Dowd take it from here with the story of why Willis’ mastery of racketeering cases like Young Thug’s may point to how she plans to go after Trump for his attempts to subvert Georgia’s election.

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Lie, rinse, repeat

“I watch One America News. It’s on in the background as we speak,” Indiana resident Derrick Risner told VICE News Tonight’s Alexis Johnson late last year when she asked why he’d threatened a Georgia election worker after the 2020 election.

After spending months amping up Trumpists on conspiracy theories and inciting threats against Georgia election workers, One America News Network has this final thought about a stolen 2020: Never mind!

The right-wing propaganda channel this week ran a pre-recorded segment in which it admitted there was “no widespread voter fraud” in 2020, and that two election workers it and Trump singled out for intimidation were innocent. The segment appeared to be part of a settlement between OANN and Fulton County election workers Ruby Freeman and Wandrea “Shaye” Moss. Donald Trump was not named in the suit. 

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Reminisce about how OANN helped Trump make the women targets for racist harrassment and drove them into hiding in 2020 and 2021. Then snap back to the reality that OANN and Trump’s harassment campaign reached millions of angry people, while the channel’s admission it was all lies will reach few. Just the cost of doing dirty business. 

Rampant voter fraud unlike we’ve ever seen

More news from our ongoing coverage of the Election Integrity wing of American democracy. Two Republican staffers in Pennsylvania were fired for running a possible ballot-harvesting scheme in South Philadelphia. Seems Shamus O’Donnell and C.J. Parker tried to divert voters’ mail-in ballot applications to a P.O. box controlled by a Republican PAC. 

Naturally, this comes as Pennsylvania Republicans prepare to nominate state Sen. Doug Mastriano for governor in next week’s primary. Mastriano, a Jan. 6 attendee and Christian nationalist Trumpist, promises to ban mail-in voting and force millions of PA voters to re-register. But he’s also promising much more: Mastriano has made clear he believes that the (GOP-controlled) state Legislature has the sole authority to appoint whatever electors it chooses, regardless of who voters select. What he’s offering is the near-guarantee that no Democrat can get PA’s electoral votes, even if they win the state. 

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Wrong and bad

Elon Musk said this week he’d welcome Trump back on the platform if (big if) Musk completes his $44 billion proposed purchase of the platform.

What he plans to do with actual content moderation and civic standards is—shocker—still unclear. This week Musk made exceptions to his “free speech” absolutism, suggesting tweets that are “wrong and bad” or “destructive to the world” could merit enforcement. But online disinfo experts worried about social media’s impact on democracy are unimpressed. 

Yosef Getachew, director of the media and democracy program at the advocacy group Common Cause, told me a “wrong and bad” standardapplied to individuals doesn’t mean much. Jan. 6 “wasn’t one or two tweets here or there. It was a massive coordination from numerous organizations,” he said. “You have to have policies that prohibit coordinated efforts to use platforms to incite violence or spread information that leads to the loss of individuals’ right to vote.”

Common Cause and about 120 progressive groups appealed to Twitter, Facebook, and all the big social media companies this week to do more to protect democracy with better content enforcement and standards.  

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Wronger and badder 

I mean me. Last week I erroneously said the right-wing social media platform Parler was defunct. It was off the internet for a time, but Parler is very much online and very much still a cesspool of racism and disinformation. As penance, I plan to spend a day on Parler. 

Roe to nowhere

This week VICE News Tonight’s Liz Landers sat down with law professor and author Victoria Nourse to find out how the Supreme Court’s imminent decision on abortion rights reflects a damaged democracy. 

EMBED VNT VIDEO PIECE HERE  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8438ZX_Xr9M

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“Given the events of Jan. 6, given how he has undermined the election results, he incited people to come to D.C., stirred them up that morning, and failed to call them off. To me, that threatens our democracy… what else can you conclude?” – Former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, asked on Fox News if Donald Trump, his former boss, is a threat to democracy. 

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Peters PannedTina Peters will have one less accomplishment to add to her resumé. The county clerk in Mesa County, Colorado, is still an indicted alleged felon, a password-leaking election conspiracist, and a candidate for Colorado secretary of state. But she won’t be running the 2022 election in her county, a judge ruled this week. Peters is still county clerk, since that’s an elected position. But the judge agreed with officials that she should be kept the heck away from administering the next election. 

Peters is facing two separate arraignments on May 24: one for her multiple election-related fraud charges, and one for obstruction in a separate case where she allegedly recorded a court proceeding after a judge told her not to. 

Peters has been barred from traveling out of state, though she did get permission to make a trip to Mar-a-Lago for a showing of right-wing propagandist Dinesh D’Souza’s 2000 Mules

DonkeyCon — BTW, someone watched 2000 Mules so you don’t have to.

Crypto Cashist — VICE News’ David Gilbert has the latest on Arizona GOP Chairwoman Kelli Ward’s well-timed foray into NFTs. Ward is offering credulous rubes discerning Web3 aficionados a chance to pay for a digital piece of election bullshit history. Ward was one of the main pushers of the Maricopa County recount, and the infamous Cyber Ninjas… thing. Also, the Cyber Ninjas still owe subcontractors and vendors a metric ton of money.  

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We’re in danger of losing our democracy. Most Americans are in denial. WASHINGTON POST 

How politics poisoned the Evangelical church. THE ATLANTIC 

Youth are watching: Adolescents’ sociopolitical development in the Trump era. PSYPOST