An extensive effort to recount ballots from the November election moved forward in Phoenix Friday as a private vendor hired by Republicans in the Arizona state Senate began reviewing nearly 2.1 million ballots cast in the state’s largest county.

The recount of the ballots from Maricopa County was sought by Senate Republicans to examine unsubstantiated claims that fraud or errors tainted President Joe Biden’s win.

Election officials and the courts have found no merit to such allegations, and the GOP-led county board of supervisors has objected to the recount.

After state Democrats filed a lawsuit this week to halt the proceedings, an Arizona judge on Friday ordered that the recount be paused for the weekend to consider their allegations that the process violates state laws governing the security of ballots.

However, he required that the Democratic Party post a $1 million bond to cover potential costs of a delay. On Friday afternoon, the state party said it would not put up the money, meaning the recount is on track to press ahead.

Earlier this week, Senate Republicans exercised a subpoena to move voting equipment and ballots from county storage to the floor of the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum, where they have said a team of private companies will spend the next four weeks conducting a hand recount of ballots and a forensic audit of voting machines.

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Senate leaders have said the process is intended only to explore ways to improve the state’s elections, rather than to cast doubt on Biden’s 10,457-vote victory in Arizona over Donald Trump.

But the recount has come under sharp criticism from election observers, voting rights advocates and Democrats, who have said it lacks independent oversight and could be used to further baseless claims about the 2020 election.

GOP senators have handed over management and funding of the quasi-public process to a private cybersecurity firm from Florida called Cyber Ninjas, whose chief executive has echoed false claims about fraud in the election.

And allies of Trump have not been shy about their hope that the audit will turn up new ammunition they can use to attack the results of last fall’s vote.

“I believe that a proper audit will show that the election results were fraudulent,” lawyer Lin Wood, who filed a number of unsuccessful legal challenges to the November election, said in an interview Friday. “I think that’s in the best interest of our nation and will hopefully lead to other states also doing proper audits.”

Trump himself praised the effort in a statement Friday, thanking the Arizona GOP lawmakers “for the incredible job they are doing in exposing the large scale Voter Fraud.”

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“I predict the results will be startling!” he added.

The lawsuit filed by the state Democratic Party and the county’s only Democratic supervisor argued that the audit violates Arizona rules governing the confidentiality and security of ballots and voting equipment.

“The lack of transparency around this ‘audit’ is astounding and we will not stand idly by as Senate President [Karen] Fann opens up our secure election to unqualified and completely unhinged actors who believe the ‘big lie,’ ” Raquel Terán, chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, said in a statement before the ruling. “This has gone far enough and we are hopeful that the courts will put an end to this embarrassing and dangerous circus.”

In court Friday, Kory Langhofer, a lawyer for the Senate president, argued that Arizona’s constitution gives lawmakers immunity from civil litigation during the state’s legislative session, which is now underway. He added that the Democratic Party does not have standing to ask a judge to dictate to the legislature how it should conduct an investigation to help it decide whether to pass new laws. And he said the audit will comply with Arizona laws governing ballot security.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Christopher Coury expressed concern about the process, however, particularly after Roopali Desai, an attorney representing the Democratic Party, noted that a reporter for the Arizona Republic had tweeted that she had observed audit workers using blue ink pens as the process got underway Friday morning.

State law requires that only pens with red ink be used in election reviews because optical scanners recognize both blue and black ink, and stray marks could affect the count.

Coury ordered that the state Senate and Cyber Ninjas file written documentation of the procedures being followed during the audit so he can review them for compliance with state law. And he ordered that audit workers comply with all relevant laws – including that they use only red ink.

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In response to Coury’s bond requirement, Desai said later that the party was not willing to risk turning over $1 million to “a group of conspiracy theorists running a sham audit.” She said she was pleased the judge had ordered the Senate to make public the procedures that will govern its process.

Langhofer said the Senate viewed the order as an attempt by the judiciary to inappropriately manage the work of the legislature and would appeal.

The Arizona recount and audit come as Republicans nationally push new legislation that would tighten voting rules and as polls show that a majority of GOP voters believe Biden won the election through fraud. Trump, now ensconced at his private club in Florida, continues to insist that the election was stolen from him, though his loss was confirmed through multiple recounts, and dozens of judges rejected challenges to Biden’s win.

A live stream of the Arizona audit – showing footage from nine continuously operated cameras offering different views of the arena – is being provided by One America News, a right-leaning news outlet that has featured claims that the November election was fraudulent.

Trump supporters, including Wood, have been raising private donations to supplement the $150,000 in taxpayer money that Senate leaders agreed to spend for the audit.

Biden’s win in Maricopa County was previously confirmed through a number of other reviews, including a hand recount of a sample of ballots conducted jointly by both political parties, as well as a forensic audit conducted by federally accredited labs that was ordered by the county and concluded in February.

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The results were certified by a unanimous vote of the five-member county board of supervisors, which includes four Republicans. Gov. Doug Ducey (R) has said he believes the state’s November election was a model of integrity.

But other party leaders have backed Trump’s attacks on the results in a state that has traditionally been a Republican stronghold.

Fann has referred questions about the audit to Cyber Ninjas chief executive Doug Logan and Ken Bennett, a Republican former secretary of state who volunteered to act as a spokesman for the effort.

During a news briefing Thursday evening, Logan and Bennett said their goal was to restore confidence in the accuracy of the election. They said that cameras installed by Cyber Ninjas will document each phase of the counting process and provide transparency and accountability.

“If we go through here and we don’t find any fraud, I’m going to be ecstatic,” Logan said. “If we go through here and we find fraud, I want to fix it.”

The briefing grew contentious at times as reporters pressed them on a long list of unanswered questions. Logan, for instance, said he did not know how much the audit will cost in total, what percentage of the funds are coming from private donors or who has contributed to the effort.

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OAN host Christina Bobb, a lawyer who volunteered on behalf of Trump’s election challenges last year, has been raising money through Twitter to support the audit.

Logan said the ballots will be handled by employees of a subcontractor, a Pennsylvania-based company called Wake Technology Services, which he said has drawn from a pool of retirees to perform the recount. But he provided little information about their training or backgrounds.

Bennett said volunteer observers had also been recruited to monitor the process. He said he had hoped they would be bipartisan, but he acknowledged that as of last week, about 70 percent of those who offered to assist were Republicans.

A spokesman for the state Democratic Party said it would not send formal observers to what it considers a sham process. A spokeswoman for Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D), whose office is in charge of state elections, said Friday that Bennett and the private auditors had not responded to a request from the state’s elections director to allow independent experts, including from the secretary’s office, to observe.

On Wednesday, a group of 20 voting rights advocates and election experts sent Fann a letter expressing concern about the lack of access for independent and expert observers. The signatories included the chief executive of the Carter Center, which has traditionally monitored elections overseas.

Logan also refused to answer questions about his own views of the election, saying only that they did not bear on the accuracy and transparency of the process he was leading.

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The Cyber Ninjas chief executive has ties to several figures who played leading roles in attempting to subvert the 2020 election results.

Logan has confirmed that he authored a document titled “Election Fraud Facts & Details” that was posted on the website of Sidney Powell, another pro-Trump lawyer who filed challenges to the election and who appeared at a November news conference with Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph Giuliani.

The document asserted that Dominion Voting Systems, which provides tabulating machines in Maricopa and elsewhere, had connections to Venezuela and that the company’s equipment is vulnerable to hacking by foreign powers. Dominion has said such claims are false and has sued a number of Trump allies who made similar assertions.

Logan has said he prepared the document for use by U.S. senators who sought to challenge the election results when Congress formally counted the electoral college ballots on Jan. 6.

Logan also has worked with Wood, who said in an interview that he met Logan when the Cyber Ninjas executive was doing work related to the election with Powell’s team. He said Logan investigated security issues he was having with his foundation’s website. “He’s a talented young man and a Christian,” Wood said.

Wood said that his foundation had donated $50,000 to the group Bobb founded to fund the Arizona audit and that he had encouraged his followers to contribute as well. The donation was first reported by Talking Points Memo.

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He said he was “100 percent confident” that the audit, “if conducted objectively,” would produce signs of fraud. “Donald Trump won the election,” he said.

In an email, Powell said that she and Wood “met Mr. Logan at the same time and place we were working for a short time.”

She added: “I had several brief conversations with [Logan] about computer issues. I believe him to be an honest and honorable man whose only interest is in finding the truth.”Bennett has said Logan’s personal views are inconsequential to the process.

“It doesn’t matter to me whether an auditor has some skepticism,” he said in an interview last week, adding, “We’re going to make sure they use processes that are fair and transparent and reflect the auditing of the ballots and not what their opinions are.”

Unlike with most government-led recounts, reporters seeking to observe the process have been told they have to abide by strict restrictions.

Bennett said Thursday that journalists wishing to observe would be required to sign up to work a six-hour shift as an official audit observer and would not be allowed access to any recording device – even paper and pencil – to document what they saw.

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On Friday, a reporter for The Washington Post who had not signed up for a shift was escorted from the arena grounds by private security.

In a letter to Fann sent late Thursday, a lawyer for Arizona news organizations said those rules required journalists to become “active participants in the events on which they seek to report,” calling the requirement “as unprecedented as it is untenable in a representative democracy.”

The letter complained that the rules appeared different for OAN, a favored Trump network.

Bennett said in a text that OAN was not being given preferential treatment but confirmed that the network had “offered to facilitate” the event’s live stream, that the Senate agreed the feed would be made “universally available” and that no monetary compensation was involved.

The network has posted a link on its homepage to the cameras and promised “exclusive, live” coverage of what it has termed the “historic Arizona elections audit.”

Enthusiasm about the Arizona recount has been building among Trump supporters.

On Wednesday, former White House adviser Stephen Bannon interviewed on his podcast a Republican member of the Arizona legislature, who gave Bannon and his viewers a tour of the facility where ballots would be counted.

“Everyone should understand, we’re at the top of the first inning on this,” Bannon said. “We can’t go forward until we find out what happened on Nov. 3.”

Jimmy Magahern in Phoenix contributed to this report.