Where the Cyber Ninjas tried to prove Donald Trump won the 2020 election and immediately faceplanted, a crowdsourced effort named Polaris Recount is bravely charging ahead. Unsurprisingly, given the complete and total lack of evidence that such fraud actually occurred during the race, history is repeating itself.
According to Vice, diehard Trump supporters are still volunteering to comb through ballots for Polaris, continuing their endless quest to demonstrate that such sinister things as smudges on ballots or sloppy digitization are proof of widespread Democratic voter fraud. With Polaris, amateur ballot fraud detectives can volunteer to comb through digitized ballot images for signs of election irregularities. The system comes complete with leaderboards tracking how many ballots each “citizen adjudicator” has reviewed.
Jeff O’Donnell, a Florida businessman who set up Polaris in November 2021, told Vice the system has 1,000 volunteers so far, with the all-time leader clocking in at over 3,400 ballots: “The people who start doing it, they become rabid, they become addicted.” He added that Polaris is now a full-time project for him. While O’Donnell claims to be non-partisan and that his platform is open to anyone, an earlier version of the prompt displayed to newly registered Polaris users asked them to certify they believe there was a “high probability” of fraud in the 2020 general election. It went on to ask them to agree “that numerous races, including the Presidential race, are likely to have been wrongly certified.”
O’Donnell has appeared on a live stream with MyPillow founder Mike Lindell to promote pro-Trump election fraud hoaxes. According to Vice, another individual involved with the Polaris project is Draza Smith, a self-declared fraud expert who has promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory, as well as anti-Semitic rants about the wealthy Rothschild family on Instagram.
In this sense, they’re following the spirit of the Cyber Ninjas, the now-defunct political firm with a conspiratorial bent that became the laughingstock of a Republican-led “audit” of Joe Biden’s victory in Maricopa County, Arizona. (For one, both efforts involved QAnon aficionados.) But because they don’t have physical access to the ballots in question, Polaris users can’t replicate classic Cyber Ninja techniques like using microscopes to search for traces of nefarious Chinese bamboo or exposing them to UV light in search of imaginary watermarks. So they appear to be grasping at even thinner straws than their forefathers.
For example, Vice reported that O’Donnell declared that corpses might have voted in Wisconsin last year, telling state lawmakers, “The thing that caught the eye is that there are nine [voters] that have been registered for more than 120 years, and 119,283 that have been registered between 110 and 119 years.” While the claim was touted by Trump spokesperson Liz Harrington, according to the Washington Post, the truth is far more banal. Wisconsin officials have already explained that when they created a statewide voter registration system, around 120,000 records from around the state didn’t contain dates of birth or registration. So by default, those records were assigned birth dates of Jan. 1, 1900, and a voter registration date of Jan. 1, 1918. Just 3,700 of those default records were still active.
The ballots that show up in Polaris, O’Donnell told Vice, are sent in by like-minded individuals. According to a guide posted to the Polaris website, upon the submission of a batch of ballot images, an administrator is assigned to “manage all aspects of the digital recount.” At least two Polaris users review each ballot and judge it as either legitimate or irregular, with a third reviewer serving as a tiebreaker if they disagree. It’s unclear how O’Donnell verifies these batches of ballots are real and unmodified, though the guide mentions Freedom of Information Act and public records requests in states which allow members of the public to request ballot images. The guide goes on to advise contacting the “County Sherriff” [sic] if officials are uncooperative.
“When the Polaris system becomes widely publicized, interested citizens will be able to indicate their willingness to help with your county via an in-site messaging capability,” the guide states. “You will hopefully get many volunteers in this fashion.”
While the Polaris Recount website claims that the counties themselves are seeking auditors and characterizes its signup system as a notification to county administrators, we registered an account and immediately received a confirmation email from an account identifying itself as “Lone Raccoon.” The training video for new users is just three minutes and thirty seconds, telling the amateur adjudicators to alert Polaris to such irregularities as voters choosing multiple candidates, ink smears, tears, fold lines, or slight tilts in the scan. The video congratulates volunteers for “their willingness to not only fix the 2020 election, but to secure fair elections in the future,” and ends by displaying a graphic of a raccoon with the caption “I am the lone raccoon of the apocalypse here to consume the deep state trash”.
David Stafford, a Republican election official in Escambia County, Florida, told Vice that at best Polaris is replicating the kind of third-party software that is widely used to independently audit scanned ballots. In Florida, Stafford said, the final comparison is done during a “canvassing board meeting open to the public” which is also “governed by Florida statutes and administrative rules.” Obviously, this works better when it’s random partisans doing the work. Or not: O’Donnell told Vice that “four or five” Polaris volunteers have already been banned, in at least two cases for deliberately submitting false reviews of ballots.
O’Donnell said that Polaris volunteers have completed the review of the 2020 vote in Harding County, New Mexico. In a report on the Polaris website, Polaris claimed to have found that six out of 504 ballots were mistakenly counted for Trump or Biden (three each). The report boldly asserted confidence this could mean “hundreds or even thousands of falsified votes could exist in larger counties,” or that election fraudsters could have tallied up “totally blank ballots.”
“They are seriously oversimplifying ballot counting, recounting, and auditing, and not taking any nuance to the process into consideration,” election consultant Michelle Shafer, who previously worked as a spokesperson for voting machine firm Hart Intercivic, told Vice. “I don’t see where they could have any actual legitimacy; it’s just more noise. States and local jurisdictions have laws and procedures that apply to recounts and audits and how they are conducted.”
“... These individuals who do not appear to have any background in election administration are seriously oversimplifying this huge effort,” Shafer added.
Polaris obviously isn’t going to change who’s president, but its very existence highlights the continued revanchism of hardcore Republicans who view any vote not cast for Trump as inherently suspicious. More troubling are efforts by the far-right wing of the GOP to place allies in key electoral oversight roles across the county, ranging from volunteer poll-watching roles, canvassing boards, and paid precinct judges to elected county clerks and attorneys general. Trump’s BS claims of voter fraud didn’t work in large part because state and local election officials resisted pressure to intervene on his behalf. It looks an awful lot like his supporters are hoping that by flipping those roles to Trump loyalists, the future equivalents of the Cyber Ninjas and Polaris adjudicators will be in a position to cast doubt on ballots before they’re certified.
Gizmodo contacted Polaris via the support email listed on its website for comment. We didn’t receive a response, we’ll update this post when we hear back.