Runbeck: We did not use AI in 2022 signature review

GOP lawmakers continue to use their power to explore conspiracy theories

By: - July 17, 2023 5:01 pm
early ballots election audits

Both Maricopa County and Runbeck Election Services have promised they did not use artificial intelligence to analyze ballot envelop signatures in the 2022 general election. Photo courtesy Maricopa County Elections Department

Even as court challenges to last year’s election results continue to fail and candidates gear up for another election in Arizona, a Republican-led legislative committee continues to give credence to 2022 election conspiracy theories. 

An attempt by that panel, the Arizona House of Representatives’ Municipal Oversight and Elections Committee, to use the state’s public records law to force a private contractor for the Maricopa County Elections Department hit a brick wall on Monday, as Runbeck Election Services said emphatically that it will not provide a lengthy list of documents and video footage requested by the Republicans who control the committee. 

In a letter to the committee, Runbeck also rebutted claims raised by the Republicans on the panel — and spread routinely on social media by election deniers and conspiracy theorists — that artificial intelligence was used to verify signatures on Maricopa ballots in the 2022 election, echoing previous statements from county officials. 

“We appreciate that this indisputable truth may be politically inconvenient for you and other legislators,” attorney Andy Gaona wrote on behalf of Runbeck in the letter. “But the wonderful thing about the truth is that it has no political agenda or allegiance.”

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Maricopa County contracts with Runbeck to provide elections services, including early ballot and ballot envelope printing and ballot sorting. The company has been the target of election conspiracy theories over the past few years. 

And the elections committees in both chambers of the Arizona Legislature have entertained some of those theories — and their purveyors —  in addition to a multitude of other conspiracy theories over the past six months. 

In failed 2022 Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake’s seemingly unending challenge to last November’s election results, Lake claimed without evidence that more than 35,000 illegal ballots were inserted into the mix with legal ballots at Runbeck’s Phoenix facility. Lake’s lawyer’s were sanctioned by the Arizona Supreme Court for making those false claims. 

Runbeck’s letter to the House Elections Committee was in response to a public records request that the committee Chairwoman Jacqueline Parker and Vice Chairman Alexander Kolodin sent to Runbeck on June 27. 

In the request, the GOP representatives wrote that they were surprised to hear that Maricopa County had used a Runbeck program called Verus Pro that utilized artificial intelligence to sort ballot envelope signatures following the 2022 general election. County officials had previously said that artificial intelligence wasn’t used to evaluate those signatures. 

In its response, Runbeck explained that the county did use the Verus Pro application in 2022, but did not utilize any function that used artificial intelligence. The county instead used the program only to detect whether there was a signature on the envelope, not to determine the quality or veracity of the signature. 

“It does so by counting the number of pixels in the image of the signature box that are determined to have been marked and through simple division calculates a ratio of marked pixels to unmarked pixels in the box,” Runbeck wrote in its response. “It then compares this ratio to a predetermined threshold ratio to determine whether a signature is present or not. There is no artificial intelligence involved in this determination.”

In its June 27 records request, the committee also asked Runbeck for a lengthy list of documents and video footage, including any correspondence about Verus Pro and any emails containing the words “artificial intelligence” and “signature verification.” 

The committee asked for copies of the surveillance footage from the Runbeck facility that was recorded from the time it printed the first ballot packet for the 2022 general election in Maricopa County through the date of the election’s certification. 

The committee also asked Runbeck for copies of all transfer logs between Runbeck and Maricopa County for voted ballots, in addition to multiple other ballot-tracking logs. The committee gave Runbeck a deadline of July 27 to fulfill the public records request. 

The conservative group, We the People Az Alliance, previously asked for the same footage from Runbeck via a public records request that is now at the center of an ongoing court case, after Runbeck, saying that it is a private business and therefore not subject to public records requests, refused to supply the footage. We the People Az Alliance, represented by Bryan Blehm, one of Lake’s lawyers who was sanctioned by the Arizona Supreme Court for making false assertions about the illegal ballots in Lake’s election challenge suit, filed a lawsuit hoping to force Runbeck to turn over the records. 

Shelby Busch, chairman of We the People Az Alliance, has given presentations to the election committees in both the Arizona House and Senate touting her theories about issues in the 2020 and 2022 elections in Maricopa County. She was also one of Lake’s witnesses in her election challenge trial and was a strong proponent of the partisan “audit” of the 2020 presidential election in Maricopa County. 

In its response, Runbeck wrote that many of the records that the committee requested, excluding the video footage, were readily available through Maricopa County, a government entity that is indisputably subject to public records law. 

“Your decision to submit a public records request to a private corporation not subject to the public records law rather than submitting the same request to a public body subject to the public records law is baffling,” Gaona wrote in Runbeck’s response to Parker and Kolodin. 

***CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct outdated information in the photo caption. 

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Caitlin Sievers
Caitlin Sievers

Caitlin joined the Arizona Mirror in 2022 with almost 10 years of experience as a reporter and editor, holding local government leaders accountable from newsrooms across the West and Midwest. She's won statewide awards in Nebraska, Indiana and Wisconsin for reporting, photography and commentary.

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