PHOENIX — It’s not as if Q is spinning ballots around on turntables or waving them under ultraviolet lights. But Q is definitely at work on the floor of Veterans Memorial Coliseum where all 2.1 million general election ballots cast in Arizona’s most populous county are being audited.

Q’s influence is not obvious, perhaps as cryptic as Q’s postings that claimed the looming takedown of a global cabal, words that spawned the wide-ranging QAnon conspiracy theory

Q is in the thoughts of those standing in 100-plus-degree heat outside the Phoenix arena where the audit is taking place, cheering on the work inside. Q is the reason ultraviolet lights were briefly employed as part of the audit. Q has provided a sustaining energy atypical for supporters of a losing candidate.

Q has been in the background in the aftermath of Election Day, when devotees joined the crowd who rallied outside Maricopa County’s election headquarters, aiming to stop the stealing of the election they were certain was happening inside.

Q followers barraged elected officials with pleas for this audit. And when Republican leaders in the state Senate ordered the audit, they hired a company whose CEO had shared QAnon-related messaging on social media. 

Since 2017, Q had guided followers to expect former President Donald Trump to save the world from a secretive cabal of sex trafficking and pedophile government officials before he left office.

Q followers are now focused on another fantastical possibility: overturning the 2020 presidential election and returning Trump to the White House.

The audit, they say, will prove widespread election fraud here that will lead other states to examine their results, a theory they summarize by saying that Arizona will be “the first domino to fall.”

The senators who ordered this audit say it is not intended to overturn the election results or lead to Arizona reversing the certification of its electoral votes for President Joe Biden.

But much of what has happened here has seemingly spiraled out of their control, under the leadership of Doug Logan, CEO of Cyber Ninjas. Before being hired for the audit, Logan had regularly posted theories and thoughts about the election being stolen to his Twitter account.

The Senate is paying Cyber Ninjas only a small portion of what the audit will cost. No one will say where the rest is coming from. But major funding appears to be coming from Trump extremists such as Q believer Lin Wood.

The November election results turned the reliably red Arizona into a battleground purple state, with voters showing a preference for Biden over Trump and electing Mark Kelly a U.S. senator, putting both of Arizona’s Senate seats into the Democratic column.

But since the audit began, Arizona has become the focal point for right-wing extremists, including QAnon followers, across the world.

The audit has served to buoy the spirits of some QAnon followers who had lost hope after Trump’s defeat.

“This is the best I’ve felt since the election,” said Dave Hayes of Gilbert, who under the name Praying Medic has authored two books about QAnon since 2020. Hayes was a guest May 10 on a QAnon-focused talk show broadcast over the internet.

Maricopa County Supervisor Bill Gates, a Republican, said he knows just a small sliver of his constituents support this audit but that outside forces with growing extreme views have had their voices amplified. 

“It’s this radicalization that continues to expand that makes me want to speak up (against the audit),” Gates said. “I hate to use the term ‘last stand,’ but as a Republican, if we don’t speak out at this point, when are we going to do it?”

‘The audit is The Great Awakening’

The wide-ranging QAnon theory, at its core, believes a high-level government agent with Q-level security clearance has been writing cryptically since 2017 about the real goings-on in the government. Given the lack of specificity, the posts became a real-life riddle with followers debating what the writings meant.

Q has quieted after the election, but the silence only allowed new theories to take root among believers.

The army of devotees, who call themselves “digital warriors,” stopped parsing Q’s writings and waiting for happenings, and instead started to research how the election was conducted and share theories of how it might have been corrupted.

QAnon followers have coalesced around a theory that the audit itself would trigger the major event long prophesied by Q. Some follow every development of the audit on channels devoted to it on Telegram, a messaging application that has grown in popularity as Facebook and Twitter have culled users who post disinformation. 

“The audit is The Great Awakening in how we’ve been manipulated by those that want to control us,” Just Stan wrote June 2 on the Arizona Audit Watch Chat channel.

Another user, Pepe Lives Matter, posted to Telegram on Wednesday that the audit was always part of Q’s foretold plan, as it would prevent corrupt officials from rigging future elections. 

“The plan is 117 percent still on track and there’s no reason to be worried,” the person wrote. Q adherents attach significance to the number 17 as Q is numerically the 17th letter of the alphabet.

Gail Golic, who serves on the precinct committee for her Scottsdale legislative district, and who has talked in speeches and videos about being in touch with state lawmakers regarding the audit, has posted versions of the Q phrase “great awakening” on both her Twitter and Telegram accounts.

“The Great Awakening Is Upon Us!” Golic wrote on her Twitter page on Tuesday.

Golic told viewers on YouTube that she had stopped working as a real estate agent and was instead devoting herself full time to investigating election fraud. She said on the video she was living off unemployment and donations she solicited through her social media channels.

Reached by phone on Thursday, Golic said she did not have time for an interview as she was at the airport about to board a flight to New Hampshire. She was one of the scheduled speakers at a Friday rally for an audit in that state.

In the QAnon world, certain phrases — red pill, enjoy the show, great awakening — signal to others knowledge and fealty to the Q belief system.

Similarly, a vocabulary has sprung up around the audit. Most notably, the word “domino.” 

According to the theory, once enough fraud is found to overturn Arizona’s electoral results, similar audits would be done in other key states. In the words of adherents, Arizona would be the first “domino” to fall.

The excitement around this theory has grown in recent days, as interest in replicating Arizona’s election audit has spread to other states. Alaska, Georgia and Pennsylvania lawmakers toured the coliseum to find out how they could do an audit just like this one back home, and a Georgia judge allowed a conspiracy-minded group to recount absentee ballots. Similar calls for audits are happening in New Hampshire, Michigan and Wisconsin. 

The Arizona Republican Party chairwoman, Kelli Ward, used the domino phrasing during an interview with One American News Network on June 1. “I think it is the first domino that’s going to fall because we’re seeing little noises from all around the country,” Ward said. “I think the country has woken up.”

Months before, Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow and Trump supporter, used the phrase speaking by Zoom to a rally in Queen Creek.

“We need one state,” Lindell said at the March 10 rally. “They’re all going to fall like dominoes.”

Lindell, in his speech, said that the chance of an audit had made remarkable progress since February, when all looked bleak. He compared it with watching a movie. The dark middle was over, he said, and a bright ending was coming.

“I believe Donald Trump will be back in office this summer,” Lindell told the crowd, which rose to its feet.

The New York Times and the National Review have reported that Trump has also told associates he expects to be back in the White House by August.

The domino imagery is a favorite of Liz Harris, a 2020 state legislative candidate who has researched claims of dead people on the voting rolls and has said she organized a grassroots group of canvassers to go door to door for months this year to check the veracity of registration data. 

It is not clear whether her work has become part of the official audit. Harris has at first told The Arizona Republic that she was involved in the audit, but then said she couldn’t say if she was.

Harris posts video updates about the audit on her YouTube channel as many as three times a day.

In a recent video, Harris has a picture hanging behind her of dominoes, with the words “May Arizona be the first Domino to fall.” A second sign says, “The best is yet to come,” another Q catchphrase.

On her Facebook page, Harris posted a QAnon video, an essay and a photo she apparently took herself of a man wearing a shirt with the QAnon slogan #WWG1WGA, according to Media Matters. That hashtag stands for “Where we go one, we go all,” a QAnon rallying cry.

Harris was among the scheduled speakers at a May 22 event in Glendale that gathered a cross section of the conspiratorial world. The agenda also listed Jovan Pulitzer, who has claimed fraudulent ballots were used in the election and that he has developed technology, which he said would be used in the audit, to detect them. Another scheduled speaker was Patrick Byrne, former CEO of Overstock, who started an advocacy nonprofit that he said was raising money for the audit. 

Sitting outside the Dream City Church, taking a break from the day of speeches, Christy Reno of Phoenix said she feared Trump supporters like her would be labeled domestic terrorists and rounded up should Joe Biden remain in office.

Reno described herself as being “obsessed” with the election. She said she watched all eight hours of the quasi-hearing Rudy Giuliani hosted with Arizona lawmakers at a downtown Phoenix hotel in November. Her online research led her to writings of Q, which she said held some merit.

Reno said that if the audit found fraud, Trump supporters would not be content with simply making procedural changes for future elections. She said she would want Trump to return to power.

“Between you and I, if there’s not something done,” she said, “I think there will be a civil war.”

QAnon has been in Maricopa County

QAnon has lurked in the background of Arizona politics.

Adherents attended rallies calling on Gov. Doug Ducey to roll back pandemic-related restrictions on businesses. Q followers organized “Save the Children” rallies, masking a belief that a global cabal was engaged in child trafficking behind an innocuous name.

And in the days after Nov. 3, as votes were still being counted, Trump supporters, some of them armed, took to the parking lot outside of the county’s election department.

Among them: followers of Q.

Jake Angeli, known as the QAnon shaman, clad in face paint and a horned and furry helmet, emerged as a leader at those demonstrations.

Angeli was among those arrested after taking part in the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, part of what the government said was a bid to stop the election from being certified.

As the audit moved from pipe dream to reality, several of the key players who became involved had ties to the QAnon conspiracy.

Josh Barnett, who was among the people who organized the drive for the audit, posted about Q during 2020 when he was making an unsuccessful run for Congress. Among the Twitter posts was one he shared from someone else that used the QAnon phrase “Nothing can stop what’s coming.” It was followed by QAnon hashtags that included #WeAreQ, #WeAreLegion and #SheepNoMore.

Barnett, in a previous interview with The Republic, said he didn’t know much about Q or put much stock in it. 

On May 7, Barnett wrote on Twitter that he expected the evidence unearthed by the audit to be: “Inarguable. Irrefutable. Incontestable. Indisputable. Unchallengeable. Undeniable.” 

He ended his post with the hashtag: #AZTheFirstDomino.

Lin Wood, an attorney aligned with Trump, told Talking Points Memo in April that he donated $50,000 to a group raising money for the audit. His since-deleted Twitter account contained the phrase #WWG1WGA in its bio.

State Rep. Mark Finchem has not outwardly advocated the QAnon conspiracy. But he has expressed conspiratorial views from the QAnon world. In a March interview on Victory News, Finchem suggested a group of elected officials was involved in a “pedophile network and the distribution of children.” 

Finchem was also a guest in May on a QAnon focused radio show called RedPill78. In that interview, Finchem said he believed Trump garnered a decisive 62 to 65 percent of the vote in Arizona and suggested that if pervasive fraud were to be found, the Legislature could vote to reclaim the state’s Electoral College electors.

“That’s the best I’m hoping for,” he said, adding that he “didn’t want to get people’s hopes all whipped up.”

Catching on? Arizona’s ballot audit could spread to other states

The influence of Q may have made its way to the leader of this audit.

Logan of Cyber Ninjas shared QAnon related material to his since-deleted Twitter page. One, captured by the Arizona Mirror, was a retweet of a person who went by the name Anon and whose profile picture was a picture of colonials surrounding a U.S. flag. The stars in the upper left corner of the flag were manipulated to form a Q.

Logan also retweeted a message from Ron Watkins, whose bulletin board sites have been the exclusive home for Q’s writings. Watkins suggested that an audit of ballots would show Trump with “200k more votes than previously reported in Arizona.”

A spokesperson for Cyber Ninjas, in response to questions from The Republic, said Logan was not a follower of Q.

“Doug Logan does not subscribe to Q theories. The audit has nothing to do with Q theories,” wrote Rod Thomson, president of The Thomson Group in an e-mail. “Good grief. How embarrassing.”

Another potential Q connection: Bobby Piton, a financial adviser from Illinois, has said he has been in contact with Logan and is reviewing Arizona voter data. 

He has posted photos with QAnon themes, according to Media Matters. Those included, according to Media Matters, one that suggested Trump would introduce John F. Kennedy Jr. as his running mate. Kennedy Jr. died in a plane crash in 1999, but rumors persist in the QAnon world that he is still alive.

Piton has said in videos that he does not believe in the QAnon movement. It’s unclear whether he is formally involved in the audit.

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QAnon movement continues without Q

Q has not written about the audit. Nor much else since Election Day.

Q’s post on Nov. 12 asked a series of cryptic questions about how elections could be protected from foreign interference.

“It had to be this way,” Q wrote. “Sometimes you must walk through the darkness before you see the light.” 

Watkins also had gone relatively silent after the election. In a Jan. 20 post on Telegram, where he is known as CodeMonkeyZ, Watkins told his followers that they have given it their all, but it was time to respect the incoming administration. “Now we need to keep our chins up and go back our lives as best we are able,” he wrote.

Watkins didn’t post again until March when he again knocked down the persistent rumor that he was the person posting over the years as Q on the relatively obscure 8chan and 8kun bulletin boards he operated, where outrageous and no-holds-barred conversation was encouraged. A documentary that aired on the HBO network in March all but concluded Watkins was Q.

In the documentary, Watkins said in an interview that he had spent three years online “teaching normies how to do intelligence work” and that he had done so anonymously. “But never as Q,” he added, before breaking into a wide smile.

By April, Watkins began to post nearly every day about the audit of ballots in the works in Maricopa County.

“Fraud vitiates everything and why Maricopa County may be the straw the broke the camel’s back,” Watkins wrote to his more than 200,000 subscribers on April 14. He suggested that if the auditors found fraud in Arizona, Trump could file a lawsuit to annul the results. And, he wrote, that process could be repeated elsewhere.

“If this occurs in just a couple more states, then it is possible that he will have officially won enough electoral votes to be the winner of the office of the presidency.”

Watkins has repeated the phrase “fraud vitiates everything” in several posts. It has since been used by several other commenters across Telegram.

Sidney Powell, who represented Trump in a string of failed lawsuits related to the election, used the phrase “fraud vitiates everything” during her speech at a QAnon conference in Dallas in late May.

In June, Watkins said the Maricopa County audit would trigger other states and counties to start similar efforts should it find significant fraud.

“Wont be long before critical mass is achieved,” he wrote in the post on Wednesday, “and all the dominoes come crashing down.”

Hayes, who as Praying Medic interpreted Q’s posts to an audience that had once reached 750,000 followers, said in the May webcast that there was meaning to draw from Q’s scant post-election writings.

“Q was definitely giving us a signal to rise up and be heard,” Hayes said. “That was the go signal.”

‘Nothing Can Stop What Is Coming Jack’

In the months after the election, people made their voices heard. County supervisors and state lawmakers received a torrent of emails. One state representative said it was as many as 1,000 per day.

The majority-Republican supervisors were confident that the election was sound. They helped run it. Still, the supervisors tried to please the crowd further by hiring independent firms in February to investigate whether the county’s vote-counting machines had been hacked. The results of those audits, along with previous audits done by the county, showed that votes were counted accurately and machines had not been tampered with.

That didn’t appease Senate Republican leaders, including Senate President Karen Fann. The senators got the county’s ballots, vote counting machines and voter data through subpoenas and began their audit in April.

By May, as the supervisors pushed back against the ongoing audit, people were telling the supervisors in emails that they wanted to see them “in front of a “firing squad,” or facing “execution at Gitmo.” 

The extremism in the messages “snowballed,” said Republican Supervisor Steve Chucri, who originally supported the Senate’s audit but now does not.

“It just kind of took on a life of its own,” he said. “Wrong, right or indifferent, it did.”

The turning point, according to a few supervisors, was in February, when the Senate considered holding the supervisors in contempt, and perhaps arresting them, for not fully responding to their subpoenas.

Chucri said he doesn’t pay attention to what Q followers believe, and he won’t entertain the many conspiracy theories that the audit is addressing.

“Even as a conservative Republican, I won’t partake in the nonsense or silliness,” he said.

But, sprinkled into the emails sent to elected officials were phrases from the QAnon world.

One constituent ended an email to Jack Sellers, chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors with a signature QAnon phrase. The person wrote: “Nothing Can Stop What Is Coming Jack.”

Checking out the conspiracy theories

The audit has looked at ideas even those leading the venture have called far-fetched.

At least one theory the audit has explored seems to have sprung directly from the QAnon world.

Workers on the coliseum floor were using a UV light to examine ballots. Ken Bennett, the former Arizona Senate president and secretary of state who was recruited to act as a liaison for the audit, has said it was being used to find supposed watermarks on the ballots.

That appears to be an outgrowth of a QAnon theory that Trump had devised a scheme whereby legitimate ballots were adorned with a watermark. If Democrats tried to print other ballots, the theory went, such fraud would be easily detected as those would have no watermarks.

That theory seemed to be a collective solving of the riddle posted by Q in February 2018 that advised to “watch the water.”

However, another use of the UV light was suggested by Watkins, the man whose bulletin boards were the exclusive and verified home for Q postings.

On his Telegram channel on April 25, Watkins said that he had been speaking with Piton about the possible use of ultraviolet technology. “Since UV is able to detect oil from the finger prints, if there are no fingerprints on the ballot then the likelihood of the ballot being marked through a non-human process is high,” Watkins wrote.

The state Senate’s contractors discontinued the use of the UV lights a few days after the recount began, after receiving many questions about its use.

The contractors were also said at one point to be checking for bamboo fibers in the ballots, under a conspiracy theory that claimed that fake ballots had been flown in from China. 

Norman Nicks, of Glendale, who was dressed in a panda costume as he stood near the entrance to the coliseum to protest the audit, said the bamboo fibers were just another racist trope that he believes emerged from the QAnon movement.

Nicks waved a double-sided sign at passing cars. One read: “Don’t let ‘Q’ lie to you. Vote bad judges and politicians out.” The other read: “There is no bamboo, just hate in play.”

Nicks, removing his panda head for a brief interview on a warm June afternoon, said he considers QAnon a hate group, especially since he believes its followers support laws that would disproportionately affect minority voters. He also said he doesn’t believe that many people are QAnon believers, and it angers him that they have been given such a voice.

“For them to be in the minority, and try to put out that they are the majority, really does a disservice to everyone else in America,” he said. “And that’s what upsets the whole balance.”

‘The fix was in and we are uncovering it’

Supporters of the audit are more routinely found cheering it on while sitting or standing along McDowell Road, near the entrance audit staff use to park for shifts at the coliseum. 

In late May, four sign-toting and flag-waving supporters stood on a patch of asphalt, using umbrellas and a pop-up tent to ward off the afternoon sun. Every so often, a vehicle driving by would honk in support. 

The four said they knew that the state Senate president has said that the audit was not meant to overturn any results, only improve future elections. Still, all indicated they held out hope that the results could cause the 2020 election to be revisited.

“That’s part of the reason it’s being done,” said Larry Grafanakis, 69.

Grafanakis said he has continually rallied since Election Day. He stood outside the Maricopa County election headquarters most every night after the November election. He attended rallies at the state Capitol. He stood outside the U.S. District Courthouse to show support for Angeli, the QAnon shaman, after a court appearance.

And, as he stood on the sidewalk as traffic zoomed by and auditors worked inside the coliseum, he said his presence sent a message.

“What really matters,” he said, “is that they see that we’re still out here and ‘Oh my god, they’re just not going away.’ And that’s what we want.”

Reach Richard Ruelas at richard.ruelas@arizonarepublic.com and Jen Fifield at jen.fifield@azcentral.com.

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