Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said Thursday that the voting machines Republicans turned over to private companies as part of their audit of the 2020 election are no longer safe for use in future elections.

In a letter sent to Maricopa County officials and shared with NBC News, Hobbs, a Democrat, cited security concerns about losing the chain of custody over the equipment when it was handed over to the auditors and urged the county to get new machines. If it does not, her office would consider decertifying the equipment involved in the audit, she wrote. That would remove the machines from service.

State Senate Republicans subpoenaed nearly 400 of Maricopa County's election machines, along with ballots cast by voters in November's election, to facilitate an unusual audit of the election results. The GOP hired private firms, led by the Florida-based cybersecurity company Cyber Ninjas, to do the work.

"I have grave concerns regarding the security and integrity of these machines, given that the chain of custody, a critical security tenet, has been compromised and election officials do not know what was done to the machines while under Cyber Ninjas' control," Hobbs wrote in the letter to the county's mostly Republican Board of Supervisors, which oversees the county elections.

In Arizona, the secretary of state can decertify machinery in consultation with the state's Election Equipment Certification Committee, a three-person panel appointed by Hobbs.

The audit itself is an extraordinarily partisan effort after Arizona Republicans spent months questioning the accuracy of President Joe Biden's narrow win in the state while boosting former President Donald Trump's lie that the election was stolen from him.

The recount operation has been dogged by controversy and conspiracy theories since Day One, as state and federal experts and law enforcement officials have questioned the legality and prudence of the auditors and their efforts. The Justice Department and election experts have warned that some of their proposed processes could violate federal law, while auditors' searches for things like bamboo and secret watermarks have drawn scorn and mockery.

Before the audit, Arizona and Maricopa County conducted numerous accuracy tests and hired two independent outside companies to conduct a forensic review of the election results; the reviews all confirmed that the county system performed properly, election officials said.

Hobbs said in her letter Thursday that her office had consulted with election technology experts, including some at the Department of Homeland Security. The unanimous suggestion was to decommission and replace the election machines, she wrote.

"Unfortunately, after a loss of physical custody and control, no comprehensive methods exist to fully rehabilitate the compromised equipment or provide adequate assurance that they remain safe to use," she wrote.

Fields Moseley, communications director for the county supervisors, said the board had received the letter and was consulting with attorneys about its next steps.

Megan Gilbertson, communications director for the county's Elections Department, said 385 precinct-based tabulators and nine central count tabulators were used in the general election and were subpoenaed by the state Senate.

Taxpayers could foot the bill

"We won't use any of the returned equipment unless the county, state and vendor are confident there's no malicious hardware or software installed on those devices," Gilbertson said.

Replacing the machines, as Hobbs wants, would cost millions, and taxpayers could foot the bill. The county's most recent expense for election equipment was a $6.1 million contract in 2019 with Dominion. Gilbertson said not all of that equipment was used last year, however.

Hobbs and the county supervisors have been vocal critics of the audit. The Board of Supervisors urged the state Senate this week to call off the audit, arguing that the private companies were "in way over their heads."

Board Chairman Jack Sellers said last month that he was concerned about the cost of recertifying election machines and noted that the board had required the Senate to agree to pay for any damage to machines before it handed them over.

"The Senate shall indemnify the County against any and all expenses it incurs as a result of the Subpoenaed Materials being damaged, altered, or otherwise compromised while in the Senate's custody and control, including without limitation expenses associated with procuring new equipment, certifying any such new equipment for use for elections in Arizona, and re-certifying its current equipment re-certified for use for elections in Arizona," their agreement states.

Senate President Karen Fann signed it on April 20, according to a copy of the agreement shared with NBC News by the Board of Supervisors.

"One way or another, it sounds like the taxpayer is going to pay for whatever this costs," Sellers said last month.

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