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Machines counting mail-in ballots: a recipe for electoral disaster?

Every vote may count in an election, but is every vote counted? A local man questions if they are, especially mail-in ballots--even as the city of Tucson is taking additional steps to ensure a vote cast is a vote tallied.

A Republican primary last year in Maricopa County illustrated problems with counting early ballots. On election night, it appeared one candidate had won a close race by four votes--but a machine recount revealed almost 500 ballots hadn't been tabulated. When they were, the election results were reversed.

Maricopa County Election Director Karen Osborne blamed the discrepancy on voters. "People at home use whatever--pen, pencil, we find crayon; we find glitter gel pens; we've found a number of things that made a mark" on a mail-in ballot, she testified during a court hearing on the case. Even though electronic vote-counting equipment has difficulty reading some of those marks, Osborne concluded: "I don't believe that the problem is in machines, but in the ballots."

Overseeing next week's Tucson election, City Clerk Kathy Detrick expects close to 50 percent of the total votes cast will be on early ballots, up from less than 40 percent two years ago.

Detrick has experienced her own difficulties with these mail-in ballots. "Voters who mark in red, or don't fill in the oval, or perhaps circle a name, that's human error," she said. "When they don't follow the instructions, there is only so much you can do."

But to verify that its machine count of ballots matches the actual total, beginning with September's primary, Detrick's office instituted a new election-night procedure. Random stacks of early ballots were counted by hand, and the results were compared with the machine results.

"It actually did come out," Detrick declared of the verification process. "If it didn't, we wanted to know."

In Maricopa County, which used a different company's machines than those employed in Tucson, significant variations in vote counting occurred during the aforementioned election. Largely based on that result, Thomas Ryan, a retired Tucson electronic engineer, took Arizona Secretary of State Jan Brewer to court.

Ryan, founder of Arizona Citizens for Fair Elections, hopes Judge John Davis will order Brewer to quickly comply with a state law. His attorney, Bill Risner, argued in a 4 1/2-hour court hearing two weeks ago that in 2003, the state Legislature directed the Secretary of State to develop standards to decertify vote counting machines which didn't operate properly. Two years later, Risner said, "She's still done nothing."

State Election Director Joseph Kanefield, standing in for Brewer, strongly disagreed. "It's simply wrong to say we haven't been doing anything," he remarked. "(The plaintiff) seems to believe a two-year delay is unreasonable. It's not. We want to do it right."

Kanefield said a consultant report was prepared, and his office is awaiting the release of a federal study. Once that is finished, Kanefield stated in an affidavit, his goal is to complete a draft decertification policy for vote-counting machines by the end of the year--but that date depends on the release of the federal report.

Lawyers from the Arizona attorney general's office, representing Brewer, also argued that it is the Legislature's job, not the court's, to establish a timeline for complying with the requirement. For that reason, they asked the suit be dismissed; that request was denied, pleasing about 20 of Ryan's supporters in the courtroom.

State Representative Ted Downing was one of those attending the hearing, and he thinks Brewer's office is dragging its feet. "If people lose faith in the (ballot-counting) machines," Downing said, "they won't vote."

Risner focused on the Maricopa County election problems. He indicated there was an 18.3 percent variation in vote-counting by one of the machines, compared to 0.2 and 1.4 percent for the other two employed in the recount.

Expanding on that point, Ryan explained that the maximum federal goal for vote-counting error was 1 in 500,000 ballot marks. But in the Maricopa County incident, the error rate was almost five times greater, at 1 in 108,000.

The judge in that case summarized the issue succinctly. "If the system is designed to tally accurate counts to show the intention of voters," he said, "then I have questions about whether it works with respect to those who file early ballots."

Risner and Ryan stressed the secretary of state relies in part on the machine's manufacturer to indicate if the vote-counting equipment is functioning properly. Plus, they said, the machines are subject to fraud, hacking and other potential electronic problems. "It's a way to stuff the ballot box without detection," Risner declared.

Obviously irritated that he had to spend a day in a Tucson courtroom, Kanefield called those statements simply allegations, as he offered a different solution. "With proper voter education," he said, "we can greatly reduce the probability (of problems)."

While a decision in the case was still pending at our press deadline, Detrick is looking forward to next week's election. She urges everyone with an early ballot to send it in, or drop it off at any polling place on Tuesday.

Addressing the mail-in vote-tallying issue, Detrick said: "I'm fairly confident (in the results). We're really interested in making certain the count is accurate."

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