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Democrats' accusations of security breaches by the Pima County Elections Division go to trial next week

At a trial beginning Tuesday, Dec. 4, attorney Bill Risner is expected to paint an extremely unflattering portrait of internal security within Pima County's Elections Division.

Risner--representing the local Democratic Party--hopes to secure outside oversight of vote-counting procedures, and is asking Judge Michael Miller to order the county to provide copies of its election databases to all major political parties.

Citing a prohibition on pretrial publicity, Pima County attorneys declined to discuss the case in detail. But Chris Straub, of the County Attorney's Office, did say: "We believe the (databases) are confidential."

Risner counters: "The election computer is fraught with security problems and can easily be rigged or manipulated by insiders."

To substantiate that charge, Risner has assembled a lot of ammunition. Perhaps the most startling accusation is that Elections Division computer and networking specialist Bryan Crane has, for years, been taking backup tapes of ongoing vote-counting home with him.

In a deposition, Robert Evans, who worked under Crane for four years, recalled him taking home the backup tapes "every election." Longtime Elections Division employee Isabel Araiza concurred in a sworn statement.

Risner says this practice is fraught with problems which could affect an election: "With Microsoft Access, you can make any changes you want on the data at home ... and then reinsert the data into the computer." Risner adds that there are technical ways to cover tracks.

Araiza states in her deposition that Crane told people he took the backup tapes home because "if the building goes up in smoke, you know, I've got the backups."

Crane, like several other Pima County employees, didn't return a phone call seeking his side of the story. Risner says Crane, in a deposition, recounted that he only took home office correspondence.

Risner points out that a fireproof safe has been in the Elections Division since 1999. According to Tucson City Clerk Kathy Detrick, municipal government keeps its backup election tapes in a safe at City Hall.

Informed during his deposition of Crane's alleged practice, Pima County administrator Chuck Huckelberry said he wasn't aware of it. Huckelberry, who directly oversees the Elections Division, suggested: "Ultimately, this whole system relies on trusting individuals," and Huckelberry said he thinks Crane is very trustworthy.

Huckelberry also considers Pima County Elections Director Brad Nelson to be trustworthy. But according to Araiza, after he first came on the job in 2002, she talked with Nelson about her concerns with Crane's backup-tape procedure, but "the practice was left."

Nelson and Crane play major roles in the second of Risner's vote-counting security issues, involving the preparation of so-called "summary reports," or tabulations of voting results which begin several days before an election (with early-ballot results) and continue until after polls close.

Crane has admitted printing these reports on a regular basis for eight years, but said he did so only as a check to see how many votes had been cast. (See "Electoral Integrity," June 14.) While another method of accomplishing that same task exists which doesn't reveal the election results, Crane used the summary reports instead.

Earlier this year, Crane's use of summary reports was part of Risner's allegation that the 2006 Regional Transportation Authority election had been "flipped." The Arizona Attorney General's office investigated and decided that didn't happen.

But Attorney General Terry Goddard also concluded: "It is illegal to share any results from an election prior to the close of voting."

During one of his depositions in the current lawsuit, Crane claimed he shredded the summary reports and did not share the information. Plus, when specifically asked if he ever released the results of an election to anyone prior to the close of polls, he replied, "No."

But Evans tells a much different story. He says it was common practice for Nelson to get summary reports and leave the computer counting room with them.

Evans also states that on several occasions, Oro Valley Town Clerk Kathy Cuvelier asked to see summary reports on Election Day before the polls closed--and Crane provided them.

"She wanted to know how the election was going," Evans says of Cuvelier.

On one occasion when he was in charge of vote counting, Evans recalls refusing to print a summary report for Cuvelier, because "it just didn't look proper to me." According to Evans, Cuvelier asked Nelson to intervene, which he did, but Evans continued to object, so Nelson relented.

Cuvelier also didn't respond to a phone call seeking a comment, but Risner says that in her deposition, she claims her request to see the summary report came after the polls closed. He also said Nelson didn't recall the incident with Evans.

The practice of printing summary reports before polls close has now been stopped. In addition, numerous physical changes have been implemented to the vote-counting computer room, and in September, Nelson issued a security plan for his office.

Outside of the attorney general's investigation--which Risner calls a "whitewash"--no performance audit of the past practices of the Elections Division has been conducted. The Arizona Secretary of State's office, which ignored three phone calls from the Weekly, has conducted no investigation. Next week's trial, however, could provide part of an external review.

For their part, Pima County officials have outlined numerous security and other reasons why they believe the election databases shouldn't be turned over to political parties.

Straub, from the Pima County Attorney's Office states: "There are three issues. First, are databases public record? Second, if they are, do state statutes make them confidential? Finally, if not, is it a good idea to release them?"

Risner says: "An accurate counting of votes is the bedrock of democracy." Because of that, Risner says, "(The Democratic Party) is interested in a system that doesn't rely on trust and character. ... If we prevail, it will make it more difficult for insiders to cheat in the future, because they'll have to worry about us catching them."

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