Vetting Voting

Election watchdogs say the battle for fairness in local elections will continue

Judge Michael Miller was expected to issue a decision regarding the Pima County Democratic Party's lawsuit against the Pima County Board of Supervisors this week. As the Tucson Weekly went to press, county officials and election-integrity activists continued to wait for Miller's ruling, which will determine the fate of the data files from the May 2006 Regional Transportation Authority vote. The Democratic Party wants those files released to the public.

Waiting together are Jim March and John Brakey. March is an elections-fraud investigator with election-watchdog organization Black Box Voting. Brakey, a local Democratic precinct captain and a member of the party's Election Integrity Committee, reached out to March after he began to suspect election abuses at the polls during the November 2004 election. (See "Balloting Irregularities," Currents, May 26, 2005.)

The investigation has created what some may consider an unlikely friendship between Brakey, a Democrat, and March, a Libertarian and former gun-rights lobbyist. But the two say it's what they have in common that counts most: a concern that voting fraud has only increased since the presidential election in 2000.

"I haven't changed my beliefs (in gun rights), but right now, election integrity is more important," March says.

March, a mustached, self-described computer geek, moved to Tucson last year to help Democratic Party attorney Bill Risner prepare for the lawsuit. Prior to calling Tucson home, March says, he spent a year investigating alleged election abuses in Utah, Washington and California, all centered on Diebold and other electronic computer-voting systems--which March says he considers flawed.

Through Black Box, March networked with a growing number of grassroots organizations dedicated to election integrity in their own backyards and across the country. March and Brakey say they see it as a movement growing beyond conspiracy-theory stereotypes.

"You can't really hide from the truth," Brakey says. "It's helped that geeks like Jim have entered in the picture. Jim helped us understand the systems and the different ways fraud can take place."

When the Democratic Party decided to file the lawsuit in early 2007, Risner says, he brought March onboard as a paralegal at his law firm, Risner and Graham. Risner says he's been honored to have March sit at the table with him during the trial.

"He's a treasure with his skills. He's dedicated his life to this issue and has made financial sacrifices as a result," Risner says.

To March, his work reflects his perspective that those in charge have been allowed to bully the system and the voters.

"If we lose the vote, we lose everything as a country," March says.

During the trial, March says, he saw the bullies march out to defend the county's computers and insist that it would be a security breach to provide the data files requested by the Democratic Party. The party has continued to question whether vote-flipping took place during the 2006 RTA election. To resolve the allegation, the party wants system data files that could show any changes that would point to hacking. The county has denied Risner and the Democratic Party the files, saying the files are not a public record--hence the lawsuit.

Election-integrity activists have credited Risner, Brakey and March with prompting Pima County officials to hold a series of recent public meetings addressing an elections-security report from county administrator Chuck Huckelberry outlining the need for Elections Division security changes that could cost the county up to $10 million in new voting equipment and facilities. (See "Voting GEMS," Currents, Nov. 29, 2007.)

"He's a bulldog," Risner says about Brakey. "There's no question about it--his pushing and prodding was what moved us forward. He certainly annoys the quiet, polite people of the party who don't like to rock any boats. These people are nervous. But the base of the party has always been behind this lawsuit."

The Democratic Party's Election Integrity Committee met with Brad Nelson, the Elections Division director, at a county-elections security meeting last Tuesday, Dec. 11. Brakey and March say they recommended that the Election Division keep its current Diebold system, but get rid of the touch screens.

"It's hard not to gag over that idea, but right now, it's better to work with the devil you know rather than the devil you don't," Brakey says.

The next advice is to buy large commercial scanners to scan each ballot as a graphics file. This safeguard is two-fold, according to March. It allows the numbers of the election to be more transparent, by allowing the county to put the graphic files on the Internet, and it prevents abuse that can take place during a recount.

"New equipment could be in the millions of dollars to replace Diebold," March says. "This plan would have a maximum cost of $200,000. The scanners can be used for any paper ballot, for any voting machine. If the ballots change, the graphic scanners can still be used."

Obviously, March and Brakey don't think their work is over, no matter how Judge Miller rules. The experience shared by March and Brakey has also made them think about other parts of the state that may need election reform. Maricopa County is now at the top of their list. This month, Brakey, March, former congressional candidate Randy Graf and Tucson attorney and Libertarian activist David Euchner filed a complaint with the state Attorney General's Office regarding the county's ballot software. According to March, the software never went through the required testing.

Risner says he's put $300,000 of his own money into the lawsuit. He expects to remain involved in election-integrity issues in Pima County--but Risner is going to leave the fight against other counties to Brakey and March.

"I've been in Tucson since 1951. As far as I'm concerned, I live in Pima County, and that's where fair voting is important to me," Risner says. "... We're just getting started."