Poll Position

The never-ending 2006 RTA ballot saga continues with yet another records ruckus

The Democratic Party of Pima County's fight over the 2006 Regional Transportation Authority election started almost four years ago, with conspiracy theories about the election being rigged. It then became a successful public-records lawsuit over the election's electronic database files; today, the fight continues—over access to strips of white paper and yellow sheets.

At the end of every election, precinct workers print out data on long, white sheets of paper from computers at each polling place; these "poll tapes" are then signed by poll workers. Accompanying yellow sheets contain specific details about the election. These poll tapes and yellow sheets are then put in ballot bags, along with dozens or hundreds of ballots, depending on the size of the precinct.

Democratic Party attorney Bill Risner has successfully argued before Pima County Superior Court that the RTA election poll tapes and yellow sheets are public records. But the fight continues—over just how the party is going to get copies of the poll tapes and yellow sheets.

On April 1, Risner and the attorney for Pima County Treasurer Beth Ford both submitted different proposals to Pima County Superior Court Ted Borek on how to retrieve the paperwork. A decision from Borek is expected any day.

According to John Richardson, the attorney with DeConcini McDonald Yetwin and Lacy hired by Pima County to represent Ford, this latest argument is all about procedures. Ford is in charge of the RTA ballot boxes and contends that Arizona law requires her to destroy the ballots; Richardson says Arizona law also allows Ford to determine how public records are released through her office.

That's where Risner disagrees.

Ford has asked the court to allow her office to destroy the poll tapes and yellow sheets six months after the Democratic Party examines the paperwork, which she says consists of copies of originals that may have already been destroyed by the Pima County Elections Division. Risner has asked Borek—after the party examines, copies and scans the poll tapes and yellow sheets—to force Ford to put the paperwork back in the RTA election boxes and put off plans to destroy them, since the ballots remain part of an appeal, filed by the Libertarian Party of Pima County, of yet another lawsuit.

The procedure that Ford's attorney has suggested to the court involves several days of taking out the poll tapes and yellow sheets from more than 100 boxes, and inventorying them. The poll tapes and yellow sheets would be brought to a county office or Ford's attorney's office to be examined, with copies made for the party.

According to a letter from Risner, the Democratic Party wants the boxes to remain at Iron Mountain, a storage facility used by the county. He suggests that the work of retrieving the paperwork from boxes take place in a room provided by the storage company, and that photocopying be done onsite, too.

Risner also wants observers to examine and scan the paperwork at Iron Mountain, then have the county place the documents back in the ballot boxes, which would be resealed with tape; a county employee would then sign across the tape and the box. Risner also wants a stationary video camera in the corner of the room recording the process; the camera would be a provided by the party, and DVDs would be made available to the county.

Ford's attorney has told the court that his client doesn't want observers watching her employees retrieve the documents, and wants only county employees making copies of the paperwork; observers from political parties would "result in a more crowded environment without substantial benefit."

The argument Richardson presented to Borek also involves cost. Ford has asked that the process not start until after June 10, because she will then have enough staff to work on the retrieval process; if done before June 10, the process will cost the Democratic Party more. Ford anticipates the cost of the copies will be about $275, but personnel costs would result in extra charges.

"The costs are irrelevant," Risner responds. Legally, the county can only charge Risner for copies, and not personnel costs, Risner claims. Iron Mountain would charge the treasurer's office $100 a day to use a room at the facility; Risner says he has agreed to pay the room-use fee at Iron Mountain.

Richardson's arguments on Ford's behalf are a stall tactic, according to Risner. Last month, he says, he wrote to the city of Tucson and asked if he and other Democratic Party representatives could have access to poll tapes and yellow sheets from the recent city election that was run by the county. He was told yes, and representatives went down to the county elections office, looked at the paperwork and made copies—for $14.

"These are the things that we want, and things we should get at any election," Risner says.

But why does the Democratic Party keep fighting? Is it over a desire to show that the RTA election was rigged, despite an investigation by the state Attorney General's Office—which included a recount—that determined the election results were legitimate? Or is it an effort to protect future elections? Risner says both; although anything learned from the poll tapes would not result in a criminal investigation or prosecutions, it could motivate the county to change its current system.

Risner says the party is interested in a process that scans each ballot at each precinct, and then allows those ballots to be made available online.

"Look at all the work the county has done and (the money the county) is paying to hide stuff," says Risner.

"These are absolutely public records that (can) be delivered in the next week, not any later."