Electoral Integrity

The county launches ballot-counting reforms after Democrats question past practices--and results

While nobody's yet found a smoking gun, representatives of the local Democratic Party believe puffs of suspicious smoke have wafted from Pima County's election division for years.

These suspicious happenings include possible tampering with the results of the May 2006 Regional Transportation Authority vote, and improperly providing early results to some campaigns.

"I don't know that they flipped (the RTA election), but there's a big piece of evidence," says attorney Bill Risner, who is representing the Democrats in a voting-integrity lawsuit.

Risner points to the tabulation of early ballots for the RTA election--during which voters apparently approved raising the county's sales tax for transportation purposes--as questionable. Computer printouts of tasks performed by county election officials indicate that on the second morning of early-ballot counting--performed about one week before Election Day--unknown data was backed up over the previous day's results, thus replacing it.

"Someone could have taken home the first-day data," Risner says, "to flip and override the results." That, he believes, might have eventually reversed all the votes in the election.

When asked in a sworn deposition why the mysterious data was backed up, the election official in charge replied: "I don't know."

The computer record for this election also indicates a summary report of voting results was printed that second morning, an "error," according to the county official.

Based on these abnormalities, Risner asked the Arizona Attorney General's Office to investigate. Many others in town--who believe the flipping allegations are baseless--have echoed this much-publicized request, because they want to show the electoral process has integrity.

The investigation will be helped by the fact that the ballots still exist, even though state law says that after six months, the county shall destroy the ballots.

"There's no requirement the ballots have to be destroyed," says County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.

Risner laughs at that assertion. "Those guys just ignore laws if it suits them."

Risner adds that Pima County is ironically using the exact same statute to oppose his request to examine other material from last year's general election to see if inappropriate summary reports were also printed then. (See "Peep Show," Currents, Feb. 15.)

Under a state law adopted last year, officials are now required to check the accuracy of early-vote counting. With the participation of political party representatives, a few summary reports were to be printed before Election Day in November 2006. However, Risner and his Democratic associates believe extra reports were prepared without party officials present--and also suspect this unusual practice dates back at least a few years.

In a written statement, Democratic elections watchdog Jim March discusses one suspicious episode from last year's primary. On the Saturday before the election, a summary report was prepared, and five hours later, electronic calls went out slamming a candidate in a tight race.

On the other hand, Democratic campaign guru Katie Bolger points out the same information contained on a summary report would be available from a poll. Because of that, she believes having the illegal information from a summary report wouldn't be that advantageous, and she doesn't know of any Democratic campaign that has ever obtained one.

Risner also thinks the county's printing of summary reports potentially violates a state law which forbids "preferential counting of ballots for the purpose of projecting the outcome of the election," so Risner has asked the Arizona Attorney General's Office to also look into that issue.

Both Huckelberry and the county's elections director, Brad Nelson, say they don't think the practice was illegal.

The city of Tucson does not print "summary reports" before an election is finished, according to City Clerk Kathy Detrick.

When asked in a legal deposition to explain why the county printed the early summary reports, the elections official responsible replied it was done in order to check the number of votes cast; he also insisted that he never shared the preliminary results with anyone. Even though there was another method for determining how many votes had been cast--which would not reveal the ballot results--this official said of the elections job he's held for more than a decade: "I've been looking at the summary report from day one."

Nelson acknowledges he didn't know that was going on, and now says it would have been more appropriate to have prepared a ballot statement that didn't show the vote totals.

Democratic activists also object to the fact that the same security password was shared by all three election officials who can access the computer which counts ballots, thus making it impossible to track who is doing what. While a recently installed camera system focused on the computer partially addresses this problem, Nelson says his office is still investigating whether individual passwords can be employed.

At the same time, Nelson has prepared a draft list of 10 other steps Pima County is taking to "safeguard the election process in Pima County." The list includes a "ban on wireless components on all voting machines," although it mentions neither the printing of summary reports nor the assigning individual passwords to officials.

"Almost everything meaningful on that list has been done because of us, and now (Nelson) takes credit for it," says Risner referring to the Democratic Party's election-integrity activities. "But I'm glad they did all those things."

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