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Tabulation Consternation

Why Does It Take So Long to Count Votes? It's Complicated.

We've heard a lot of complaints in the last week about how Pima County is taking too long to count the votes, so we thought it would be helpful to explain how the ballot-counting process works.

(Of course, those who are convinced that cheating and incompetence is rampant in Pima County won't be persuaded otherwise, but we'll give a shot anyhow.)

Both the Pima County Recorder's Office and the Pima County Elections Department are involved in counting the ballots.

The Pima County Elections Department counts all the votes that are cast at polling places by the end of the night on Election Day. There's a complicated chain of custody process that involves transferring data cards and ballots that we won't get into here.

But before that happens, nearly all of the early ballots that have been mailed back to (or dropped off at) the Recorder's Office have been transferred to the Elections Department, which begins counting those ballots a few days before Election Day; the first results that are released to the public, shortly after 8 p.m. on Election Day, are the early ballots that have already been tabulated.

The hang up is with the early ballots that get dropped off at a polling place on Election Day. The Recorder's Office staff has to check the signatures on envelopes that contain the ballots—more than 23,000 this year—to the signature on the matching voter-registration form to ensure that the signature matches up and the right person turned in the ballot. That's a time-consuming process (as you might expect), but County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez had completed that by the end of the day on Wednesday, Nov. 5—one day after the election.

Once the signatures on those ballots have been checked, the ballots are sent over to the Elections Department to be counted.

Then the County Recorder's Office has to sort out the provisional ballots. These are ballots that have a problem in one way or another—the voter may have received an early ballot in the mail but lost it and then shows up at the polling place to cast a vote; that vote is marked provisional because county officials have to confirm that an early ballot wasn't mailed in. Or a voter might have moved and shows up at a new polling place; in that case, the new address needs to be confirmed before the provisional ballot will count.

This year, there were a little more than 10,000 provisional ballots and 9,335 of them turned out to be valid. (Republican Martha McSally, who was locked in a tight race against Democratic Congressman Ron Barber, wanted to set aside an unknown number of provisional ballots in certain precincts because poll workers didn't properly sign paperwork that accompanies the provisional ballot, but Pima County Superior Court Judge James Marner rejected the legal maneuver.)

Checking provisional ballots typically takes longer than checking signatures on early ballots; this year, Rodriguez had all of the provisional ballots processed by the end of the day on Sunday, Feb. 9.

In the midst of all this, there's an audit of certain precincts that takes place on the weekend following the election to make sure the machines are properly counting votes.

Here's another wrinkle: The machinery that counts votes is not perfect—and sometimes it can't read a ballot. In that case, the Elections Department creates a duplicate ballot that the machine can read. About 5,000 ballots needed to be duplicated this year.

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry noted that the county's machinery is in rough shape, which delayed the vote count. Huckelberry told the Pima County Board of Supervisors in a memo that two of the county's seven central tabulating machines, which count most of the ballots, broke down during the vote count this year.

Huckelberry also said the machines rejected a higher number of ballots this year, "which continues to confirm the necessity of voting equipment replacement."

Turnout Blues

Not Exactly Rocking the Vote

The political world is abuzz with theories about the hammering Democrats have taken around the country, as well as in Arizona.

A lot of that talk has centered around turnout. By some estimates, national turnout was just about 36 percent—and, as Time magazine reported this week, that's the lowest since the 34 percent turnout in 1942, when many voting-age men were off fighting in WWII.

In Pima County, turnout was about 54 percent, which is significantly lower than the 65 percent that turned out in the 2010 midterm. And while they are still counting some votes around Arizona, it appears that statewide turnout was closer to 46 percent.

One reason that turnout dropped in Pima County compared to 2010 is that a lot of early ballots that were mailed to voters never made it back to the Recorder's Office. In Pima County, a total of 309,700 early ballots were mailed to voters. Of those, just 206,366 were returned, according to the county's still-unofficial vote count. That means that only 66 percent of those who received early ballots sent them back in—a significant drop from general elections of previous years. In 2012, 81 percent of the ballots were returned; in 2010, the number was 80 percent. In 2008, it was 91 percent and in 2006, it was 88 percent.

This tells us that many voters have been signed up for the Permanent Early Voter List but had no interest in actually voting this year. Why not? That's an excellent question that deserves to be explored. Maybe they were turned off by the campaign ads (in which case, the negative ads did what they were supposed to do), maybe they just forgot, maybe they lost their ballots and had to cast them at the polls. We'll be digging into the numbers to see how many of the unengaged voters were Democrats, Republicans or independents.

Whatever the answer, the majority of voters still prefer voting early. Leaving aside the roughly 10,000 provisional ballots, somewhere around 58,000 voters cast ballots at the polls on Election Day, compared to the 206,366 who cast early ballots. That means close to 77 percent of the ballots cast were early ballots.

"Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel," airs every Sunday at 9:30 a.m. on KGUN-9. Or can be watched online at TucsonWeekly.com

More by Jim Nintzel

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