Voting Review

Pima County prepares to address election challenges and make changes

It seems that Pima County just can't win with the Pima County Democratic Party, as the party is heading back to court in April, asking for more election database files.

Last December, Judge Michael Miller allowed the party access to several election database files. That decision was followed by a January decision by the Pima County Board of Supervisors to hand over 310 election files--many more than required by Miller's ruling.

According to County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, the lawsuit is over, and it is time for the county and election-integrity activists to move on.

But rather than moving on, Democratic Party attorney Bill Risner filed a request that Miller release other election-database files, going back all the way to 1998. Risner also filed a petition for attorneys' fees, requesting that Pima County pay almost $300,000 for Risner's work on behalf of the Democratic Party.

Huckelberry calls these latest rounds of litigation a misuse of time and taxpayer money, and says releasing the database files remains a security risk.

"My view is that is has turned into an adventure," Huckelberry says. "Our view is the lawsuit is over. Instead, we're arguing about angels on the head of a pin."

In October, Huckelberry compiled a list of proposed election division changes, as first discussed with Democrats before the lawsuit entered Pima County Superior Court. The list was sent out to all political parties and placed on the county's Web site for public input.

Huckelberry says the county began to implement election protocols to prepare for the Feb. 5 presidential-preference election. And despite the continued litigation, Huckelberry is ready to present a final memorandum of election policy and infrastructure changes to the supervisors in late March or early April.

The discussion also includes a report on challenges the county faced during February's election. One challenge: Some 12,000 provisional ballots were cast last month, and 8,000 of those, from independent voters, were thrown out. Huckelberry says the county believes that word didn't get out enough to independents, who thought they could participate in the election. State law requires voters to register as either a Democrat or a Republican to participate in the presidential-preference election.

Huckelberry says the county also experienced a higher number of election-equipment failures than normal.

"In the past, we'll have one or two machines go haywire, but we had a dozen or so this time," Huckelberry says.

Because of allegations that county elections staff members could tamper with the election-machine software cards, the county's new protocol requires that broken machines be brought to the election division office, and two observers watch repairs.

Setting a policy regarding early-ballot counting proved to be a challenge this past election, too. Huckelberry says staff members decided to start counting early ballots on Sunday, Feb. 3. But Pima County Democratic Party Chairman Vince Rabago insisted the county should not begin counting early ballots until Tuesday, according to Huckelberry.

Huckelberry says the county said no problem, and started on Tuesday.

"We were scheduled to count the early ballots Tuesday at 8 a.m. That's when we began to encounter the problem with the machines. So we had to fix the machines and didn't get to the early ballots until 5 p.m. And the election observers, particularly one from the Democratic Party said, 'Why did you guys wait?' And we said, 'We were told to wait,'" Huckelberry says.

According to Rabago, that's news to him. He says he was going by memos that were sent to the supervisors by Huckelberry outlining new procedures and early-ballot counting. When he found out through e-mails with Pima County Elections Director Brad Nelson that the county would begin counting on Sunday, Rabago says, he e-mailed Nelson for clarification, asking him to look at memos from Huckelberry's office on Jan. 11 directing that the elections office would no longer tabulate early ballots until after the close of polls on Election Day. Rabago says he also told Nelson to look at a Jan. 23 memorandum to the county recorder stating that early ballots would be counted on Election Day.

"We've always asked that they do it as close to day of the election so that we could make sure we get observers to watch the process," Rabago says. "I was concerned that the dates had shifted, because we had people ready to volunteer on Sunday at midnight."

Rabago says it troubles him that there is this idea that the Democrats are to be blamed for causing a delay in the ballot count. Observers waited all day for early ballots to be counted, and the county could have had 90 percent of the ballots counted before the polls closed, Rabago says.

"I have the greatest respect for the general average public employee who does their job, but the management has the ultimate responsibility," Rabago says.

The current system allows the county to process 10,000 ballots an hour, Huckelberry says. With about 200,000 early ballots cast in most elections, the county has to figure out an appropriate time to begin counting them. Huckelberry says from this point on, early-ballot counting will begin at 12:01 a.m. on Election Day.

Huckelberry says replacing election equipment also remains part of the plan to be presented to supervisors. In October, Huckelberry said new equipment and infrastructure will come with a $10 million price tag, with about $5 million of that going toward new equipment. Huckelberry says he expects most of that money to come from a bond election.

While the current bond committee is working on a final bond proposal, Huckelberry says there remains a debate on when a bond should go before the voters. Before the economy started heading south, this year seemed like the best time to present a bond. Now, some bond committee members have told Huckelberry that they'd like to see the bond go to voters in 2009.

"That's all up in the air," Huckelberry says. "My preference is that it is equipment before building, because the equipment is starting to wear out and needs to be addressed, fast."

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