Election Eve Nightmare

Can the Maricopa County Elections Department ensure the accuracy of early voting? Hell No!

With less then three weeks before the general election, I have serious doubts that whatever "official" results the Maricopa County Elections Department posts will be an accurate reflection of what voters intended.

After a week of investigating the department's mishandling of last month's controversial recount in the District 20 state House of Representatives race, I won't believe the results of any election in this county if the contest is within a couple of percentage points.

There is just too much slop in the current system to have any confidence in the winner of an election closer than this.

Maricopa County elections boss Karen Osborne botched the District 20 recount.
Jackie Mercandetti
Maricopa County elections boss Karen Osborne botched the District 20 recount.

My concerns over the accuracy of Maricopa County's election numbers result from the widespread and popular use of mail-in ballots. I have discovered ample evidence that the county elections department is covering up serious shortfalls in its ability to accurately count such early mailed-in ballots.

The uncontrolled circumstances of voting at home plus the wide variety of writing utensils commonly used to mark ballots greatly increases the likelihood that early ballots will be misread by the county's optical scanning machines provided by the Omaha, Nebraska-based Election Systems & Software, Incorporated (ES&S).

Major problems with early ballots were first exposed in District 20 when 489 new votes suddenly appeared during the recount. The dramatic increase in the number of new votes -- nearly all of which (464 votes) came from early ballots -- stunned the candidates and election experts.

"This makes me question whether there is any ability to say for sure that any election result is what it appears to be," says Phoenix election law attorney Lisa Hauser, whose client, Anton Orlich, was a candidate in the District 20 contest.

Hauser's opinion carries substantial clout.

A partner at the Phoenix law firm of Gammage & Burnham, Hauser is an expert on Arizona's campaign finance law and the Voting Rights Act. She serves as an attorney for the Arizona Republican Party and represented the George W. Bush presidential campaign before the Broward County, Florida, canvassing board during the 2000 presidential election recount. In 2001, she was selected as counsel to the first Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission.

Early ballots will account for at least half of the projected 1.1 million votes expected to be cast in Maricopa County for the November 2 general election. If the 3.6 percent error rate in early ballots discovered in the District 20 recount is repeated on a countywide basis, and early votes account for 50 percent of all votes cast, the election results in Maricopa County could be skewed by a plus or minus 1.8 percent margin.This might not seem like a lot at first, but Democrat Janet Napolitano won the 2002 gubernatorial election by well less than one percent over Republican Matt Salmon.

Hidden from the public -- but well known to election officials -- is the fact that mail-in ballots have long been known to be far more likely to be misread or not read at all by Maricopa County's optical scanners than votes cast at the polls.

"I think it's just the nature of the beast that [with early balloting], you give up some degree in accuracy because of the manner in which [ballots] are marked and folded by the voters and how they are processed in the mail," says Joe Kanefield, director of elections for the Secretary of State.

If you want to be sure your early ballot counts, fill it out with special pens available at the polls on Election Day. If you have an early ballot and want to vote before November 2, take it to one of the county's satellite polling offices now open and cast your ballot there using the pens provided. If you are going to vote from home, use only black ink pens or pencils in filling out ballots. Never use felt tip pens. Keep the ballot clean and mail it at least a week before November 2.

Not only does the Maricopa County department of elections face serious technical issues concerning the accurate counting of early ballots, I have found several other troubling issues stemming from the District 20 recount that suggest more widespread problems including:

• County elections director Karen Osborne appears to have intentionally violated state elections law during the District 20 recount by preparing ballots for a manual recount. State law requires a recount be conducted using the same equipment used in the election in question, which in this case were the optical scanners.

• Questionable handling of ballots by elections department personnel in preparation for the unauthorized manual recount increased the potential for vote tampering and possibly contaminated the ballots, calling in to question the accuracy of the recount.

• Rather than working with District 20 candidates to discover why so many votes suddenly appeared out of thin air during the recount, Osborne and her associates took steps to hide crucial details from the public and candidates.

Their cover-up became so elaborate that elections department assistant director Mitch Etter accepted a subpoena issued by Hauser for ES&S employee, Tina Polich, to appear in court to testify about the operation of the county's optical scanners.

Polich has her office in the county elections building and works closely with county officials. Polich never showed up at a crucial court hearing to certify the results of the recount where her testimony was sought by the judge. ES&S officials say she never received the subpoena.

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