Election Eve Nightmare

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

And if all this is not enough to make you want to bag the election and head to Baja for the winter, there's highly partisan Secretary of State Jan Brewer, whose office oversees the elections departments in Arizona's 15 counties.

Brewer is far from a non-biased administrator overseeing the integrity of the state's elections.

A former member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and a longtime associate of Osborne's, Brewer is one of only three secretaries of state to officially endorse President Bush. Brewer served as a delegate for Bush at the Republican National Convention and is an honorary co-chair of the Bush campaign.

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

If a razor-close presidential election emerges in Arizona, there is little doubt that Brewer will become Arizona's version of Florida's infamous Katherine Harris and move to quickly declare Bush the winner.

The uncertainty raised by the District 20 recount provides a chilling example of what could happen if the Arizona presidential election requires a recount -- which is automatically triggered if the candidates are separated by less than one-half of one percent of the total votes.

Amazingly, the Arizona Legislature has never enacted a statute to allow for a manual recount even after the chaos in Florida and the U.S. Supreme Court's infamous Bush vs. Gore decision that found Florida's manual recount to be unconstitutional because no rules for conducting a manual recount were in place.

That means Maricopa County will have to rely on using ES&S optical scanners in any potential recount. That is less than reassuring, especially when you consider it is the ES&S IVC optical scanners that failed to detect the 489 votes in the District 20 primary that somehow appeared in the recount.

The stunning increase in the number votes tallied in the recount changed the outcome of the election.

Anton Orlich had a four-vote lead over John McComish after the Republican Primary votes were counted. But the hundreds of additional votes discovered in the recount allowed McComish to overtake Orlich and win by 13 votes.

A detailed analysis of the votes by Orlich, an Arizona State University political science doctoral candidate, and his attorney, Lisa Hauser, found a 3.6 percent increase in the total number of new votes detected on early ballots during the recount.

This deviation from the primary result is on par with the infamous 2000 recount in Florida and the uproar over the hanging chads where the error rate was about 3.8 percent.

The unusual increase in the number of votes in District 20 was so significant that it forced Secretary of State Brewer to swing into action and demand an explanation from her friends at Maricopa County.

"This variance is certainly higher than what I would have anticipated," Brewer states in a September 23 letter that was hand-delivered to Osborne's boss, Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell. "The reasons for this variance need to be investigated further."

Purcell responded four days later that she, too, was "not anticipating the variance in the recount of District 20."

Purcell blamed the increase on how voters cast their ballots at home.

"I do feel very strongly that the instruments used to cast votes and the folding of early ballots have a significant influence on tabulation," Purcell stated.

Osborne says voters use everything from crayons, to eyeliner, to gel pens, to felt tip pens to mark their ballots. The optical scanners are designed to detect graphite in black ink and pencils.

The wide variety of different markers used in the early balloting, Osborne says, is the reason votes were not detected the first time they were counted.

But why would the IVC optical scanning machines fail to pick up the 464 votes on early ballots in the District 20 primary only to detect votes in the recount when the same early ballots were run through the same type of machine?

I spent 90 minutes with Osborne recently trying to get to the bottom of this question. Suffice it to say, she had no plausible explanation.

Considered the grand dame of elections in Maricopa County, Osborne has been involved in state and county elections for 27 years. She served as assistant secretary of state from 1977 through 1991, when she became assistant elections director for Maricopa County. She became director in 1995.

A Democrat, she has a stellar reputation as an ethical and fair administrator, and elected officials, especially members of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, practically dote on her every word.

Despite her professional stature, Osborne could only muster circular explanations for the spike in votes that surfaced in the District 20 recount.

First she claimed that all of the IVC optical scanners were working perfectly and that they passed rigorous tests before the primary and the recount. Osborne said the IVC optical scanners were virtually interchangeable and would tally nearly the exact number of votes from any given sample of ballots.

But when asked why, then, did one of the IVC scanners detect so many more votes during the recount of early ballots, Osborne blamed the situation on "errant" marks made by voters that sometimes are read by the scanning machines, and sometimes aren't.

"I don't have a specific reason why this particular dot was not read the first time," Osborne said. "I don't have a reason for that. It is the nature of the machines. They are never going to read exactly the same thing."

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