Rocking the Boat

GOP bigwigs and their pandering pals in the mainstream press are apoplectic about a state senator and New Times' fight to discover the truth. What're these pols trying to hide?

Published online: Wednesday, January 11, 2006, 3:10 p.m. MST

We at New Times would've gotten a big laugh out of all the pompous posturing by the likes of Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, Arizona Senate President Ken Bennett and the fawning Arizona Republic, except for one thing:

These yokels, over the past week or two, have been putting on a sideshow that's diverted public attention from a serious issue.

Senator Jack Harper's the real guy on a white horse in the election controversy.
Mark Poutenis
Senator Jack Harper's the real guy on a white horse in the election controversy.

By screaming that state Senator Jack Harper was somehow illegally in cahoots with New Times writer John Dougherty to examine voting machines used in an election where (abracadabra!) 489 votes suddenly appeared out of nowhere, they have attempted to make so much noise that everybody forgets what the whole thing is all about.

Harper happens to be chairman of the Government Accountability and Reform Committee. Consider the title of this standing legislative committee for a moment. Its vaunted purpose is to look into irregularities that affect state government.

Like when election officials in Maricopa County -- which happens to be the largest county in Arizona and the fourth-largest in the nation -- have no valid explanation for why all those votes were found between the Republican primary and a recount in the 2004 District 20 race for state representative between Anton Orlich and John McComish.

Granted, this wasn't the biggest race in the state, but what went on in this Ahwatukee Foothills election is important because a couple of things could've happened: Election officials either screwed up royally -- demonstrating a high level of incompetence -- or somebody tampered with votes.

Either possibility is a major scandal, because if election officials botched things badly in this tiny race, what might they have done in other races in Maricopa County? Every 2004 election from County Attorney and Sheriff on down could've been affected.

Maybe not enough to make the same kind of difference a big screw-up may have made in the District 20 race, where Orlich won by four votes in the primary only to lose by 13 votes once those 489 new ballots turned up out of thin air. But whatever happened to that quaint notion in this country that every vote counts? Obviously in the case of District 20, even with the mandatory recount, we've got to wonder if every single ballot received proper attention.

Now, this seems the time to make something crystal clear:

We at New Times don't give a damn who won the race between Orlich and McComish. John Dougherty couldn't care less who won the contest between the two conservative Republicans involved. It's as if the poor man's Richard Nixon ran against the poor man's Ronald Reagan.

Still, Andy Thomas likes to claim, on the one hand, that New Times is made up of a bunch of ACLU-loving lefties, and, on the other, that we're trying to force a recount of the District 20 election because we want Orlich, who's the ultra-conservative Ronald Reagan in this scenario, to win over the slightly less right-wing McComish.

For starters, if Thomas knew as much about state law as he tells everybody he does, he'd realize that it's impossible for any such official recount to occur, much less change an election in Arizona once it's been certified by a judge.

The point is, all New Times wants to do is find out what went wrong in that little primary election, because it speaks to how County Recorder Helen Purcell, elections chief Karen Osborne (who works for Purcell), their minions and their voting machines do business overall.

If you don't think voting irregularities are a big deal in this state, consider all the flak Arizona Secretary of State Jan Brewer got the other day. In what was supposed to be a simple Capitol lawn press conference about Brewer's "accomplishments," she was shouted down by a throng of voting-rights protesters about the state's use of voting machines prone to inaccuracies over paper ballots.

Believe me, Brewer cares deeply what her constituents think. It was she, our sources tell us, who played a part in Arizona House Speaker Jim Weiers' summoning of Senator Harper to his office last summer to urge him in no uncertain terms to stop investigating the District 20 recount ("Pandora's Box," October 27, 2005). Did I mention that every top official involved in this skirmish -- from Bennett, Brewer and Weiers down to Thomas and Purcell -- is a Republican?

Even maverick Senator Harper's a Republican -- a God-fearing right-winger who just wants to do the right thing. Somebody who doesn't much like career politicians, even from his own political party, telling him to do the wrong thing because Republicans always support other Republicans.

But there's another reason that Brewer & Company care so deeply: liability to the state and county if voting-rights organizations find out election machines are malfunctioning and everybody's vote isn't getting counted. Imagine the cost of replacing all that technology. Imagine the legal costs of defending against probable lawsuits.

Which may explain why so many powerful GOP officials around here have stepped into traffic in an attempt to stop Harper from getting to the bottom of why those 489 votes popped up between the primary and the recount.

Why Andy Thomas wrote a letter to Senate President Bennett -- which he made sure every news organization in town except New Times got -- accusing Harper of "engaging in a series of bizarre and erratic actions that, I submit, cast serious doubt on his fitness to serve as a committee chairman and to possess the subpoenaing and police powers attendant with that position."

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