The crucial District 20 ballots that have become the centerpiece of a mushrooming election scandal are not in the Maricopa County Treasurer's vault as apparently required by state law.
Instead, I have discovered that the 17,000 ballots are stashed away in an unguarded, un-air-conditioned warehouse west of Sky Harbor Airport.
"I don't even have a key to it; I have never been there," Maricopa County Treasurer David Schweikert tells me. "We store other things in this storage facility, too."
Schweikert says ballots have not been stored in the county treasurer's vault for years. He says the offsite storage facility is "safer" than the vault because fewer people have access to it compared to the vault.
But the fact that the ballots have not been stored as prescribed by state law shocked state Senator Jack Harper, the Republican maverick from Surprise who has been trying for six months to gain access to the ballots so that an independent expert could examine them.
"You have to be kidding!" Harper replied when I told him about the location of the ballots. "That's amazing. I think the treasurer may be in violation of the law."
The discovery that the ballots are not in the Treasurer's vault increases the possibility that they could have been damaged or tampered with in the 16 months since the now-infamous September 2004 Republican primary election.
The District 20 ballots should be treated as gold. These ballots hold powerful clues about the failure of Maricopa County and the state of Arizona to conduct fair and accurate elections in the nation's fourth-largest county.
Recently, a nationally recognized voting technology expert concluded that examination of the District 20 ballots is key to determining whether election machines used in Maricopa County elections could have failed in the September 2004 primary election -- or whether someone may have tampered with votes in the one race under the expert's review.
It's difficult to say which would be worse news for Maricopa County and the state of Arizona. Although the results of the election cannot be overturned, because they have been certified, voting machine failure might signal that an overhaul of voting machinery is warranted. As for ballot tampering, it is an illegal act that should land whoever is responsible in jail.
But possibly the most distressing aspect of Senator Harper's quest to find out what went wrong in a local election is that certain Republican political leaders have done everything in their power to keep the public from finding out what happened.
They, along with Democractic Senator Bill Brotherton, had been trying to subject Harper to an Ethics Committee probe. But sanity prevailed, and that idea was voted down.
I can accept that people employed by the Maricopa County Elections Department may not know how to work the county's election machinery. This is a problem that can be fixed.
I also understand that vote tampering occurs from time to time. This, too, can be addressed with a competent criminal investigation.
But what is up with this orchestrated cover-up? The arrogance of public officials who think they can just refuse to allow a state senator to find out what went wrong is staggering.
The sanctity of votes cuts to the root of democracy and freedom. If our political leaders refuse to openly and honestly address fundamental problems in the conduct of elections, then we have no choice but to protest loud and long.
The public has a fundamental right to know what caused the inexplicable appearance of 489 votes between the September 7, 2004, Republican primary for the state House of Representatives in District 20 and the recount two weeks later. The new votes changed the outcome of the primary election for the Ahwatukee Foothills district seat.
The District 20 mess is a unique wake-up call that the state and county must improve the accuracy and reliability of elections. University of Iowa computer scientist Douglas Jones says it is only necessary to inspect a random sample of about 1,000 of the 17,000 ballots cast in the District 20 Republican primary to determine whether the county's voting machines failed in the 2004 primary or whether there was vote tampering.
Jones says the inspection of the ballots can be conducted in less than a day at a cost of less than $1,000. That's a remarkably fast and inexpensive course of action to resolve an issue of huge public importance.
Time is of the essence. This is a crucial election year. Arizona Republicans have publicly stated that they are determined to win two-thirds majorities in the Senate and the House to override future vetoes by Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano, who is expected to win reelection in November.
With such high-stakes elections on the immediate horizon, it is imperative that issues engulfing the county elections department be honestly and openly addressed. If the state and the county fail to do this before the upcoming elections, huge doubts will be cast on their legitimacy.
You would think that everyone would want to determine what happened -- is it machine failure or fraud? But a handful of the state's most powerful political leaders, all Republicans, are fighting like hell to keep the District 20 ballots from getting audited.
Senate President Ken Bennett and Speaker of the House Jim Weiers have repeatedly tried to derail Senator Harper's investigation into District 20. Sources told New Times that Weiers may have offered Harper a favor last June to back off from his investigation. Weiers denies making the offer, but Harper tells me he's willing to swear under oath that it occurred.
Bennett, meanwhile, forced Harper to find private funding to pay for Jones' trip to Phoenix to examine and test Maricopa County's voting machines. New Times volunteered to cover Jones' expenses up to $3,000 to conduct his research. This is something the Senate should have paid for but refused to. It seems obvious that Bennett doesn't want the public to know about the serious problems inside the county elections department.
Secretary of State Jan Brewer has participated in the cover-up by failing to conduct a thorough investigation of the county elections department after learning about the inexplicable appearance of the votes during the recount. Brewer is making idiotic statements that everything is fine while ignoring her duty to make sure the county conducts fair and accurate elections.
Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas has taken extraordinary steps to hide the underlying causes of the District 20 fiasco. Thomas conducted a "preliminary" investigation into District 20 last spring at the request of Maricopa County Republican party leaders. His investigators discovered extremely damaging evidence of problems inside the county elections department. They found that the county's voting machines may have failed during the 2004 primary, and they discovered evidence of witness tampering ("All Bark and No Bite," July 14).
What did Thomas do with such evidence of voting machine failure and interference in a court proceeding by public employees?
He sanctioned the member of his own office who was involved, but he closed his investigation.
Since that date, Thomas has been particularly hostile to Harper's efforts to obtain the ballots to determine what happened.
His office is now attacking the credibility of Douglas Jones' examination of the voting machines involved, as well as publicly ridiculing Harper.
In an incredible affront to the public's fundamental right to fair elections, Thomas is now saying he will oppose all efforts to inspect the District 20 ballots.
At the center of the cover-up sits Maricopa County elections director Karen Osborne. I have documented a long list of clever deceptions that have spewed from her mouth over the last 16 months.
Suffice it to say here that Osborne bent the truth to the county Board of Supervisors on September 22, 2004, when the board voted 3-1 to certify the District 20 recount.
Osborne told the supervisors that the reason all the votes suddenly appeared during the recount was that ballots were counted on the "more sensitive" Optech 4-C machines during the recount, as opposed to the "less sensitive" Eagle machines during the primary.
The truth is, nearly all of the 489 new votes came from early, mail-in ballots. And all early ballots were counted by the Optech 4-C machines in the primary as well as the recount. The Eagle voting machines are used to tabulate votes cast on election day at individual precincts.
Osborne made a bogus comparison of two different makes of voting machines to provide some sort of plausible explanation to the supervisors. If she had told them that the Optech 4-C machine in the primary failed to detect votes that were later discovered by an identical Optech 4-C in the recount, the supervisors would have realized that there were huge problems in the elections department.
It gets even worse.
The next day, Osborne misled Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Eddward Ballinger when she changed her story about where all the votes came from. This time, she said the voting machines have an extremely difficult time reading early votes cast by black felt-tip pens and glitter pens.
We now know, thanks to Jones' examination of the county's voting machines, that this isn't true. Jones found that the Optech 4-C machines can detect even a dot made by black felt-tip pens as a vote and that glitter pens performed better than any other writing instrument he tested.
It's way past time for the Legislature to support Harper's effort to gain immediate access to the District 20 ballots so that an independent audit can be conducted.
The District 20 ballots that are apparently being illegally stored outside the treasurer's vault had better be in excellent condition, or hell is likely to break loose from voting-rights groups that are closely monitoring the issue.
Perhaps that's why Republican leaders are so intent on blocking access to the ballots.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.