Ballot Box Breakdowns

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

An independent voting-technology expert has discovered widespread problems within the Maricopa County Elections Department that raise serious questions over the ability of voting officials in the nation's fourth-most-populous county to conduct fair and accurate elections.

"Any election where the margin of victory is under 2 percent could be called into question," says University of Iowa computer science professor Douglas Jones.

Jones is one of the nation's top experts on voting-machine technology. He discovered the irregularities during an inspection of the county's vote-tabulation machinery late last month.

"These problems," Jones says in an interview, "suggest a systemic problem with election administration" in Maricopa County and a failure by the state to properly oversee the county's handling of elections.

Jones, who testified before Congress on voting-machine technology following the 2000 presidential election, was inspecting the county's tabulation machines to determine why 489 votes inexplicably appeared during a September 2004 recount of a state legislative race that changed the outcome of the election.

Jones says the appearance of the votes during the District 20 recount on September 21, 2004, appears to have been caused by either failure of the county's voting machines to accurately read ballots or illegal vote tampering. Jones says the only way to determine what happened beyond this is to visually inspect the District 20 ballots.

"Someone should take a look at the real ballots," he says.

An examination of the District 20 ballots, Jones says, would also provide the public with crucial information about the overall fairness and accuracy of elections in Maricopa County. Visual inspection would allow researchers to determine what type of writing instruments voters used to mark early ballots in the race. Early ballots accounted for about half of the votes cast in the 2004 primary and general elections.

Jones says evidence he has uncovered reveals that the county's written instructions to voters using early ballots to use a black ballpoint pen and draw a single line to make their vote creates a 1 in 12 chance that the vote will not be counted.

"We already have found something that is not good news for the elections department," Jones says. "They should have been giving better advice."

Jones' examination of the voting machines has also revealed other serious problems with the way Maricopa County conducts elections, including:

•: The county has failed to uniformly calibrate its optical scanning machines used to count ballots, which appears to be a violation of federal election law. At least two of the six Optech 4-C optical scanners Jones tested are far less likely to detect votes cast with black and blue ballpoint pens than the others.

• The optical scanners are improperly calibrated to be ultra-sensitive to pencil marks and will detect even tiny specks of lead and smudge marks as votes, leading to the possibility of unintended votes being counted.

• Election officials appear to lack fundamental knowledge of how their election machinery operates and are making public statements about how to mark ballots that are contrary to the actual behavior of their equipment.

Jones is also critical of Secretary of State Jan Brewer, whose office approves voting machines used by Arizona counties.

"This reflects poorly on the state's process of approving these machines," Jones says.

Neither County Recorder Helen Purcell, who oversees the Maricopa County Elections Department, nor Brewer responded to New Times' requests for interviews to discuss Jones' findings.

But in an interview published last July in the Arizona Capitol Times, Brewer said Maricopa County's optical scanning machines have worked without any problems -- which Jones' report contradicts.

"We were very fortunate we were one of the first states that implemented optical scan [voting machines] throughout all our counties," Brewer said. "[We] did the last election (2004) with no glitches, unlike other states, and I'm very, very proud of that accomplishment."

Tom Ryan, director of Arizona Citizens for Fair Elections, says Jones' findings suggest that Maricopa County and the Secretary of State's Office have been violating Arizona's election law that requires voting machines to be maintained to accurately tally votes.

The tally of 489 new votes found during the District 20 recount is equal to about a 4 percent increase of the total number of votes counted between the primary and the recount.

"This implies that all the races that were run [in 2004 in Maricopa County] could have had 4 percent error in them," Ryan says. "That's pretty amazing! That's pretty horrible! It's appalling."

Maricopa County has used its current vote-tabulation equipment since 1995. The county has known since at least 2002 that the machines did not consistently read votes. In that year, a recount of a legislative race found more than 100 new votes, but that election did not generate public scrutiny because the recount did not change its outcome.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty