Ballot Boxing

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.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty