CBS 5 Report Regarding Early Ballots Incorrect, Sets Off Firestorm (w/Update)

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***Please see update below***

In an odd segment that aired last night on CBS 5/KPHO, reporter Donna Rossi told viewers that Maricopa County's elections department had received complaints regarding door-knockers representing themselves as county workers, offering to pick up folks' early ballots.

Rossi reported that the county does not have workers authorized to pick up ballots. Then she paraphrased Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell, whose office oversees county elections, as saying that, "it's a Class 5 felony to possess someone else's ballot."

If that were the case, there are a whole lot of postal workers out there who are breaking the law.

In fact, this statement is contrary to what county elections officials previously have told me. Indeed, it is common practice for campaigns of all stripes to contact people registered to receive early ballots and offer to pick up their ballot or mail it for them.

A recent Arizona Republic item on the same subject makes more sense. It quotes County Elections Director Karen Osborne as stating the following:

"Do not give your ballot to anybody that you don't have personal confidence in."

Now, that is sound advice. Still, the question remains: What if you give your early ballot to your spouse or to a cheerful campaign worker from some organization like Adios Arpaio to turn in or mail for you, have you committed a Class 5 felony?

I asked the Arizona Secretary of State's Office.

"No," replied SOS spokesman Matt Roberts. "But there are requirements. Plus, [the ballot] has to be signed and sealed in the tamper evident envelope by the voter."

Roberts referred me to Arizona Revised Statute 16-1005.

This statute does make it clear that anyone "misrepresenting" themselves "as an election official or as an official ballot repository" or "is found to be serving as a ballot drop off site" is guilty of a class 5 felony.

Yet, another part of the law makes it clear that what groups such as Adios Arpaio and Citizens for a Better Arizona are doing is legal, as long as no one is misrepresenting themselves or delaying the delivery of the ballots.

"A person who knowingly collects voted or unvoted ballots and does not turn those ballots in to an election official, the United States postal service or any other entity permitted by law to transmit post is guilty of a class 5 felony."

If you knowingly collect them and do not turn the ballots in, that's a problem. Which implies that if you collect them and turn them in properly, you're within the law.

Arizona elections law expert Tom Ryan, the attorney best known for exposing the sham candidacy of Olivia Cortes during last year's recall election of Russell Pearce, confirmed that picking up ballots for voters is standard practice for candidates and campaigns, as common as offering someone a ride to the polls on election day.

"Anything that misleads the voter into giving you [an early] ballot, or making them vote for someone other than they intend to vote for is a Class 5 felony," he observed.

But if you're honest, and you turn the ballot over to elections officials in a timely manner, it should all be good.

"If I walk up to you and I say, `I'm from Adios Arpaio, and I'd like your early ballot so I can turn it in and make sure it's counted,'" he said, "there's nothing illegal, immoral, unethical, [or] improper...about that."

As a result of the confusion, Citizens for a Better Arizona has announced that it will be turning in over 600 early ballots that the organization has collected to county elections this afternoon.

In a press release, CBA president Randy Parraz denounced Purcell, a Republican, accusing her of voter suppression tactics.

"We have been talking to voters for the past six weeks about the November 6th election, we have signed up over 12,000 voters to receive their ballot in the mail and we have registered over 1,400 citizens to vote," Parraz is quoted as saying. "Now we are going back to these voters and with THEIR PERMISSION we are collecting ballots and turning them into the County Recorder."

"For Helen Purcell, the County Recorder, to go on television and say that such behavior is equivalent to a class 5 felony is reckless and unacceptable. This appears to be just another Republican tactic to suppress the Latino vote. We will not tolerate this type of behavior from our County Recorder. She needs to resign or learn the rules before she opens her mouth."

I'm not willing to go that far, but county elections officials can diffuse the situation by issuing a clarifying statement to the press. Hopefully, they will do so.

UPDATE 10/19/12: Channel 5 has corrected the online text of its report on early ballots, but it does not note a correction, and the mistake is still in the video of the story itself.

The story now directly quotes Purcell as saying, "Being in custody of somebody else's ballot without their permission is a Class 5 Felony."

In the original report, Rossi paraphrases Purcell as saying, "it's a Class 5 felony to possess someone else's ballot."

Which, as I've demonstrated, is incorrect.

Still, about 33 seconds into the segment, Rossi is still stating the incorrect info.

I'm glad Channel 5 made a correction, but the station should note on the site that a correction's been made. And it needs to make the correction on tonight's newscast.

Seems Purcell was the victim of an inaccurate report. Still, I wish county elections had sent out a notice afterward with the correct info.

I should note that I have had good experiences in my contacts with county elections heretofore. It does not seem that they were trying to deceive, based on the CBS 5 correction.

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