Litmus Test

Last fall, I uncovered serious problems with the Maricopa County Department of Elections' handling of a September primary recount that cast a cloud over the county's ability to conduct fair and accurate elections.

My concerns have now attracted the attention of the Maricopa County Republican Committee, which is demanding that County Attorney Andrew Thomas conduct a "thorough investigation" of the elections department's handling of the District 20 recount.

Republican leaders made their request for an investigation based on the troubling facts that I uncovered and first reported three weeks before the general election ("Election Eve Nightmare," October 14). Their one-page resolution quotes extensively from my column detailing the events surrounding the now-infamous recount.

The Republican Party Executive Guidance Committee passed a resolution in January stating that "to insure the integrity of the electoral process, a thorough investigation must follow any election when the outcome of said election is in question due to any irregularity."

Republican leaders said there were "serious irregularities" in the elections department's handling of the recount of the District 20 GOP House primary race.

My investigation discovered significant problems with the reliability of the increasingly popular early ballots and the accuracy of the county's optical scanning machines -- as well as arrogance and highly questionable actions by county elections officials.

So far, the newly elected county attorney has done next to nothing on an issue that should be of extreme public importance: the fair and accurate counting of votes.

Instead, Thomas' spokesman, Barnett Lotstein, says the County Attorney's Office is conducting a "preliminary review" to see whether a full-blown investigation is warranted. Lotstein gave no indication as to how long this review will take, although the Republican party's written request for an investigation is dated January 10.

That's plenty of time to determine whether to move forward with a formal investigation, especially since there is a mountain of evidence of impropriety.

The ultraconservative Thomas -- who has written that drug offenders should be locked up in public stockades, among other medieval law enforcement policies -- has an opportunity to prove that he's more than a far-right ideologue.

But six weeks into his term, Thomas looks like he's content to be Sheriff Joe Arpaio's handmaiden and to rubber-stamp Arpaio's increasingly dangerous violations of constitutional protections. Thomas, for example, gave the thumbs-up to Arpaio's latest offensive -- and probably illegal -- policy of requesting voluntary fingerprints from motorists stopped on traffic violations.

At the same time Thomas is endorsing policies that infringe on Fourth Amendment protections against illegal search and seizure, he appears to be ignoring serious concerns by leaders of his own party about the conduct of elections in Maricopa County.

As far as I'm concerned, Thomas' handling of the request for an investigation into the county elections department is an early litmus test of his administration.

Does he have the integrity and courage to investigate the county elections department that is headed by a woman -- Karen Osborne -- whose daughter is married to one of Arpaio's civilian employees?

Will he look into the sheriff's office's highly questionable role in the conduct of elections, where inmates are used to prepare and mail hundreds of thousands of early ballots? There's already evidence that inmates tampered with last year's early ballots.

Will Thomas also look into the strange anomaly in last year's primary race that had 10,000 more ballots cast for the hotly contested sheriff's race between Arpaio and Dan Saban than for any other countywide election?

Or will Thomas bow to political pressure to cut a sister county agency slack despite monumental screw-ups that fouled the District 20 recount and raised doubt about the sanctity of elections in Maricopa County?

The answer is obvious. Thomas should immediately upgrade the preliminary review and launch a wide-ranging investigation into the county elections department.

Anton Orlich won the District 20 Republican primary for the state House by a mere four votes over John McComish. The narrow margin of victory automatically triggered a recount.

That's when the serious problems with the county elections department began to appear.

During the recount of ballots, 489 new votes suddenly appeared. The dramatic increase in the number of new votes -- nearly all of which (464) came from early ballots -- stunned the candidates and election experts.

"This makes me question whether there is any ability to say for sure that any election result is what it appears to be," Phoenix election law attorney Lisa Hauser, who was representing Orlich, told me then.

The recount changed the outcome of the election, with McComish winning by 13 votes.

My investigation revealed that county elections director Osborne intended to violate state law by seeking a manual recount of the primary ballots. The law requires that a recount be done with the same equipment as in the first election -- which in this case was optical scanners.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty