Pandora's Box

State Republican Senator Jack Harper's enraging a powerful legislator with his determined effort to get to the bottom of a potentially explosive vote-counting scandal at the Maricopa County Elections Department.

The second-term senator from Surprise plans to hold legislative hearings early next year into the controversial September 7, 2004, District 20 recount, where the inexplicable appearance of nearly 500 new votes between the primary and the recount challenge the accuracy and integrity of elections in the nation's fourth-largest county.

Harper's plan to hold the hearings before the Senate Government Accountability and Reform Committee, which he chairs, is upsetting some key Republican legislators, including Arizona Speaker of the House Jim Weiers.

Weiers took the unusual step of summoning Harper to his office on June 16 to berate him for planning to investigate the District 20 recount. Weiers told Harper that the issue doesn't belong before the Legislature.

"This really, truly is an issue that belongs with the [Maricopa] County Attorney," Weiers told me, when I queried him on why he had gotten involved.

Even after Harper related to the speaker that it appears county elections officials failed to properly secure ballots between the Republican primary and the recount, Weiers said he remained opposed to the legislative hearings.

Turns out, elections officials' handling of the situation is even more suspect. The department not only appears to have left the ballots unattended, it currently has no idea who had access to them between the primary and the recount.

Assistant county attorney Colleen Conner admitted in an October 14 letter to me that the elections department "does not have records related to individuals or personnel specifically involved in the collection, sorting or preparation of the District 20 ballots and recount."

In addition, the elections department refuses to release the names of Maricopa County sheriff's deputies who were supposed to be guarding the ballots between the primary and the recount. Instead, it referred my records request to the sheriff's office. (I'm sure Conner is well aware that the sheriff's office brazenly ignores most of my requests for public records.)

You would think such incompetence and aggressive stonewalling by the county elections department would spur the Speaker of the House to make every effort possible to determine what happened during the recount.

Speaker Weiers admitted to me that he was moved to believe that Harper was onto something "kind of serious" when the state senator related that he was pretty sure he could prove that the ballots were left unattended.

Yet instead of strongly supporting Harper's quest to unravel the mystery surrounding the recount mess in the Ahwatukee Foothills district, Weiers has become yet another barrier between the public and the truth.

As for Weiers' plea that the county attorney, if anybody, should take up the fight, Andrew Thomas' office has already whitewashed the matter. And it has done so without providing a clear and convincing explanation of how in the hell 489 votes -- which changed the outcome of the Republican primary race for a state House seat -- suddenly appeared during a recount.

Karen Osborne, director of the county elections department, has blamed the fiasco on gel pens and Sharpies used by some voters to mark early mail-in ballots. But her weak explanation doesn't satisfy the Maricopa County Republican party, which last winter persuaded Thomas' office to conduct the very type of investigation that Weiers suggested.

And that investigation concluded that the county was guilty of stunning impropriety regarding District 20. Thomas' investigators discovered that assistant county attorney Jill Kennedy had improperly provided legal advice to the manufacturer of voting machines used in the election.

Kennedy, who represented the elections department before Conner took over in the wake of this scandal, deliberately took steps to make sure Election Systems & Software employee Tina Polich wasn't served with a subpoena to appear in court to explain how the company's voting machines could have had such a wide variation in tabulating votes. (Although she's employed by a private firm, Polich kept an office in the elections department.)

Polich's absence from a one-day hearing before Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Eddward Ballinger on September 23, 2004, allowed Election Systems to cover up evidence of a possible voting-machine malfunction during the District 20 recount.

Polich's failure to appear angered Ballinger, who had no choice, without her testimony, but to certify the election.

Amazingly, Polich later told investigators from the County Attorney's Office that "there could have been a malfunction with the machine that resulted in the large discrepancy."

I'll say there was a large discrepancy -- an 18.3 percent increase in the number of votes counted from early ballots between the primary election and the recount!

But rather than expanding the investigation into the elections department as a whole, Thomas meekly dropped his investigation without getting to the bottom of the incident.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty