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Manual vote audit may not be ready for primary

Written by Subject: Voting - Election Integrity
Manual vote audit may not be ready for primary

By Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services

August 28, 2006

Voters who show up for next month’s primary may not get the promised manual audit of their ballots.

Secretary of State Jan Brewer told Capitol Media Services on Friday she isn’t sure that Arizona can get the required federal approval of the new procedures in time for the Sept. 12 election. And without that approval, Brewer said, the state is precluded from making any changes in state election law.

The chances of action by the U.S. Department of Justice could be slim: Brewer said the state may not be able to submit its plans until Sept. 5 — just one week before the election.

Brewer’s comments drew the ire of Sen. Karen Johnson, R-Mesa, who shepherded the manual recount measure through the Legislature. Johnson, arguing to colleagues that machines that count ballots can be rigged, even rounded up enough votes to have the measure enacted immediately on the governor’s signature on June 28; most other legislation does not take effect until next month.

Johnson said Brewer has been dragging her feet. She pointed out that the secretary of state — and most county elections officials — never wanted the new law. “I just know than Jan has put every roadblock that she can think of . . . in front of this bill,’’ she said.

That, in turn, drew an angry reaction from Brewer.

“I swear to you: I did everything in my power to implement what the Legislature wanted,’’ she said. “I can only do what I’m allowed to do legally.’’

Brewer noted that a sevenmember panel that has to craft some of the specifics just had its first meeting Friday.

The new law is the result of fears that electronic machines can be “hacked’’ to tally results incorrectly. That fear has been fueled by national comments that machines manufactured by Diebold — and used by most Arizona counties — are particularly susceptible.

All counties use paper ballots that are marked by voters. These are then fed into scanners that are supposed to tally the votes and produce a report.

The law requires a hand recount of those paper ballots of randomly selected races in at least 2 percent of the voting precincts in each county.

If that count varies from the machine count by more than statisticians have determined to be an acceptable margin of error — the figure now being calculated by the seven-member panel — then another count is made involving twice as many precincts. And if that difference also is outside the margin, then the ballots for every precinct must be recounted by hand, at least for that race.

“The people that go to vote want to be sure that their votes are being counted accurately,’’ Johnson said. The recount, she said, will determine whether the machinereported count is accurate.

Brewer said the legislation is based on flawed premises.

First, she said, the procedures used in Arizona prevent machines from tampering. Brewer said they are not connected to the Internet — preventing online hacking — and are sealed after being tested.

“It is virtually, in my opinion, almost totally impossible (to reprogram a machine) unless you find a really corrupt official that wants to arbitrarily break the law,’’ she said.

And Brewer said states have gone to machines for a reason.

“We know that technology is far more accurate,’’ she said, “more accurate than hand counts.’’

“Then why . . . would she object to any kind of a check?’’ Johnson responded. She said if the recount proves that the machines are working properly “it will just show how great and wonderful everything she’s doing is.’’

The legislation got a boost this year following a recount of one Republican legislative primary from last September. It turned up more than 400 additional votes, a difference that changed the outcome of the race.

And that recount, like the original tally, was conducted by machine. Maricopa County elections officials said the additional votes were apparently due to differences in sensitivity between different machines to the marking devices used by voters.

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