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Voting machine accuracy to be tested with hand counts (Maybe - Maybe Not)

Written by Subject: Voting - Election Integrity
November 3, 2006

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Voting machine accuracy to be tested with hand counts

By Phil Riske,

Random hand counts of voting machine totals will be conducted a day after the election, but there’s a catch — each county has to have enough volunteers rounded up by political parties to perform the audits.

The audits of voting machine totals will be in effect for the Nov. 7 general election after the U.S. Department of Justice on Oct. 19 approved the final item in an election reform bill (S1557) signed by Governor Napolitano June 28.

Spokesmen for the Democratic and Republican parties all said they will have enough volunteers in Maricopa County to conduct the audits.

“We have more than enough,” said Democrat spokesman Bart Graves.

Democrats are working with Libertarians to fill their slots because of their small numbers, said Ernest Hancock, Libertarian candidate for secretary of state.

The GOP’s Garrick Taylor said Republicans will have enough volunteers, plus will have a “legal team” to watch over the voting.

New law has its critics

The new law, the goal of which is to reveal the accuracy of electronic voting machines in selected precincts and races, is, however, not without its critics. Even its sponsor, Sen. Karen Johnson, R-18, says it will need some “tweaking” in the next legislative session to avoid confusion as to the exact intent of the law. “It’s so convoluted, it’s hard to write,” she said, adding there was confusion in some counties as of Nov. 2 regarding the number of precincts and races to be audited.

The law, which was enacted with an emergency clause, calls for a hand recount of votes in at least 2 percent of county precincts in at least four contested races as a spot check against computer tabulations. It also established a Vote Count Verification Committee, which has set what it decided are acceptable margins of error between the machines and the hand counted totals.

Those margins are 1 percent for votes cast at the polls and 2 percent for mail-in ballots.

If initial audits show errors greater than the committee’s acceptable margins, audits would be expanded to include double the number of precincts, Ms. Johnson said. If the errors remain outside the margins, the audits theoretically could include all precincts in the state.

What if the audits show unacceptable margins of error?

“If it’s still out of whack, then they will know that the election wasn’t right — that the machines are wrong,” Ms. Johnson said.

“There would have to be a fatal flaw in every county for that to happen,” said Karen Osborne, Maricopa County elections director.

She said practice audits after the primary election went well, but with a hitch. The new law requires a certain number of volunteers from the political parties in each county to conduct the audits — 144 in Maricopa County, for example — but not enough showed up for the practice run.

If a county does not have the required number of volunteers, the audits will not be conducted in that county.

The political parties, in effect, draw precincts and contested races out of a hat for the audits, which they conduct.

Audit in Maricopa County will begin Nov. 8

In Maricopa County, the drawings will begin election night at 11 p.m., and the audits will begin the next afternoon, Ms. Osborne said. The audits must be completed before the official canvass of votes. The canvass is scheduled to be certified Dec. 4.

“We wanted them [audits] done right at the polls, at the precinct when they close,” Ms. Johnson said, but county recorders opposed that.

Ms. Osborne said she is “absolutely” confident in the accuracy of the county’s Sequoia voting machines, which also provide a paper receipt.

Mr. Hancock says he is not confident in the state elections system, even with the new law. During the primary campaign, he accused Secretary of State Jan Brewer of delaying implementation of S1557, a law he says he doesn’t like.

Mr. Hancock was asked why he accused Mrs. Brewer of delaying implementation of a law he doesn’t like anyway, the Libertarian said, “I can’t have it both ways? My whole thing is that this entire process has been so bastardized… ”

He said he is concerned about the security of ballots transferred from precincts to the county elections department and that the audits are not conducted immediately at the polls.

Proponents of manual vote counts have tried for 10 years to get such a law enacted in Arizona. The push this year was aided by the resurgence of a controversy surrounding the 2004 House primary recount election in District 20, where now-Rep. John McComish won nomination over his opponent Anton Orlich, after trailing in the original vote. The FBI this year seized the recount ballots for that race, but has not made public comment since.

More than a dozen other states have adopted manual recount statutes.