Spurred by a series of lawsuits and scrutiny from election activists, Pima County has improved the security of its election processes - and spent as much as $2.5 million doing it.
As a result, the county has gotten at least mild approval from some its harshest critics, a few of whom sit on the Election Integrity Commission that advises the county on technical issues.
Mickey Duniho, who called for a special meeting of the commission Friday to try to force more robust audit procedures, said at the meeting: "My feeling is that today elections in Pima County are processed in a very good manner. I don't see any major things that I want to change."
He does see some smaller things. Duniho has argued for six years that the county should sort early ballots by precinct so a hand-count of at least a couple of full precincts can be done after votes are tallied. By law, the county must hand-count at least 1 percent of the early ballots.
Duniho and fellow commission member and University of Arizona computer science professor Tom Ryan are concerned that an audit that doesn't sort ballots by precinct would not reveal fraud within the tabulation software through the introduction of a virus.
After some debate, the commission voted unanimously to recommend that the Board of Supervisors try to implement the sorting Duniho advocates for a hand-count after the Nov. 6 election. The board's next meeting is Nov. 13.
Benny White, the Republican Party observer on the board, walked out before the vote, excusing himself because he will likely be involved in a lawsuit filed just before the meeting.
Duniho is a plaintiff in that lawsuit, which asks a judge to force Pima County to separate the early ballots by precinct. The lawsuit also demands that the county include in the official returns envelope a copy of the tally report issued by ballot scanners at the precincts and signed by poll workers and that it conduct "sufficient" hand-count audits of early ballots.
It demands that county races be included in the hand-count audit, which is not required by Arizona law. County staff workers and advocates dispute whether it is allowed.
White said after the meeting that he will likely participate on behalf of the Republican Party if it decides to intervene in the case or as a witness for Pima County.
latest legal action
The lawsuit is the most recent in a series stemming from questions about the 2006 Regional Transportation Authority election. The proponents of those cases, filed by attorney Bill Risner, maintain recent changes are only "election theater."
Friday's meeting of the Election Integrity Commission - videotaped, with legal briefs stacked on chairs - highlights the dynamics that have led to a system County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry called "night and day compared to before."
A combination of employee initiative, court-mandated action, political-party advocacy and commission analysis has produced elections with less error by poll workers, increased scrutiny of ballots' chain of custody and increasing confidence among technical experts that the tally is more secure.
"What we have in many cases is technology outstripping the administrative and legal functions," Huckelberry said. "That accounts for about 90 percent of the acrimony."
He said the county's relationship to the state is the source of many problems. "We can only do what the state law explicitly allows us to do."
He said that does not include doing a hand-count audit of county races or creating digital scans of ballots that could be put online for a public audit - a technology the Election Integrity Commission increasingly supports.
Pima County has been in talks with the Secretary of State's Office about the scanning technology for several years. Though the office approved a pilot project, the launch has been stalled.
Many of the questions activists have raised have been technical, centering on the ease of potentially manipulating votes in the tabulation software.
They question the expertise - and sometimes the integrity - of Brad Nelson, the county's elections director.
Nelson said though he is not a "technical guy," he's thorough and an elections specialist. He relies on his technical staff to advise him.
Huckelberry said Nelson has been unfairly criticized. "Your job description as an elections official doesn't say you need to be an information-technology specialist."
The county's part-time technical elections adviser, John Moffatt, has agreed with activists that the software is vulnerable. "That's why I went for physical security," he said.
New measures included putting metal covers over USB drives on voting machines and adding locks, passwords, surveillance and sign-in procedures.
U.S. APPROVAL NEEDED
The county can only buy election machines and software approved by the federal certification process, which has broken down, so new technology is unlikely to offer security solutions anytime soon, officials say.
County memos show an interest in replacing scanners in 2007, but there have been so few available that the same machines are still in use, patched with new parts.
The result is a system that uses a patchwork of checks and balances to provide security to a complicated and often-shifting process.
"You want to minimize the error so that it doesn't change the results," said Arnie Urken, a professor in the College of Engineering at the University of Arizona and a member of the Election Integrity Commission. "I think that's about the best you can hope to do."
For Huckelberry, that means looking closely at mailed-in ballots. "There's no chain of custody on a mailed ballot," he said. "If there's holes in election integrity, it's going to appear in early voting."
It also means improving poll-worker training, which had been the single largest source of election discrepancies, he said.
After each election, Nelson now puts together an analysis of discrepancies at polling places.
In the Feb. 28 election, there was an average of 2.8 discrepancies of various kinds at each polling place. Eleven polling spaces had more than five errors.
In the Aug. 28 Republican primary, the same figure was 1.2, and two polling sites had more than five discrepancies.
The commission has agreed to pursue tougher audit standards and a pilot test of digital ballot scans.
As it is, though, much of the system relies on volunteer political party observers. Each one, paired with a member of the opposite party, monitors the process for signs of error or foul play.
A win for advocates of the Open Primary proposition of the current ballot, Prop. 121, would disrupt the checks now in place, election observers say.
"If that passes, there is major turmoil in elections," said Moffatt, the county's elections adviser. "We would have to essentially start over."
Did you know?
Some of the changes to Pima County election procedures in the past five years:
• Outside wiring no longer connected to counting systems.
• New electronic access control system at consolidated counting facility.
• Video surveillance system tapes and streams counting.
• Reports produced before and after a day's counting ensure that numbers match.
• Servers disconnected and computers locked up after a day's counting.
• Sweeps for wireless signals conducted at random precincts and at the counting facility.
• Tamper-evident seals added to touchscreen machines.
• Took away administrative privileges on tabulation computer from elections staff. New two-part passwords require IT staff to be present for log-in.
• Precinct results driven to the counting site rather than transmitted electronically.
• Better chain of custody controls.
• Background checks for elections staff.
• Outside firm prints and mails early ballots.
• U.S. Postal Services' most advanced bar-code system lets ballots be tracked online.
• Poll workers' training increased from 90 minutes to six hours.
• Doubled the percentage of precincts hand-counted. (However, because increased early voting has a lower audit requirement, the number of ballots hand-counted has remained fairly stable.)
Contact reporter Carli Brosseau at email@example.com or 573-4197.