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Hand-count vote bill may get hearing: Plan responds to concerns about touch-screen tallies
[June 20, 2006]

Hand-count vote bill may get hearing: Plan responds to concerns about touch-screen tallies

(Arizona Daily Star, The (Tucson) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Jun. 20--Coming on the heels of local concerns about election accuracy and Pima County's purchase of $2 million in touch-screen voting machines, a proposal likely to be considered by the Legislature this week could help ease those fears.

The measure would subject Arizona elections to automatic hand-counted audits -- something currently illegal in the state.

The bill -- which Rep. Ted Downing, a Tucson Democrat, has been instrumental in drafting -- also would require areas of rapid population growth to have an adequate number of voting booths and workers.

Requiring hand recounts could help pacify local activists who are worried that the county's new touch-screen voting machines could be easily rigged or hacked into, Downing said, because recounts would pressure programmers to ensure that the machines tally votes correctly.

A proposed amendment to the original bill also would require that the machines provide "a durable paper document," since some of the machines use ATM-style paper that could fade.

"It's a step in the right direction, but we have a long way to go," said John Brakey, co-founder of AUDIT, a Tucson group that is raising concerns over the machines.

If approved, the law would take effect this year, but the date would depend on the approval margin. It needs to pass by a two-thirds majority -- garnering 40 votes in the House and 20 in the Senate -- to take effect for the September primary elections, when several tight legislative and congressional races could be decided. Otherwise, the changes wouldn't take effect until the general election.

The bill also would need approval from the U.S. Justice Department.

Sen. Karen Johnson, R-Mesa, the primary sponsor, said the current tallying process -- done strictly by computers -- isn't enough to ensure accuracy.

"We cannot trust computers; that's the main purpose of this," Johnson said. "You hope everything will be great, but we've already had problems."

Part of the anxiety about the current system stems from the results of a 2004 Republican legislative primary race in the Phoenix area. One candidate's four-vote victory there triggered an automatic recount, giving a 13-vote victory to another candidate and uncovering nearly 500 additional votes.

The law's provisions:

--In every election, each county would have to hand-count votes from at least 2 percent of precincts chosen at random. In Pima County, that is about 10 precincts.

--At least four races, also chosen at random, would be counted.

--If the hand-count deviates significantly from the machine tabulation, a second hand count would be done.

--If there is still a discrepancy, another recount using twice as many precincts would be done.

--If the discrepancy still exists, the entire jurisdiction would be recounted.

Although Pima County election officials could not be reached for comment Monday, Johnson said Brad Nelson, Pima's elections director, and officials from rural counties had been involved in drafting the legislation.

The bill has been bouncing around the Legislature since February.

"This has been the bill that has had the most problems of any bill I've worked on in my life," Johnson said. "My hope is that leadership will let it go through."

Downing and Johnson say getting the bill up for a vote has been difficult because it is opposed by Secretary of State Jan Brewer, a Republican running for re-election.

But Kevin Tyne, deputy secretary of state, said the office has expressed some concerns but has otherwise been neutral on the bill.

"I think they're giving the secretary of state a lot more credit than maybe she deserves," Tyne said.

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