For six years, election integrity activist Mickey Duniho has been demanding Pima County strengthen its ballot audit procedures by sorting early ballots.
So when he found out the county had received an exemption from a new state requirement to do exactly that, he was - as he described it - "apoplectic."
"I could not believe that something like that had happened behind my back," said Duniho, a member of the county's Election Integrity Commission, which advises the Board of Supervisors on election-related decisions.
Duniho talks about sorting early ballots by precinct nearly every time the commission meets, which is about once a month. At the group's emergency meeting less than a month ago, he managed to persuade the rest of the members to recommend the Board of Supervisors authorize sorting early ballots for a hand count of at least one precinct this election, though the details of how it would be done were unclear.
The board is scheduled to consider the recommendation Tuesday, but officials are skeptical that there's time left to do such a sort before election results are made official. County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry released a memo Friday advising against the recommendation, primarily for logistical reasons.
Duniho is concerned that the state requirement of a hand count for 2 percent of precincts and 1 percent of early ballots is inadequate, in part because the huge increase in early voting means the overall proportion of ballots audited has decreased.
He's worried that because the hand audit tallies are not compared with official election results, the system won't detect fraud, even if it does verify that the ballot scanners counted correctly.
Whether the intention of the audit is to detect fraud or simply to verify tabulation is disputed, but statisticians working on election issues agree that it's important to compare the hand count to the equivalent tallies.
How the numbers are presented determines how the hand count should be done, said Philip Stark, a professor of statistics at the University of California at Berkeley and advocate of an alternative statistics-based audit system. "It's important to make sure you're comparing apples to apples."
The newest round of controversy, however, was not over how to do the best audit, but rather what's required under statewide election rules, and who knew about recent changes.
The Secretary of State's Office updated its Election Procedures Manual late last year to require counties to sort their early ballots by precinct or by legislative district.
Its reason was most counties were already pre-sorting, so the rule change would provide clarity and consistency to the process, spokesman Matt Roberts said.
Pima County officials said the rule change was never discussed during revision meetings and was not in the final version submitted to participants, but was slipped in afterward. Roberts disputes that, saying that counties' representatives agreed to it.
Pima County Director of Elections Brad Nelson sought and received approval last summer for an alternative plan on the grounds the current procedures were less costly and time consuming and would involve ballots from a greater number of precincts. Pima was the only county exempted, Roberts said.
The Election Integrity Commission regularly discussed hand count audit procedures and didn't know about the rule change. And Nelson didn't bring it up at any of their meetings, even after he got the exemption in June.
"I have always been telling the EIC about changes coming down the pike. In my mind, I was thinking that all we're doing is maintaining the status quo," Nelson said in explanation.
But Duniho and some other activists view it as a lie by omission.
They found out about the rule change and the county's request for an alternate plan only in the county's response to a lawsuit that activists filed to get Pima County to sort the early ballots by precinct.
That lawsuit was unsuccessful.
Nelson said he plans to present the Board of Supervisors with options for complying with the state's ballot-sorting requirement on Tuesday.
His first choice is to buy new equipment that would create a digital scan of every ballot for auditing purposes, something the secretary of state has agreed to on a pilot basis.
Short of that, Nelson said, the options include sorting the ballots entirely by hand, buying a sorting machine or renting one, or acquiring an automated sorter and signature scanner such as Maricopa County now uses. Officials would also have to figure out when in the process ballots would be sorted.
Still, none of that is likely to happen this election because the canvass date is quickly approaching, Nelson said.
"I'm not certain of the scope of what the EIC actually voted upon," he said. "While there had been discussion before, there had never been a consensus."
Nelson pointed out that there is a separate audit procedure that checks the tallies printed by the ballot scanners against the counts in the central tabulating computer.
He worries the hand count audit could somehow interfere with the counting of very close races, such as Congressional District 2.
"Should you really be pawing through the ballots while this election is very much alive?" Nelson asked.
County supervisors also have mixed feelings about the changes, especially because they will likely add to the mounting complexity and cost of elections, which have already more than doubled in cost from 2000 to 2008.
"I have not heard anything compelling from Brad Nelson about why we should not do it," Supervisor Richard Elías said. "I think it's a tough situation. We need to make sure that people believe in our elections. This election here has been terrible for that."
Huckelberry noted in his memo the hand-count audit for this election has already been completed.
On Nov. 10, political party volunteers hand-checked votes in 12 precincts, or 4 percent of the total, which is twice the number required by law.
More than 38,000 votes for president, Proposition 116, Corporation Commission, U.S. representative and state senator were included in the audit.
Nine discrepancies were found, which Huckelberry described as "more than likely human error related to the audit."
Contact reporter Carli Brosseau at email@example.com and 573-4197. On Twitter @carlibrosseau.