The Pima County Elections Department will hold onto digital images of ballots cast during the Aug. 30 primary election, despite its current policy of clearing them out daily after results are tabulated.

That’s in response to a lawsuit filed in Pima County Superior Court last week that alleges state law requires the county to hold onto those images for at least 22 months. The suit seeks a temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction and permanent injunction to prevent the county “from destroying” the files.

“Pima County has a duty to preserve the ballot image files … until such files no longer have any administrative, legal, fiscal, research or historical value,” the complaint reads.

John Brakey, whose organization AUDIT-AZ hired the attorney who filed the suit, said the county’s current practice of deleting the digital images makes it difficult to verify that the results of elections are accurate.

“(The images) are part of the chain of custody, that’s what’s really counted,” he said. “If you take those and destroy them, you’ve destroyed your database.”

Brad Nelson, county elections director, said Brakey is correct that it is digital images of ballots that are scanned and counted by the county’s new ballot counting system. However, Nelson said that while some local elected officials have “at least supported the idea of obtaining scanned images of ballots and letting them go out into the world,” his office has received instructions from the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office that keeping the images or using them to verify results “is against the law.”

“They are not something that I can retain or use for audit purposes currently,” he said.

Nelson disagreed that his office’s handling of ballot images could compromise elections, pointing out that there have been a handful of elections since the new equipment came online, including last November’s bond vote and the presidential preference election earlier this year. Audits of them, during which original ballots from randomly selected precincts and races were hand counted, showed no irregularities, Nelson said.

“The audits have come out perfect, they match every time,” he said. “The accuracy is astounding.”

Nelson said a hearing in the case is scheduled for Aug. 30, election day. Amelia Cramer, chief deputy with the Pima County Attorney’s Office, said the images are “being retained pending the outcome of the litigation.”

Contact: mwoodhouse@tucson.com or 573-4235. On Twitter: @murphywoodhouse