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State turns down county proposal to do ballot scans

State turns down county proposal to do ballot scans

The Arizona Secretary of State's Office has rejected Pima County's proposal to do a pilot project creating digital scans of ballots.

The measure had been a key element of the county's efforts to improve election procedures by electronically auditing a certain percentage of ballots.

In a memo dated Wednesday, Assistant Secretary of State Jim Drake said the recent election has "once again demonstrated that our election machines are incredibly accurate and reliable."

As a result, the office doesn't want to pay for bolstered audit measures.

Pima County, then, should expect more of the same.

"We're not interested in going it alone," County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said.

Drake's memo suggested that Pima County appeal to the Legislature for changes that would allow it to scan ballots by itself.

But Huckelberry dismissed the idea, saying he prefers to continue the hand-count audits now in place.

"What would happen if we had 15 different systems in Arizona?" he asked. "Scanning is not a panacea. As you know, we live in this time of distrust. The question is, how do we verify and reverify and verify again?"

Under Arizona law, counties are required to hand count 1 percent of early ballots and at least 2 percent of precincts.

Pima County's policy is to hand-count 4 percent of precincts, but it's been under pressure from its Election Integrity Commission to develop even stronger procedures.

Experimenting with digital scanning had been a point of common ground in the sometimes sharp and often tense talks between activists and election officials.

Nearly all of them saw using the scans to audit ballots as appealing.

So for years, county officials have been waiting for word from the Secretary of State's Office to give the technology a try.

The Legislature passed a law allowing the pilot project in 2010, but implementation was put on the back burner as the office focused on overseeing elections.

In the meantime, the Election Integrity Commission interviewed representatives of companies such as Clear Ballot that run third-party scanning services.

They kept a close eye on a pilot project in Florida, a state that, unlike Arizona, does not require federal certification of its voting systems.

They also debated potential sticking points, among them that ballots are not considered public records in Arizona.

Many considered it doubtful that putting ballots on the Internet for third-party audits would be allowed without new laws.

In Huckelberry's view, that's a good thing because the scans could infringe on Americans' long-standing expectation of ballot privacy. He and others also worry that vote buying or trading could proliferate if ballots were put online.

They argue that stray marks or symbols could be used to confirm to vote buyers that voters fulfilled their end of the deal.

Alternatively, voters could scrawl their own name on a write-in line, giving away their identity.

Another spat involves whether the digital scans should be done on a machine separate from the one that does the official count.

Some commission members advocate redundancy, but Elections Director Brad Nelson sees efficiency benefits to having the technology incorporated into whatever new counting machines the county buys.

Arizona counties are due for new elections equipment soon, and digital scanning is built into most systems now under development, he said.

But that's no comfort to Huckelberry. "We have technology outstripping institutional law," he said. "And then what happens to that database?"

On StarNet: For vote totals and results of the 2012 election, go to

Contact reporter Carli Brosseau at or 573-4197. On Twitter @carlibrosseau.

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