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RTA hand count shows it's time to move on

RTA hand count shows it's time to move on

Our view: AG's investigation confirms election results, finds no malfeasance

It's over. Done. Finished. Finis. Terminado. The state Attorney General's Office hand count of the ballots from the 2006 regional transportation authority election affirmed the initial results. The 20-year transportation plan and the sales-tax increase to pay for it was approved by voters by a 60:40 ratio.

"There was no flip," Attorney General Terry Goddard said Tuesday, announcing the results and dismissing allegations that the results were electronically reversed.

"We have no evidence of fraud," Goddard said.

Let that be the final word. It's time to move on.

While his office found no evidence of tampering, Goddard said there were serious concerns over the credibility of the electronic equipment and there were procedural missteps. These procedural irregularities were nullified by the hand count, he said.

The final evidence was the ballots themselves. Of some 121,000 ballots cast, there is less than a 600-vote difference between Pima County's 2006 tally and the hand count. Assuring integrity

Even though the count was affirmed, the RTA vote-count process was fraught with procedural missteps.

The election process is sacred and must be transparent and credible. We've applauded the improvements to the election security procedures Pima County has made since the RTA election.

Goddard said the stepped-up procedures have improved Pima County's election integrity. For example, he said Pima County is not transferring the data by modem from polling places. This step may slow delivery of election results, but decreases the possibility of tampering with the data, he said.

The county publicly released a warts-and-all internal audit of the September 2008 primary — which was marred by a slow count and some misplaced ballots — and put into place new procedures to assure the integrity of the Nov. 4 election vote count, which was finished with nary a hitch.

The procedures clarified poll workers' jobs, spelled out rules to assure that all machines were returned to the county's central counting center on election night and sped up the count in the general election.

The county imposed a no-exceptions rule on two missteps that previously slowed the count and muddled ballot chain-of-custody records:

• All the precincts' equipment — the Touchscreen machines and AccuVote machines used to scan marked ballots and that hold a tally of the votes in their memories — must be returned to a county receiving center after the polls close. If not, poll workers or sheriff's deputies are sent to retrieve them.

• Missing ballots are not tolerated. Only 1 percent of ballots were misplaced in September, according to the audit. If ballots are missing, a sheriff's deputy is sent to find the responsible person and locate them.

The county also answers to a new, independent elections-integrity commission. Lawsuits and legalities

In addition, the Democratic Party requested electronic database records from the county in 2006. Two court cases resulted from the county's refusal to release the records, and one of them went to trial late last year.

Pima County Superior Court Judge Michael Miller ordered the release of the records and the release of the same type of records for future elections.

Conspiracy theorists will probably remain unconvinced that Pima County is vindicated.

During Goddard's announcement, he was asked whether his office did forensic testing on the ballots themselves to determine their authenticity by analyzing the paper, printing process and age of ink. Goddard's investigation did not do such testing.

The implication — that ballots were replaced — defies logic. Substutition of such a significant number of ballots would have required unlimited access to the 105 boxes of ballots. Goddard estimated that would have required replacing 24,000 ballots distributed throughout all of the boxes. The chain of custody was immaculate, Goddard said.

When asked about a rumor that 15,000 ballots were missing, Goddard said there was no evidence of tampering with the election.

"We've done everything we can do to chase down and resolve the possible fraud," Goddard said. The most credible suggestion of wrongdoing was electronic fraud, the flipping of the results, he said. A few loose ends

The election integrity advocacy group AUDIT-AZ (Americans United for Democracy, Integrity and Transparency in Elections — Arizona) wants further investigation on "unresolved details," which include:

• A comparison of the precinct sheets and poll tapes. The group is concerned that there was an unusually high number of memory-card uploads from the RTA election.

• An analysis of card stock weight used for mail-in ballots and precinct ballots. AUDIT-AZ wants to calculate the number of ballots that can fit into a box and thus check the accuracy of the ballot count. The group said some boxes containing RTA ballots may have been stuffed with considerably more ballots than in other elections.

If such a analysis were done, we believe the boxes, which may be stretched and misshapen, would also need to be evaluated for capacity. Trust, but verify

"An election system should be based on verification, not trust," John Brakey, co-founder of AUDIT-AZ, told us in a letter Wednesday.

We agree. And we agree with the group's basic principles — every vote must be counted as intended and elections must be secure and transparent.

The integrity of our elections is intrinsic to our form of government, but it has been costly to Pima County in terms of taxpayer dollars and personal reputations. In July the Star reported that taxpayer liability was more than $258,000 for the county's refusal to release the records to the party.

Elections officials have been accused of malfeasance in harsh, if not slanderous, terms. We hope such personal and professional thrashing ends. Immediately.

As attorney William J. Risner, who has represented plaintiffs in the RTA election case, including the Democratic Party of Pima County, said in a July 14 letter to Goddard: "The proof is in the ballots."

That's the bottom line: The RTA election was not flipped. Pima County has made some necessary changes to secure its election processes. We must remain vigilant, as Goddard suggested. But it's time to move on.

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