A hand recount of the 2006 Regional Transportation Authority election ballots will begin April 6, according to a letter the Arizona Attorney General’s Office sent to the Pima County political party officials Monday.
The recount is part of a criminal probe by the AG into complaints that vote results may have been manipulated.
The attorney general’s office last month seized the ballots from the Pima County Treasurer’s Office, where officials have been seeking court direction on whether the ballots should be destroyed.
“Our examination of the RTA ballots will include a hand count of the ballots,” wrote Donald E. Conrad, criminal division chief counsel at the attorney general’s office. The examination is expected to take five days, he wrote.
Voters in 2006, approved a 20-year regional transportation plan and a half-cent sales tax to help fund it. The plan was approved 60 percent to 40 percent and the sales tax increase 58 percent to 42 percent. About 120,000 votes were cast in the election out of about 462,000 registered voters.
County voters in the previous 15 years had shot down four major transportation plans and funding mechanisms.
At the center of the controversy is the county’s use of electronic vote and ballot tabulating equipment and whether final vote results could have been manipulated to change the election outcome.
“I must emphasize that this is a criminal investigation, not an election process controlled by the applicable Arizona laws,” Conrad wrote. “Attendance and procedures undertaken at this examination will be strictly monitored and overseen by the office of the Attorney General,”Conrad added.
The Pima County Democratic Party in 2007 filed a lawsuit to obtain from the county electronic records of votes and ballot tabulating processes for every election dating back to the late 1990s.
Their concerns were fueled by an increasing number of complaints across the nation that computerized election vote systems and software were vulnerable to hacking in a number of ways, including insider tampering, faulty or deliberately misprogrammed memory cards, software malfunctions, and data alteration after polls close.
Pima Count Superior Court Judge Michael Miller in December 2007 ordered the county to surrender a portion of the electronic vote records, but not those from the May 2006 special election.
The judge’s ruling marked the first time a government in the United States had been ordered to surrender electronic vote records.
The Pima County Board of Supervisors later ordered the RTA and all other electronic vote records released to the Democrats.
Critics of the county’s election system and procedures had maintained that Diebold-GEMS vote devices and software can be tampered with to alter election results and suggested such was the case in the RTA election.
Local elections integrity activists in AuditAZ have said that they have uncovered irregularities in the election vote records they have studied.
They have objected to the attorney general seizing the ballots and removing them to the Maricopa County Elections Division, maintaining that the move of the ballots out of lockdown in Pima County broke the ballots’ chain of custody and subjected the ballots to physical tampering.
“Our biggest concern is the possibility of ballot substitution,” Jim March, an AuditAZ member who has been among the most critical of county elections equipment and practices.
March said the number of recount observers from Pima County political parties – one each – is not sufficient to adequately monitor the recount.
AuditAZ members also investigated electronic vote security this year at the Maricopa County Elections Department and issued a report critical of that agency.
“They can exclude the most hard-core critics of their department,” Marsh complained.
Pima County and RTA officials also support the investigation, as do the Pima County Democratic, Libertarian, and Republican parties.
Brad Nelson, Pima County Elections Division director, said Wednesday that he had not been informed of the April 6 recount start date and was uncertain whether elections division or county administration officials would participate.
“We’ve heard nothing from them,” Nelson said.
The attorney general’s criminal investigation will include:
• Asking local political parties to submit three names each by March 30 for candidates to observe the ballot recount.
The Attorney General’s Office will select one to represent each party.
• The ballots are in the custody of the Maricopa County Elections Division.
Officials of Maricopa Elections will conduct the recount “in a secured facility under the supervisors of police officers employed by this office.”
• No cameras, cell phones, writing instruments or audio or video recorders will be allowed in the recount area.
• The hand recount will begin April 6 and continue for about five days.
• The public will be able to watch the recount via live streaming video.