A controversial election recount last year in a East Valley legislative primary has prompted Maricopa County election officials to seek new technology to upgrade critical ballot-counting machines.
Election officials say the changes mean the optical scanners should count ballots cast by mail more consistently, reducing the number of new votes "found" during a recount. Half of all ballots cast in a county election typically arrive by mail, including more than 517,000 in the 2004 presidential race.
The goal is to make it easier to count votes marked with glitter pens, crayons or eyebrow liners — writing tools that aren’t recommended but voters often use anyway.
The reliability of the ballot-counting machines came under scrutiny last fall after a close Republican primary in District 20, which covers Ahwatukee Foothills, western Chandler and southern Tempe. After the initial count, Anton Orlich of Chandler narrowly led John McComish of Ahwatukee Foothills for one of two district seats in the state House of Representatives.
An automatic recount reversed that outcome, with McComish winning by 13 votes and going on to win the office. But all five candidates in the race received additional votes as 489 "new" votes were added to the total, an increase of more than 18 percent.
A court challenge filed by Orlich said 464 of the additional votes came from ballots cast by mail that had been counted both times on Optima IV-C scanning machines. The county owns seven of these machines, and, combined, they can count up to 40,000 ballots every 24 hours. During the District 20 recount, all District 20 mailin ballots were counted on the same machine, not scattered in with hundreds of thousands of ballots cast countywide and counted on a variety of the machines.
A similar jump in total votes occurred after a 2002 Republican primary for a state Senate seat representing Paradise Valley and north-central Phoenix. County Recorder Helen Purcell said few people noticed the higher total in the 2002 election because the recount didn’t change the outcome of the race.
County elections director Karen Osborne attributed the higher post-recount totals to the use of unapproved marking tools such as crayons. Osborne said optical scanners work best with black pens or No. 2 pencils, and the machines sometimes miss votes made with something else.
Orlich has questioned the explanation offered by election officials, calling the number of additional votes in his case suspicious. County Attorney Andrew Thomas reviewed the recount after he took office in January. Thomas found no evidence of fraud, but urged Purcell in June to take steps to ensure mail-in ballots are counted accurately.
The manufacturer of the optical scanners, Electronic Systems and S oftware, couldn’t offer any machine improvements for counting votes made with unapproved markers, Osborne said. So the county has been quietly negotiating with another undisclosed company for the purchase of hardware and software to upgrade the Optima IV-C, Osborne said.
Osborne also wouldn’t say how much she expects the new technology to cost.
"We’re trying to keep up with the public instead of trying to make the public keep up with us," she said.
The new company would take over all maintenance of the ballot machines once the county’s contract with Electronic Systems and Software expires Dec. 31, she said.