Bennett plans review of Arizona election system

Bennett plans review of Arizona election system

Bennett plans review of Arizona election system


by Paul Davenport, Associated Press

Posted on November 20, 2012 at 9:01 PM

PHOENIX (AP) -- Secretary of State Ken Bennett says Arizona should consider changing its election system to take into account the soaring number of voters who don't turn in so-called "early" ballots until Election Day, helping delay the determination of some races' outcomes. But he also says any changes shouldn't reduce convenience for voters.

"We're trying to increase the efficiency of how the system handles their ballot once we get it," he told several reporters following a news conference called to explain his intention to review election procedures with county officials.

More than 500,000 voters this year turned in early ballots at polling places on Election Day, mailed them too late to be counted before Election Day or were required to cast provisional ballots because they had requested early ballots but went to polling places to vote, Bennett said Tuesday.

Maricopa County finished counting Tuesday, tabulating 558 early ballots and 11,982 provisional ballots. It was the state's last county to finish counting its votes after Pima County finished Monday.

The winner of several congressional and legislative races weren't determined until last weekend.

The system is functioning close to the way it was designed, but Arizona would be put under a harsh spotlight nationally if a delay in determining the winner of its Electoral College votes kept the presidential race's outcome in the air, Bennett said.

In a related development, the Arizona House's top Democrat said he will introduce legislation to create a bipartisan election reform study committee.

During his news conference, Bennett appeared to be on the defensive following a weekend story in which The Associated Press reported that he sought a wholesale overhaul of the vote-counting system because of vote-counting delays that drew criticism from activists and others.

Bennett said county election officials told him they agreed that election processes need to be reviewed to identify possible improvements but also said that the prospect of a wholesale overhaul of the election system was scary.

Bennett said Tuesday he's interested in changes but not starting from scratch.

"Just because we want to improve doesn't mean the system currently we're using is broken," he said.

One possible change that Bennett floated during a weekend interview with the AP and again during Tuesday's news conference would be to use regional voting centers to provide a way to immediately tabulate early ballots dropped off on Election Day.

Now, early ballots dropped off at polling places are boxed and transported to county election headquarters for processing in the days after the election. Aside from transportation delays, that process takes time because workers first must check voters' signatures on early-ballot envelopes against those on file.

Gila County Recorder Sadie Jo Tomerlin, president of the Arizona Association of County Recorders, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell, whose county is home to three of every five Arizonans, agreed with Bennett that the number of early ballots turned in too late for counting election day and provisional ballots issued to people who'd requested early ballots had ballooned.

But she expressed skepticism about establishing regional voting centers, at least in her large county, to somehow count more ballots on Election Day. It could cost $20 million to buy the necessary equipment, even if enough suitable large sites, trained personnel and other logistical issues could be solved, she said.

"How do you find 200 large places that can accommodate the kind of voter registration that we have in Maricopa - I don't know where they are," she said. "I want to make an accommodation to the public. I'm not sure that's the way to do it."

Besides, nearly all people elected Nov. 6 to public officers don't begin their terms until January, so there's time for two weeks of vote-counting in November, if that's what it takes, she said.

Bennett said one "success story" in this year's election is that approximately 81.5 percent of provisional ballots are being verified and counted, up from 70 percent four years ago.

In announcing his planned legislation, House Minority Leader Chad Campbell cited the increasing number of provisional ballots and what the Phoenix Democrat called irregularities in the election system.

Campbell said the committee would investigate past elections and submit a report identifying problems and possible corrections.

"This is about accountability," he said.

Campbell said his legislation would create a study committee consisting of legislators, election officials and a representative of Bennett's office.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.