State elections chief wants big changes

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By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas

PHOENIX -- Just days after saying there was nothing wrong with Arizona's election system, Secretary of State Ken Bennett is calling for big changes.

Bennett said Monday that he will likely seek millions of dollars from the state Legislature next year to improve the current election system, which has come under heavy fire.

The polls closed two weeks ago and officials are still counting the nearly 630,000 ballots left over from the Nov. 6 election.

The slow pace has prompted numerous protests from frustrated voters who are concerned that all the votes may not be counted.

Bennett's proposals come four days after he told 3TV that the system was working fine.

"Well there's not a problem compared to the way elections have happened in Arizona before," Bennett said Thursday. "This is playing out very similar to what happened in 2008."

But on Monday, Bennett laid out a plan that would revamp that way Arizona voters cast their ballots and the way election officials count them by 2014.

Simply put, Bennett wants to make it easier for voters to drop off their ballots at the polls on Election Day and cut down on the number of provisional ballots issued at the polls.

One way to do that, he says, is to build a system where Arizonans could vote at any polling station in their county. Right now, voters are limited to casting ballots at their assigned precincts.

Poll workers issue provisional ballots to those voters who show up at the wrong polling location. That, in part, accounts for the high number of uncounted ballots this year. Provisional ballots are also given to voters who do not have the right identification.

In total, Arizona issued about 172,000 provisional ballots this year. Bennett would like to cut that number down by 90 percent.

Early ballots also added to the high number of uncounted ballots. Bennett said there were nearly half a million early ballots dropped off at the polls on Election Day. Those ballots are typically the last to be tabulated.

Bennett said he'd like new equipment that could scan and count early ballots on the spot. But that is going take money.

He estimates the cost at somewhere between $3 and $5 for every voter in Arizona. With about 3 million registered voters, that puts the price tag at about $9 million and $15 million.

"This is a huge undertaking," Bennett said.

Despite the changes, Bennett said this wouldn't be an overhaul of the current system, that current system worked as it always had.

"It's not broken in the sense that it didn't work like we're used to it working," Bennett said.

During the last presidential election in 2008, it took Arizona 15 days to complete the count of its ballots. Every county except Maricopa has finished counting. As of late Monday, Maricopa reported it still had about 34,000 uncounted ballots.

This year protesters have voiced their anger over the slow count. And Bennett, who is eyeing a run for governor in 2014, blamed the media for over-hyping the story and adding fuel to the protesters.

"It's just a complete misunderstanding and misrepresentation, pictures of rooms full of uncounted ballots and I see stories that these are uncounted ballots," Bennett said.

Still, if Bennett hopes to get the money he needs to implement the changes he wants, he'll have to convince the Legislature.

Democrats like Rep. Chad Campbell, the highest ranking Democrat in the House, have already called for changes. In fact, Bennett's proposals are similar to ones Campbell put forward a week ago.

But other Democrats, like Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, the highest ranking Democrat in the Senate, want answers from Bennett before they agree to dole out money.

"I think first we take a look at what went wrong before we start discussing allocations," Taylor said. "Right now we have huge allocations that have to go toward education and healthcare."