Votes are counted by staff at the Maricopa County Elections Department office on Nov. 5, 2020. Photo by Courtney Pedroza | Getty Images
A proposal approved by a Senate committee would overhaul the way counties conduct post-election hand count audits of ballots.
After every election, counties must conduct a hand count of ballots from 2% of its precincts and 1% of the early ballots cast to ensure they match up with the tallies from the machines used to tabulate ballots. Counties can base their hand counts on voting centers instead of precincts if that’s how they conduct their elections. The audits are conducted by members of county political party organizations.
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But because the audits require at least two recognized parties to conduct the partial hand counts, they can’t happen if the political parties don’t participate. That happened after the 2020 general election in Apache, Gila, Graham, La Paz and Yuma counties. During a Senate Government Committee hearing on Thursday, Chairwoman Kelly Townsend said one county hasn’t conducted a hand count in years.
Townsend’s solution is Senate Bill 1573. Under that proposal, which the committee approved along partisan lines, county recorders would simply select county employees of the appropriate party if one or more political party didn’t take part in the partial hand count.
The bill would make other significant changes to the post-election audits.
Hand counts would take on a greater significance because counties would be barred from conducting their official election canvasses until the audits were completed. Counties would have to count at least 5% of precincts’ ballots instead of 2%. They currently have the option of counting more than 2% of precincts, but aren’t required to do so.
While the proposal would ensure that hand counts would be conducted, there are problems with the bill, Arizona Association of Counties lobbyist Jennifer Marson told the committee.
The purpose of using designees from the political parties is to have the hand counts conducted by someone from outside the county elections departments who conducted the initial tally, she said.
“That’s the way the hand count was designed and that’s the way we would like to see it continued,” Marson said. “We don’t want to be participating, because I think that’s just setting us up to say, ‘You did something wrong when you were auditing yourselves.’”
Marson also took issue with the provision barring counties from canvassing their elections until the audits are completed, telling the committee, “That’s a big deal.”
Townsend, a Mesa Republican who has been a vocal advocate of false but persistent allegations that the 2020 presidential election was decided by fraud, said she got the idea from “a very good and very resourceful county recorder.” She simply wants to ensure that the hand counts are completed, she said. If other county recorders and the public don’t think it’s a good idea, Townsend expressed a willingness to make changes.
But she doesn’t want to see the current system, in which an audit can go uncompleted because the parties don’t participate, continue.
“That’s not an answer. So, we’ll find a solution,” Townsend said.
Post-election hand counts became a contentious issue following the 2020 election after Arizona Republican Party Chairwoman Kelli Ward filed a failed lawsuit alleging that Maricopa County improperly conducted its audit by using voting centers instead of precincts as the basis. State law specifies that the counts be based on precincts, but the election procedures manual issued by the secretary of state, which carries the force of law, permits the use of voting centers, where voters from anywhere in the county can cast a ballot.
The Senate Government Committee on Thursday passed a second bill stemming from the dispute over precincts and voting centers. Senate Bill 1343 would require counties to separate early, provisional and conditional ballots by precinct, and for counties to maintain separate line-item tallies for those ballots.
The bill’s sponsor, Flagstaff Republican Sen. Wendy Rogers, said ballots should be counted at the precinct level, baselessly claiming that “research and feedback both have shown that the mischief occurs between the precinct and the county.” Rogers has built her political brand on spreading lies about the 2020 election, and has sponsored numerous election bills based on conspiracies.
“If we have an accurate count of ballots at the precinct where they should be cast, then we have that as a baseline. We have it as a basis to compare to. And thereby we have more accuracy, more accountability, and an audit trail, as it were,” Rogers, a Flagstaff Republican, alluding to the discredited review that Senate President Karen Fann ordered of the 2020 general election in Maricopa County.
Trump supporters have asserted that grouping ballots together by precinct would sniff out counterfeit and fraudulent ballots, while doing the hand-count audits based on voting center location allows those ballots to escape detection. There is no evidence of any forged ballots in the 2020 election.
The counties also took issue with this bill. Separating ballots by precinct would actually make it far more difficult to trace individual ballots back to where they were cast, Marson said.
“From an audit perspective, in our current model of voting, if you were to separate out the physical pieces of paper by precinct, you’ve actually destroyed the audit trail, because right now they’re tied to where they’re voted. And if we pull them all out and we want to go back and investigate a chain-of-custody associated with that location, that vote center, etc., we have now muddled that chain of custody,” she said.
Townsend told Marson they should discuss the issue outside the committee.
Hanging over the debate over both bills, along with numerous other pieces of election-related legislation the committee heard on Thursday, were the baseless, discredited conspiracy theories spread by former President Donald Trump and many of his supporters that Joe Biden won the election in Arizona and other swing states through fraud. Members of the public invoked the bogus fraud allegations in their testimony on the bills, as did some members of the committee.
“I think we can fix this. I think we can right the ship of state. We will get to the truth of 2020, but we will concurrently correct things that need to be fixed for 2022,” Rogers said as she cast her vote to pass SB1573.
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