VOTE 2012: Election Process

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Two weeks after the election, Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett and Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell look back at what worked, what didn’t, what was learned and what can be done to improve the voting process.

Richard Ruelas: Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon," I'm Richard Ruelas of the "The Arizona Republic" filling in for Ted Simons. Two weeks after the election, Maricopa County was busy today still counting ballots. Here to explain the holdup and share their ideas for improving election procedures are two of the state's top election officials, Secretary of State Ken Bennett and Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell. Thanks for joining us tonight.
Ken Bennett: Good to be with you, Richard.
Richard Ruelas: Where are we on the ballot count?
Helen Purcell: We will be finished today. We'll do the final ballots today. We're doing kind of the final of the provisional ballots. We had about 11,000 left to do today, but we've had to do a little duplication of ballots.
Richard Ruelas: So it's after hours, it's 5:30. How late do you expect your workers to be working?
Helen Purcell: Until it's finished. We've worked every night until 10:00.
Richard Ruelas: This is called a slowdown or something that is unusual. Do you see it as unusual?
Helen Purcell: No. 2008 election, Throughout presidential general election, we were at 15 days, today we're at 14. We had more both early ballots and provisional ballots this year than we had in 2000 identity. So I think we've speeded it up.
Richard Ruelas: Secretary Bennet, you had a news conference today, looking at ways to improve this process. Would you have had this conference anyways?
Ken Bennett: Yeah, I think it's important for people to realize that even though we're always looking for ways to do something better, that doesn't mean the system is broken or somehow worked the way it was supposed to this time. It's designed to have as many voters participate as want to in the early mail-in ballot process, which was kind of designed to get those in about a week ahead of the election so they can be staged and scanned and the signatures checked and be part of the first results to come up election night. Then everything that kind of happens at the polling locations is focused on taking care of the voters assigned to the precincts that vote at those polls. As Helen mentioned, this year we had a huge increase in the number of voters who received their early ballot in the mail, but for whatever reason, decided to, instead of mail it in early so that it can be processed early, they dropped it off at the polling location. I think Maricopa almost doubled from around 100,000 early ballots dropped off four years ago, to almost 200,000 dropped off on Election Day alone this year. The provisional ballots, 122,000 or something like that, about half of those were people who mailed in an early ballot and perhaps lost the ballot in the paperwork shuffle and showed up at the polls. In order to keep them from unintentionally or inadvertently balloting twice, they then have to go to a provisional ballot line, so we can check that we got one of the two, but not going to Count 2.
Richard Ruelas: What physically happens if I have an early ballot and decide to -- if I decided to drop it off at the polls rather than mail it in, what happens?
Helen Purcell: They have to be processed after the election. We have to match the 60 and then process it through on the tabulation.
Richard Ruelas: Is that signature verification something that happens even if I mail it in?
Helen Purcell: Absolutely. Every single early ballot has to be signature-checked.
Richard Ruelas: If I mail it in a few weeks out you have more time to do that.
Helen Purcell: That's correct.
Richard Ruelas: What about those who show up at the polls on the early ballot list with no early ballot and ask to cast a ballot?
Helen Purcell: They have to cast a provisional ballot. Those we have to process later. We have to make sure they didn't vote the early ballot and now they have got their provisional ballot.
Richard Ruelas: You do the signature verification on everyone who voted to make sure that there's been only one -- I'll use you as an example -- that there's been only one Ken Bennett that's voted at this address who voted with this signature.
Helen Purcell: That's correct.
Richard Ruelas: Okay. And when people- what makes people not trust provisional ballots? When they are told at the polling place they are casting a provisional, what makes them think this isn't going to work?
Helen Purcell: When you're told you're casting a provisional what, makes them think this isn't going to work. Really, you're failsafe. If for any reason, either the poll worker or somebody thinks that you shouldn't vote, everyone is allowed to vote a provisional. It is going to count if in fact you are a registered voter, you're in the proper polling place and you haven't previously voted in early ballots.
Richard Ruelas: Is some of this perception?
Ken Bennett: I think a lot was perception. There were groups that were frustrated that there were some close races, maybe some races didn't go the way they wanted to. Then they heard there were hundreds of thousands of ballots to be counted, like there were hundreds of thousands to be counted four years ago. But they started whipping people into a frenzy almost, if we don't go down there and sign petitions or speak on the loudspeakers, that the ballots aren't going to be counted. The ironic thing is they were standing there demanding the county election workers to do the thing they were actually already doing and planning on doing in the first place. It was a little ironic that they were asking for what was going to happen anyway.
Richard Ruelas: And It was being web-cammed through your website to let people see what was happening.
Helen Purcell: From the minute the secretary of state comes and does the accuracy test on our equipment and we start to count ballots, the webcam is on 24/7. They weren't in the processing area but certainly in the tabulation area.
Richard Ruelas: Is there a way to speed up the signature verification process?
Helen Purcell: Well, it's pretty speedy as it is. If you think about the 190,000 ballots that were dropped off at the polling place, by the next morning the company that we use that scans those ballots already had those back to us for signature checks. That's pretty speedy.
Richard Ruelas: I guess another delay happens once you open the ballot, try to figure out what the voter's intent was. I think we have some samples that we might put up. How many of those -- how many ballots did you get where you had to look at this em to different 79 --
Helen Purcell: Karen Osborn and I looked at about 120,000 ballots because the machine said, we can't read these. Either the ballot is overvoted or something. We can't read those so we want to either look at them, and those that can be need to be duplicated. The machine couldn't read them. So 60,000 ballots had to go to another citizen board of Republicans and Democrats and have those duplicated.
Richard Ruelas: Was that a higher number than we're used to seeing?
Helen Purcell: Yes, yes.
Richard Ruelas: Was there an explanation for that higher number?
Helen Purcell: When you have more ballots, we have more that kick out and need to be duplicated.
Richard Ruelas: What are some of the things we can look for, some of the things you presented today that can speed this up, still making it accurate?
Ken Bennett: Well, that's a good point, Richard. Our number one goal is not speed, our number one goal is accuracy and including as many voters as could be counted, based on them being a registered voter and showing the proper I.D. as required by law. As we would do in any election, after everything's done over the next few weeks and months, we will meet with election officials throughout the state. We'll look at what things went right and what potential areas we might be able to improve. Maybe it's voter education. We've got to figure out what happened to have such a large spike in the number that somehow heard their early ballot wasn't going to count. Either the media or a friend toll them, go down and vote a provisional ballot just in case. When those kind of misinformation get out, you create a change in voting patterns. So we'll look at all of those things. Just because we want to try to make improvements to the system, doesn't mean the system is broken to begin with.
Richard Ruelas: Speaking for the media, I know we did everything right. [Laughter]You brought up concrete examples of things that could be tried, as far as a voter being able to drop off anywhere in the county?
Ken Bennett: Some counties have been trying what are called voting centers. Yavapai and Yuma counties have been using voting centers. Where any voter within that county can drop off a ballot or even go in and vote at any one of the voting centers. But you're talking about counties that might have 150,000 registered voters. Maricopa County has over 1.8 million registered voters. Each of those voting centers to be performed in Maricopa county would have to have the capability of handling almost two million voters, over 5,000 different ballot styles. It's a whole different ballgame.
Richard Ruelas: So could it work here in Maricopa County county?
Ken Bennett: Maybe there's a hybrid, maybe there's combination of a few more voting center type things or central processing places. But we'll sit down with the experts and we have some of the most highly respected election officials in the country in Arizona. One of them is sitting across the table from me.
Richard Ruelas: Would it be problematic to have something that verifies a signature at a few different voting spots?
Helen Purcell: If we could get that to happen, I think that's one of the things we have to look at. Somebody might come up with an idea where we can narrow this down to have fewer of the provisionals possibly, I think we need to look at everything.
Richard Ruelas: Electronic voting machines? That was tried in some spots around the country, that was not as popular.
Ken Bennett: Touch screens.
Ken Bennett: By law in Arizona there's a touch screen at every polling place already in Arizona. We're seeing people start to move back away from the touch screens because they like that physicality of a paper ballot.
Richard Ruelas: People can use the touch screen if they choose or if they have a disability and it lets them. There is a preference, you see a sense of voter preference for the paper ballot?
Helen Purcell: Yes, very much so.
Richard Ruelas: I guess if we go to more electronic computer stuff, just like the media, computers never mess up --
Helen Purcell: True, true.
Richard Ruelas: You're open to more glitches and things like that?
Ken Bennett: Anything that would involve more technology would involve all of the issues related to security. People say, I can do all my banking online. In the banking world, the transaction is purposely identified to the person making the transaction.
Richard Ruelas: You have a card or something.
Ken Bennett: You get a receipt that says Ken Bennett put money into this account. In the election world we're prohibited from attaching the identity of the person to the ballot that they are counting. As we consider those things, we have to consider security and confidentiality that are not exactly the same in other aspects of our life that we're used to doing things electronically.
Richard Ruelas: Very quickly, as we wrap up, I know you just told the news conference today, have you heard anything from the lawmakers about, this is something we like?
Ken Bennett: Well, we're still early. Lawmakers are elected in elections as are we. We want Arizona to have the very best election system in the world. We have a system that is working very well right now, but we're always looking for ways to make it better. That will be our goal.
Richard Ruelas: Congratulations on your reelection, by the way, thanks for joining us.

Ken Bennett:Arizona Secretary of State; Helen Purcell:Maricopa County Recorder;

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