Arizona has a new law about verifying the results of our state and federal elections that could have enormous implications for how we view the integrity of our election process.
For the first time in decades, county officials will be required to double-check some computer election returns with actual people adding up ballots by hand. The hand counts will taken from a select group of races after every statewide primary and general election. At first, the hand counts will be of a random sample of a few polling precincts in each county. But if a hand count differs significantly from the computer results in the same race, the law requires another hand count be taken of every ballot cast for that race and those results will be the final outcome.
This is a remarkable reversal from the trend in the past 25 years to move from human brain power to computer technology for determining who received the most votes. Punch card machines have been replaced with optical scanners but the concept has been the same — we wanted a dispassionate “eye” reading the ballots for consistency and mechanical “hands” adding up the totals at lightning speeds.
But there always have been some political activists concerned about the mischief made possible by relying on machines that operate on a level only a few experts can understand.
These activists find something comforting about the simple idea of two people sitting together to add up votes for each candidate, even if those two people frequently disagree on whether a particular mark should be counted, as we found in Florida during the 2000 presidential election.
All of this angst coalesced in the aftermath of a controversial 2004 recount in an East Valley race for the state House of Representatives.
A federal probe into that situation continues almost two years later, after a state senator bungled his efforts to learned why a second machine ballot count reached a outcome different from the original machine count.
The new hand-count law was drafted by an unusual coalition led by state Sen. Karen Johnson, R-Mesa, and state Rep. Ted Downing, D-Tucson, reflecting interest from both conservatives and liberals in this issue.
A key question is how much a hand count can vary from the computer’s totals before the original results should be set aside.
The new law establishes a committee to be appointed by Secretary of State Jan Brewer that will provide the answer. We’ll be interested to see what this group believes is an acceptable margin of error in our election process.