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Pima County re-runs 'mock election' to ease doubts, curiosities about new voting system

More than a dozen Pima County voters lined up Friday morning for a second chance at trying out the new balloting system that'll be used for the upcoming primaries and general election. Many participants were curious about the technology, such as electronic poll books, while others wanted to press county staff about how they'll keep the next election safe and secure.

The county's new system has been criticized mainly by Republicans who are still pushing false claims about fraud in the 2020 election. The voting center model has already been widely used in other Arizona counties, including GOP-dominated areas, and was adopted by the Pima County Board of Supervisors earlier this year.

The Friday morning event gave election officials another dry run for August’s primary, which will allow in-person voting at any of the county’s 129 voting centers instead of requiring it be done at specific precinct sites. Last week’s mock election, also held at the inside the Abrams Health Center, didn't go as expected after issues surfaced with voter cards not appearing in the practice election system and some new precincts not having practice ballots available.

When asked how the second round of practice balloting was going, County Elections Director Constance Hargrove mentioned a glitch with printing ballots, saying "there are some precincts in there that ballots won't print for, so we added precincts for the redistricting." 

The mock election was held using a 2018 ballot set with candidates like Martha McSally and Doug Ducey on them. County redistricting created new precincts and boundaries since then, however, which caused small issues with the voter ID cards officials gave out at the Friday event.

Hargrove didn't expect to have the same issue when it's time for the primaries on Aug. 2 and the general election on Nov. 8 because the ballots and voter registrations will all be up-to-date.

Last week's run at a mock election provided participants with fake voter cards that were supposed to be uploaded to a test registration system for the event. After some of the purposefully fictitious identities did not appear in the practice system, attendees were told to use their real IDs.

“We wanted to use a training database, we didn’t want to use live data,” Hargrove said.

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Practice voter cards returned Friday, but this time all were loaded into the system, she said.

Curiousity from the mock voters

Quail Creek resident Steve Ware timed how long it took him to cast his mock ballot: eight and a half minutes. “Which is pretty darn good,” he said.

Ware, a disabled Air Force veteran who walks with the help of a cane, showed up to the mock election with his wife Barbara because he was curious about the time it would take to vote at one of these vote centers.

“I’m concerned primarily about the fact that with 129 vote centers instead of 240 the lines are going to be super long,” Ware said. “I’m a disabled veteran, so when I go to vote, I’m bringing a lawn chair and my favorite water bottle.”

Friday’s round-two mock election had about a dozen people in line outside the voting room doors during the first half, but the line disappeared less than an hour into the event. About 40 people had come to participate in the event, election staff said. Ware was happy about how quick it went but admitted he didn’t expect to have such luck on Election Day.

“I totally anticipate these aren’t going to be the lines that I get,” Ware said. “That’s my concern, and we live in Quail Creek. We’re not going to have access to 20 or 30 (vote centers) like Tucson is going to have. We’re going to be relegated to one.”

In recent elections, more than 80 percent of Arizona voters have cast their ballots early, mostly by mail, with the remainder voting in person at the polls on Election Day.

Republican Chris King, an elected member of the Governing Board of Vail Unified School District and a former vice chair of the Pima County GOP, questioned the “cybersecurity aspect” of the new voting system, he said. He came out to the mock election because “I just want to test the system,” he said. His work requires him to be “out and about,” he said, so he expects to vote in the morning and wanted to be ready to vote “as soon as I can.”

Some volunteers for the upcoming primary election stopped by to experience the new system from a different perspective.

Marilyn Pollaw, a former election official for Alexandria, Va., will be working as the election inspector at the Udall Center in August and November. She came to the mock election because “I wanted to see what the new processes and machines are,” especially the electronic pollbooks, she said.

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Leticia Ramos, who’ll be volunteering at Voting Center 109 at the Tucson Expo Center, had a similar interest. “Since this is a new system I wanted to experience it from the voters end of it, as opposed to the worker’s end of it,” she said.

Some voters arrived at the wrong precinct in 2020 and were skeptical of filling out a provisional ballot, Ramos said. Under the new system people will be able to vote close to where they live or work, she said.

While Ramos currently votes by mail that may change with the new system. “If I see that it tends to go pretty smoothly then I might just decide to do that,” she said.

Testing the new system

Ramos noticed a delay in printing out the ballot for the man in front of her on Friday, but she was unsure if this was done unintentionally or just for the training situation. The Pima County Elections Department included some different training scenarios Friday, but delays in printing ballots was not one of them.

Delays at the ballot station were because of an increased number of precincts due to redistricting, Hargrove said. The mock election had ballot styles from the 2018 primary election, when there were only 248 precincts, compared with the current 279, so there were no precinct-specific ballots to print for attendees in precincts above 248.

This was “comforting,” she said. “Because you don’t want to be adding something that doesn’t actually exist.” The dry run included some scenarios to purposefully complicate things and test the system. Some of the fictitious voters in the practice system were considered “protected voters,” meaning their real address is not released to the public — a practice mainly done for law enforcement officers. These voters were directed to the special situations table where they filled out a provisional ballot.

Another scenario involved voters who’d already been mailed a ballot but showed up in-person on Election Eay. These individuals were also directed to fill out a provisional ballot, which would later be checked to prevent people from voting both via the mail and in-person.

Not all residents came away with confidence in the election system, though.  

Tim Laux said he attended the event out of concern for secure elections. The event should have required real IDs rather than fake data in a practice system,  Laux said.

“So to me this was really an invalid test,” he said. “Coming from 35 years of software and database experience, this is worthless, pointless to me.”

Once a ballot is turned in there is no way of knowing if a machine will change votes while counting them, he said.  “The 2020 election was rigged,” Laux said. Such claims about the 2020 election, widely spread by conspiracists and Donald Trump supporters, have been repeatedly disproven.

Ware, the Air Force veteran, also had his doubts and said he wanted to see how the new electronic pollbooks and ballot printers were going to work. He worried about the accuracy of Pima County’s election databases because 80,000 voters had recently received voter ID cards with the wrong information.

“It speaks to the ineptness of the county recorder,” Ware said about the mistake. He came to the mock election “critical” of the local election officials, he said, including Hargrove, and was “skeptical” they could pull off a clean election with the new technology.

He would, however, be “greatly pleased” if he can get in and out of the vote centers on Aug. 2 as quickly as he did on Friday, Ware said.

Tenex software

Pima County will use Tenex Software for the new voting process, said Vanessa Figueroa, a senior elections technician for the county. The software previously handled payroll for the election workers.

The electronic poll books will contain the latest voter registration information from the Pima County Recorder’s Office and have encrypted communications.

In the new system, individuals check in when they arrive at the voting centers. Then, election officials scan IDs with a tablet and have the individuals sign in. From there, officials provide voters with ballot slips for the next station, where precinct-specific ballots are printed out.

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The number of printers at each location will depend on the concentration of voters nearby, Figueroa said. Each center will have hard-copy ballots as a backup option in addition to an ExpressVote machine typically reserved for individuals who have a hearing or visual impairment.

However, the ExpressVote machines are “a last resort,” Figueroa said. “In the event we did have a catastrophe, it’s there.”

Voter registration for the Aug. 2 primary ends on July 5. Early ballots will be mailed out shortly after that deadline.

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Bennito L. Kelty/TucsonSentinel.com

Leticia Ramos thinks about how she wants to fill out her pretend ballot for Pima County's mock election on Friday.

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