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Election integrity: Who decides?

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Guest opinion

Election integrity: Who decides?

Checks and balances. A term most every elementary school student understands. But it seems to be a principle that escapes too many in government. Chuck Huckleberry, Pima County administrator, will soon propose to the Board of Supervisors a contract for the purchase of new election equipment for the county. No one disputes the need for new equipment. The current system is well past its intended use-by date and cannot be guaranteed to last even through the end of the current election season. The problem with Huckleberry’s intended purchase is that this will be a system designed to replace the central count system currently in use. His proposal will do away with a precinct scanner at each polling location. This removes a needed check in the system.

Precinct scanners allow smaller amounts of ballots to be totaled with the results published separately from the numbers later tallied at the central count location. This serves a valuable way to double check the numbers in the central system against all the numbers coming from the precincts. It is a step in the process that helps keep everyone honest.

The term “checks and balances” cannot be found in the words of the U.S. Constitution or the Arizona Constitution but this principle is in every article and passage of both. The interlocking and competing system the founders set up ensures that access to power is divided. The ability of anyone to gain influence over any one part is limited. And even the ability of someone that seeks to have influence is balanced by those in other offices or in the power of the citizens.

The systems that govern Arizona elections take that one step further. They prevent any one individual from having complete say over the process or the ballot counting of an election. Multiple elected officials are responsible for the mechanics of elections. The secretary of state, county recorder, county board of supervisors and the county treasurer all share in preparing and handling ballots and the counting systems used. Elections were seen as so important that they even further divided responsibility for school district elections to be under the county school superintendent. A further division was set into the Constitution by insisting that all those election officials are merely the mechanics set up to keep the machinery in place and running.

The citizens are actually in charge in Arizona elections.

Each and every step of the process is to be watched by those outside the system, keeping those inside the machinery from having sway over the outcomes. Acting through the political parties these citizen observers are to be present at all steps of the process. It is broken down into multiple and overlapping checks. By sub-dividing the counting into smaller parts it becomes easier to detect errors and potential fraud. When you can compare the final numbers on Election Day with the central machine counts and the sum from all the smaller precinct sections it makes it a lot harder to cheat.

No system for running elections will ever be perfect. The reason Arizona elections were designed to have the competing elected and unelected officials in charge of machinery and the citizens in charge of the operation was to it keep all parties aware that someone is watching.

James Madison summed it up quite well when he suggested that “if men were angels we’d have no need for government.” In essence he summed up why our system of checks and balances and observers of elections acting together help to keep ALL involved as honest as possible.

Every elementary school student would understand this process. No one should hold enough power to control the counting on Election Day. His Election’s Department head has quoted a price of $1.8 million for new scanners. Perhaps it’s time to remind Huckleberry and the Board of Supervisors to keep precinct scanners at the polls.

Bill Beard represents District 1 on the Pima County Election Integrity Commission.

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