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Maricopa County Plans To Speed Up Ballot Counting In 2020

Maricopa County election officials plan to roll out a new way to resolve voter errors on ballots in the 2020 election season, an effort that could speed up the announcement of election results.

But the county can’t use a new, faster method for resolving voter errors unless the process is approved by Attorney General Mark Brnovich and Gov. Doug Ducey.

The process, called electronic adjudication, would occur when smudges or other mishaps on ballots prevent vote-counting machines from correctly identifying a voter’s choice in a specific race.

The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors invested in new machines that allow for specific questions to be singled out digitally.

That would allow a bipartisan team of election workers to determine how a voter cast his or her ballot.

Electronic adjudication replaces what Board Chairman Bill Gates described as a lengthy and antiquated process, still used in all Arizona counties, that requires a duplicate ballot to be printed and filled out entirely by hand.

“It’s a very slow process as a result, because if you had one smudge on a ballot with so many different races as you know, if you include all the federal and state, local races, then you have all the judges — that means that entire ballot has to be re-filled out,” Gates said.

Manually duplicating ballots takes about 12 minutes per ballot, depending on the number of races on the ballot. Gates said that electronically isolating a single question on the ballot would take less than one minute to resolve.

The county has invested heavily in new elections staff and technological upgrades. In June, the Board of Supervisors approved funding to more than double the staff of the Elections Department, and updated the elections administration agreement to allow the board to take a more active role in managing county elections alongside County Recorder Adrian Fontes. 

The changes followed troublesome elections in 2016, when long lines plagued polling sites during the Presidential Preference Election, and 2018, when it took a week to declare a victor in Arizona’s nationally-watched U.S. Senate race. It took 13 days of counting after Election Day to declare a winner in all the state’s legislative races.

“(Electronic adjudication) is very important to our plan to have three successful elections in 2020,” Gates said.

Details of the new process were included in a draft election procedures manual, a how-to guide for local election officials, written by the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office.

A preliminary review of the manual by the Attorney General’s Office cast doubt on whether electronic adjudication is allowed. Assistant Attorney General Evan Daniels cited a state law that requires a “true duplicate” be produced of “damaged or defective” ballots that can’t be counted by machine.

Elections Director Bo Dul said there’s a distinction between “damaged” ballots and ballots with a smudge. Damaged ballots “are the types of ballots that the tabulation equipment can’t read or scan,” she said. Electronic adjudication would be used “when the voter mismarks the ballot.”

“We stand by the decision to include the authorization for the use in the manual,” Dul said. “It’s clearly within the purview of the procedures manual, and there’s nothing within statute that prohibits this.”

The attorney general and governor have until December 31 to approve the election procedures manual ahead of the 2020 election season.

A spokesman for the attorney general declined to comment.

“Our office is actively in discussions with the Secretary of State’s Office regarding the elections procedure manual and additional commentary at this time wouldn’t be appropriate,” said spokesman Ryan Anderson.

If the language for the new process isn’t included in the manual, Gates said the county will pursue other options, such as asking state lawmakers to change the law and clarify that electronic adjudication is legal. Dul warned that change isn’t likely to occur before the Presidential Preference Election on March 17.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The story has been corrected to indicate an election administration agreement was updated. The law was not changed. 

Ben Giles is a senior editor at KJZZ.