Voting machines have been used in Arizona since 1881, but a GOP bill would bar them

By Gloria Gomez/UA Don Bolles Fellow/AZ Mirror

PHOENIX — Voting would return to 19th Century methods — with their glacial pace and flawed accuracy -– and reduce voter access under legislation Republicans approved in a legislative committee that would ban machines from counting votes, critics said. 

The proposal is rooted in the Big Lie, a belief that the 2020 election was “stolen” from Donald Trump. Although there are various evidence-free theories purporting to explain how that happened, a prominent one is that ballot-counting machines were rigged to switch votes from Trump to Joe Biden. 

The idea has been tossed out of court for a lack of evidence, and a biased election review conducted last year by the Arizona Senate examined ballot tabulators in Maricopa County and found nothing to back up the claim.

Nonetheless, a state legislator who has built a nationwide political following by espousing widely debunked lies about the 2020 election says machines designed to quickly count ballots more accurately than humans are likelier to result in false results because of cheating.

“This is paper only ballots, this does away with the machines,” Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, said about her Senate Bill 1338

She cited Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan as the inspiration behind attempting to prohibit any technology use in future elections. The company directed the so-called “audit” of the 2020 election, despite having no experience analyzing elections or knowledge of Arizona election law. Logan, like Rogers, was a vocal proponent of election lies that the outcome was affected by rampant fraud, and he worked to persuade U.S. senators to overturn elections in Arizona and other battleground states. 

“He said, ‘Senator Rogers, we need to go back to paper ballots, and they need to be counted by hand,’” she said. 

Republicans in Arizona and in state legislatures across the nation are pushing hundreds of measures to add barriers to voting and make it easier for them to overturn results, often under the guise of stopping the exceedingly rare election fraud that they falsely claim is the reason why Democrats won close races in 2018 and 2020.

Technology has become a staple of American life, said Jen Marson, the executive director of the Arizona Association of Counties, which opposes the bill. In this case, technology allows elections to be run more efficiently and accurately.

“We use technology in our everyday lives in other very sensitive areas: banking, medical records, etcetera,” she said. 

Tabulating machines undergo rigorous software and accuracy tests before being used in elections. That includes a hand count to compare machine totals and ensure machines can pass an errorless standard, along with logic and accuracy tests performed both before and after every election. Every machine in Maricopa County is certified by both the state and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. 

Hand counts, meanwhile, have been found to result in error rates of up to 2 percent, a margin that could sway close elections.

Voting machines have been used in Arizona since 1881, some 30 years before statehood. Returning to hand counting elections would invariably lengthen the time it takes to announce election results and may even be logistically impossible. In 2020, there were close to four million registered voters statewide, and Marson said that number increases every year. She questioned the state’s ability to recruit enough manpower to count the ballots, especially under pressure from Arizonans who want to know the results quickly.

“We cannot get enough people in many of our counties to conduct the limited hand count that happens post-election. I struggle to believe that we would have enough people to hand count the entire election, and all of the different ballot styles associated with that election, in any kind of timely fashion,” she said. 

Some ballots have several dozen contests on them. In addition to the federal and statewide races, they can include ballot propositions, city and county elections, school boards, water and fire districts, judges and more. Which races and contests are on which ballots depend on where a voter lives.

Rogers touted the willingness of residents in her district who would be prepared to help, and would travel across the state to do so. 

“There is a hue and a cry in my district for free and fair elections,” she said.

Leaders of the so-called audit said they would hire bipartisan teams to hand-count the paper ballots, but ended up relying on conservatives after Democrats refused to participate.

Among the bill’s proponents was Teresa Bumguardner, who worked for the Senate’s “audit” and claimed that a return to simplicity was best. The “audit” itself took three months to hand-count 2.1 million ballots, and was plagued by inaccuracy. One review found it actually missed thousands of ballots. That review only counted votes for two contests on the ballots — president and U.S. Senate.

SB1338 also makes voting less accessible by forcing a return to precinct-level voting. It would bar voting centers, which Republican lawmakers authorized in 2011 to make it easier for people to vote in person on Election Day. In precinct-only voting, voters can only cast a ballot at their neighborhood polling place; if they attempt to vote at another polling location, their ballots are not counted. Voting centers allow any voter in the county to cast a ballot. After a voter’s eligibility is verified, a ballot is printed on-site. 

Maricopa County began using an all-voting center model in 2020, following the lead of rural counties like Yavapai, which were early adopters. Earlier this week, Pima County approved using voting centers in its upcoming elections. 

Maricopa County currently has 748 voting precincts for more than 2.5 million registered voters, some larger than 10,000 voters

Jodi Liggett, lobbyist for the League of Women Voters of Arizona, said that getting rid of voting centers would be detrimental for voters. 

“Vote centers are convenient and effective, reducing confusion on Election Day,” she said, “Eliminating (them) harms rural and tribal communities.”

There are 22 tribes and 20 tribal reservations in Arizona, and many of them stretch across counties. The largest one is the Navajo Nation, which spans three counties, each one with different voting practices. Often, street addresses aren’t used in tribal or rural areas, but precinct voting requires them. 

Vote centers are not only more inclusive, but they also increase voter turnout because of their convenience. Their cumulative nature reduces the number of locations needed and effectively lowers costs by requiring fewer employees to run. 

The bill was approved by the Republican majority in the Senate Government Committee and awaits consideration by the full Senate. 

Committee Chairwoman Kelly Townsend, R-Apache Junction, said that a return to the voting practices of “our parents” would improve the system. 

“We’re just reverting back to the way they did it prior to all this technology and it was smaller precincts, and the precinct workers counted (the ballots) there,” she said.

Gloria Gomez, a senior at the University of Arizona, is the 2022 UA School of Journalism’s Don Bolles Fellow working with editors from the Arizona Mirror. Gomez has interned at the Arizona Daily Star and worked at the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She is a dual major in journalism and political science, with a Spanish minor. She’s a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors and National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The UA School of Journalism started the fellowship in 1977 to honor Don Bolles, an Arizona Republic reporter killed in a 1976 car bombing.

Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

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