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County elections director hails permanent early voting system

Election Day is the culmination of thousands of hours of preparation and a checklist that is probably a mile long.

Just walk through the warehouse where all of the supplies for the 1,142 Maricopa County polling places are stored and where the Maricopa County Elections Department goes about its business of counting hundreds of thousands of early ballots and you get an idea of the effort it takes to pull off an election.

Karen Osborne has been leading the operation for 15 years. Osborne sat down with the Arizona Capitol Times on Oct. 12 to discuss elections reforms, past voting controversies and what the future holds for voters.

You’ve been doing this since 1978 here in Arizona…

I joined the Secretary of State’s Office in 1977, and in 1978 I was appointed as the assistant secretary of state, and elections was a function that reported to me. I was there until 1990, and Mr. (Jim) Shumway was not successful in the election and Mrs. (Helen) Purcell called and asked if he would like to come and work in the Elections Department here, and I was fortunate enough to come along.

Mr. Shumway left in ’95, and in ’95 I became the director.

Over the years, which election reform has had the greatest impact on elections in Arizona?

Hands down the permanent early voting — the ability for the public to be on the list so they don’t have to repeatedly call in and write in.

We check ahead of time. About 90 days out, we send them a mailing to make sure they are still at that location and we ask them if they want to come off the list. That has been just a tremendous help for the elections process.

As a voter I could see how that would benefit me, how does it benefit you?

It benefits us by not having to have more and more and more polling places, because we have such a huge population of voters. We have 1.85 million voters, and we only have 1,142 precincts, and you can only get so many people through a precinct in a day.

They hate lines and nobody wants to wait in line, so in order to accommodate that many, if we didn’t have this type of system, you would have to have probably twice or maybe three times the amount of polling places.

How has it changed the way you do business here?

If you look back at one of the biggest elections we ever held, which was the presidential election in ’08, there were only 600,000 people who asked for an early ballot.

We’re already at 850,848 right now, so those are people I don’t have to set up for at the polling place.

What has changed for us is using the electronic systems that are available for us to look at the ballot face, to look at the picture of the ballot so we don’t have to move the ballots around in such tight security. We’ve shifted into that more electronic dependency.

So what is your biggest challenge today?

Time. The last election cycle, this election cycle, the hardest part was getting through all of the lawsuits that were right at the end and be able to come up with what we need to on time.

The military overseas balloting is a federal law, and it says those have to be sent out 45 days ahead of the election. There were 4,600 of them and we made that mailing with one hour to spare.

There has been talk about earlier primaries.

Is that something that can get traction?

It has been most difficult to get an earlier primary. We need an earlier primary, but a really early primary.

We were able to get one week and we were able to get, finally, another week this last year, which has been helpful. But we need a primary that is back in May or June in order to get all of the issues completely fleshed out through the court system and all of the things that are going to happen, so that the general election ballot can be done in not such a pressure-packed time frame.

You had a little bit of that this time.

We had a lot of that this time. In the Green Party we had people wanting to pull themselves off the ballot at the last minute, and we certainly wanted to accommodate all that.

The only thing I can describe it as is a firestorm. We were already in court all day long with another issue and there were legions of people saying, “I want to come off the ballot, I want to come off the ballot,” but then contradicting themselves in one case, “I want to stay on.”

We were not able to take a couple of those names off. We would not have made it to the post office with those federal ballots. That was the most difficult in this go around. And in the middle of that we had a recount for the Kyrene justice of the peace. It started out eight different and ended up eight different.

Is Arizona headed toward an all-mail voting system?

Two years ago the public said no, and I don’t think that we asked the question correctly. They did not appear to me, they did not want to throw the baby out with the bath water. For those of us who want the experience of going into the polling place, we still want to do that.

I do believe that we will have as much as 60 percent of the people who participate in this general election will do so by mail; it may even be higher. In the primary election it was 72 percent of everyone who voted, voted by mail.

It is increasing if you look at last general; it was 55 percent voted by mail, 45 percent voted at the polling place. I think it will continue to increase. I don’t know if it will make the turnout rise, but it will keep it certainly from diminishing.

Where do you stand as far as Internet voting?

We have spoken with the development and security people of most of the major parts of the industry who tell us they are not ready yet. They cannot guarantee us the security that one would need.

I don’t see it happening — perhaps eventually it will — but it isn’t in the near-term future. Right now, if you are overseas in the military you can vote via the Internet by us sending you your ballot, PDFing a ballot over there. You can fill it in and PDF it back to us. You have to give up your anonymity in that I have to know who you are in order to make sure that your signature matches.

Which electronic voting system do we have in Maricopa County?

Dominion. It used to be called Sequoia. The Dominion company bought Sequoia.

What I meant was how does it work?

We have a scan system and we have touch-screen for the voters who are disabled.

How long have we had this?

1996 is the first time we changed to a scan system from punch card.

Any reason to be worried about malfunctions or hacking?

The system we have now has tested out remarkably well. It is very accurate. As far as hacking into it, the only outside contact this system has with anything is a four- to five-second upload of information on election night, and it still does not go into the mainframe.

We go to great lengths to protect the center core of the computer system. There isn’t anything that can’t be hacked, but if you look at the Pentagon and all those other things and people say they’ve gotten in there, those systems are up 24/7.

The system that we have, when you put the memory pack in to be read into the system, that’s a four- to six-second upload, and nobody knows specifically when that’s happening and we take every precaution we can to protect the votes.

Have we ever had any problems here?

Not that I’m aware of. We do a logic and accuracy test before and after the election. The Secretary of State’s Office comes in and we never know which precincts they are going to test or which candidates, that type thing. And we do our own test of absolutely everything in the system.

Another thing that we do is the hand count. We verify two percent of all the precincts by hand and that’s done immediately following the election once the results are posted and you’re going back in the precinct, going back to exactly to here’s the tape that came out of the machine that day

We also do that on 5,000 of the early ballots selected at random by the political parties. We have never had anything out of the tolerance area at all.

There was some controversy and bugs to work out in 2006 with the voter ID law — have you worked all of that out?

We have had very little dust up about that.

In fact, we went back in last year and were able to get the last Legislature to agree, and we did get it pre-cleared, that if you have your military ID, that’s good enough. And you have to have something from the precinct that shows you’re in the right precinct, but also your passport because when you’re at the polling place what we’re looking for is, is that you?

We’re not testing your citizenship. That was done at your registration. We have not had a lot of flap over that lately.

You mentioned earlier that you’re having problems finding polling places. Why is that?

Being a polling place, we take up parking, obviously, and the process is not pristine. We do have people who put stakes in the ground and all of that type of thing. The law says that if you allow me to use your property for a polling place, you have to agree to allow people to come campaign there.

What about volunteers?

You mentioned you have to have 7,000 nominally-paid volunteers.

The primary is now the hardest to get people, but now they’re back. The general is always the easier time.

The Secretary of State’s Office has some ads on television and that has been helpful. A lot of folks are willing to help until they find out it is a very long day and we don’t have the ability for people to work part of the day.

They do have to come for training, and they do have to be there at 5:30 in the morning, and the polls close at seven. But anybody in line gets to vote.

Our polling place workers are legendary for sticking to it and showing up in rain, snow, sleet, the whole thing. When we had those terrible storms in the primary, we actually had four or five cars with their headlights on through the door to try and get the people enough light to close up the polling place.

Have you done any kind of analysis of who goes to the polls and why they still go to the polls when we’ve got ease of voting?

We’ve done a little of that but not in a statistical format we could depend on. Every year we get more and more people voting by mail and when you ask them, it’s the ease. They have selected a different Election Day.

Do you, Karen Osborne, go to the polls or are you an early voter?

I early vote. If the polling workers have to be there at 5:30 (in the morning), then we feel we need to be here at 5. And in a difficult-paced election I feel my job is here helping out rather than taking time out to go to the polls.

I used to early vote at the counters. I used to be the first one at the counter. Now, I give myself the time to get the ballot at home. It’s kind of a test to see when everybody gets their ballots. I’m just like everybody else.

What is the most gratifying part of this job?

It is actually humbling to be responsible for a portion of the election process. We have many partners and it is really gratifying to see the volunteer polling place workers step up and they stay.

It is gratifying to see these people who are here that are on permanent staff, nights, weekends, holidays — pictures of their families on their desks so they remember what they look like — everybody stepping up and the positive attitude.

It is always gratifying when it is complete and we hand that canvass in and the board votes on it.

Tell me a little bit about this flag on the wall.

As you can imagine we have lots of temporary help, and this young man who was working in our warehouse was an artist and he came in — we had a blank cement wall there — and he asked if he could paint a flag on there. We said “Have at it, we think that would be great.”

We went down to Home Depot, one of the managers got him some paint and away he went. It’s just our favorite room.

The last question: Your most memorable Election Day for whatever reason that made it memorable.

It had to be 2006 and there was a flurry of voting. We had to take the ballots out, they seemed to think we were running low on ballots and it was at a precinct almost at the very end of where Ahwatukee would be, only on the west side.

I went out there and there were lines of people ready to vote. These people were excited about being there. They weren’t griping about the line being long, they weren’t griping about it being late, they were truly excited about participating. It just kind of makes it all worth it.

They all have their memorable moments, some frightening, but each one seems to be more exciting than the last.

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