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9:46 AM Wed, Sept. 19th

Officials offer ways to improve election process

County elections officials will meet with Arizona Secretary of State officials Dec. 6 to talk about ways to improve the elections process.

Although Yavapai County elections officials don't think the process here has any serious problems, they are open to ways to speed up the ballot counting.

"We have lots of ideas," Yavapai County Recorder Leslie Hoffman said.

Yavapai County officials finished counting ballots on the Nov. 16 deadline, taking the same number of days as the last presidential general election in 2008 despite a slight increase in the number of voters (less than 1 percent). They worked 12-hour days throughout Veterans Day Weekend.

But they did see a huge increase in the number of provisional ballots (31 percent), which are ballots cast on election day that need verification of information such as signatures or addresses.

That number would have been even higher without the new vote centers this year that allowed Yavapai County registered voters to cast ballots anywhere in this county on election day, Hoffman said.

In the past, people who voted outside their precinct's polling place had to use the provisional ballots that take more time to process. Yavapai and Yuma counties participated in a pilot project this year with the new vote centers that are allowed under a new state law.

Some voters who cast early ballots told county elections officials that major party representatives called them to alert them that their ballots had not yet been counted, and they might want to cast provisional ballots on election day just in case.

"Some people panicked and went to the polls," Hoffman said.

County officials are thinking that might be part of the reason for such a large jump in provisional ballots, although they rejected fewer than half as many provisional ballots this year than in the 2008 general. They threw out 15 percent of the provisionals this year.

One way to reduce party calls to voters would be new machines that scan bar codes on early ballots, so the parties get the names of people who have returned their early ballots faster, Yavapai County Elections Director Lynn Constabile said.

Another way to reduce provisional ballots would be for various state agencies to share address information, Hoffman said. For example, the Arizona Motor Vehicle Division could tell the Secretary of State about address changes.

Complaints came into the state this month when counting in several tight congressional and legislative races took more than a week. Maricopa took the longest to count, finishing four days after the deadline.

The complaints prompted Secretary of State Ken Bennett to say he wants to see 98 percent of ballots counted by election night.

Newer machines could tally votes faster, Constabile said. Yavapai's counting machines are 14 years old. However, switching over to new machines would be costly.

A less expensive way to count ballots faster would be an all-mail election, Constabile said. Oregon and Washington have moved to all-mail statewide elections. In local all-mail elections, Yavapai County officials have finished counting by Wednesday.

The number of early voters increased 19 percent this year over 2008 in Yavapai County, while the number of registered voters increased only 4 percent. At the same time, the number of people voting on election day dropped by 32 percent.

No matter what the changes in the process, accuracy has to remain the number-one priority, Hoffman said.