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Tue, Nov. 19

Officials: Voting system effective against fraud

PHOENIX - With over 60 percent of Arizona voters expected to cast early ballots this year, state and county election officials say the public should be confident that the verification process is effective at preventing fraud.

"We want people to see the process, to know that there is very little room for error," Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell said. "Very little room."

According to data collected by News21, a national reporting project made up of 11 universities and hosted at Arizona State University, election fraud is rare nationwide and in Arizona but there is more alleged fraud in absentee ballots than any other type. The investigation found an infinitesimal amount of voter-impersonation fraud, the impetus for voter-ID laws around the country.

While voter-ID and proof-of-citizenship laws have partisans bickering, election experts say the real potential for fraud and mistakes happens with mail-in ballots, a potential they said has gone relatively unregulated.

"What little of fraud in voting there is does happen in absentee ballots," said Zachary A. Smith, a regents' professor at Northern Arizona University's Department of Politics and International Affairs.

For many Arizonans, voting at the polls is a fading memory. "No reason, no witness" balloting, which means anyone can cast a mail-in ballot, started in Arizona in 1992. The percentage of Arizonans using early ballots has risen steadily over the past 10 years, Purcell said.

"In Arizona it is the election system, the precinct is no longer the election system," said Stephen Ansolabehere, a political science professor at Harvard University's School of Government and co-author of a new report from Caltech/MIT's Voting Technology Project that looks at the growth of mail-in balloting.

There have been no laws passed or any proposed legislation recently seeking to change the process of counting early ballots in Arizona, according to Matt Roberts, a spokesman for the Arizona Secretary of State's Office. He said the state is concerned about and will prosecute election fraud but added that there are many safeguards in place for early balloting.

"These ballots are secured," he said. "Voters should have a great deal of confidence in the platform."

Roberts noted that his office uses an interstate database that recently turned up nine new cases of people voting in both Arizona and another state during the 2008 presidential election. He said some of the illegitimate votes were cast using mail-in ballots.

Under Arizona law, election officials must compare signatures on early ballots to the signatures on voter registration forms. In addition, machines that tabulate early ballots are subjected to a logic and accuracy test by the Secretary of State's Office to ensure they're working properly, and tabulation centers are required to have webcams operating 24 hours a day to allow the public to see areas where ballots are counted.

"We are as secure as we can possibly be, short of having an armed guard," Yavapai County Recorder Leslie Hoffman said.

Purcell said the checks in Arizona's early ballot system are sufficient to deter people from attempting fraud.

"They know that's going to happen so how are they going to get past that? They really can't," she said.

But Ansolabehere, the Harvard professor, said signature matching can be problematic.

"Relying just on signature matching is putting a lot of subjective judgments in the hands of the person who is doing the authentication," he said.

He added that voters signatures can change because of age or name changes from divorce or marriage.

Purcell said every signature is matched electronically and verified by a someone who goes through training for early tabulation counts. Her office hires 100 extra people to have a total of 200 looking at signatures, she said.

"We can count anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 ballots a day," she said.

If a signature is questioned then a member of the regular staff trained in forensic writing looks at the ballot, Purcell said. She said that person will try to contact the voter, and most of the time it's a harmless mistake, like a wife or husband accidentally putting his or her ballot in their spouse's envelope or someone who has difficulty signing because of a broken arm.

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