by Jim Keyworth
roundup staff reporter
Secretary of State Betsy Bayless says the election problems that happened in Florida last year couldn't happen in Arizona, but she doesn't want to take any chances.
Last January she proposed that Gila County and the nine other counties in Arizona that still use punch-card voting systems be switched to an optical scanning system at a cost to the state of $3.4 million. Under state law, each county is responsible for conducting its own elections.
"Five counties representing 80 percent of the voters already have optical scanning equipment," Bayless says. "The 10 counties that still have punch cards are rural counties that have 20 percent of the voters."
Bayless, who used to be a supervisor in Maricopa County, says that the only way to achieve election consistency is to convince the Legislature to fund the changeover.
"The 10 counties that still have punch cards are rural and small," she says. "They're not rich. I'm saying since they don't have the money to do this, let's just do it."
While both the Legislature and Governor Jane Hull were receptive, the item has been put on hold because of projected budget shortfalls. "Looking at revenues versus projected revenues, Arizona was down, so the governor looked at the budget and knocked every free-standing piece of money out of there," Bayless says. "But she committed to me that if revenues improved, she would come back and include it in a special session and restore this. My immediate challenge is timing.
"If I were willing to wait until the next legislative session in January, it would be fine. There is just real resistance to doing anything right now in a special session."
One reason Bayless is concerned about waiting is the lead time the 10 counties will need to get a new voting system in place by the primary election next September.
"Some people in the Legislature say we'll do it first thing in January," she says. "That scares the counties because they want to have the equipment absolutely as quickly as possible to get used to it and to train their employees."
Dixie Mundy, director of elections for Gila County, agrees that the time frame is a concern. "It's getting a little close to the time when we have to start working on the next election," Mundy says.
Gila County officials have looked into an electronic scanning system in the past.
"In 1997, we got a quote on a similar system, and it was about $300,000 for just the equipment itself," Mundy says."When the secretary of state first went to the Legislature, we talked to one of her people and came up with a number of $400,000 for Gila County, and that was the amount submitted on our behalf. A rural county just doesn't have the kind of money for that."
Regardless of how her push for statewide voting consistency comes out, Bayless says that what happened in Florida could never happen here. "In Florida, every county did what they wanted during the election," she says. "By law in Arizona the secretary of state writes the elections procedures manual and every county follows it. Recounts are in there, so you don't get one county saying they'll do a recount and another saying they won't."
But she still thinks it's critical to eliminate the punch-card system.
"The governor has to take the revenue numbers seriously, but I am increasingly concerned about the performance of Arizona in the next election," Bayless says. "While $3.4 million is a lot of money, it's a miniscule part of the total budget. And compared to having some major election fiasco in Arizona, it's a mere pittance."
That's why she intends to push the matter.
"I've gone back to the governor and said, 'I think we need to do this.' I'm not giving up."