The Jan. 12 issue of Phoenix New Times summarizes a report by Douglas Jones on “widespread problems within the Maricopa County [Ariz.] Elections Department.” Jones, a University of Iowa computer science professor, has been a subject of controversy in recent months because he was granted access that is atypical for a consultant hired by a newspaper.
Jones was allowed to examine Maricopa County voting machines as the result of a subpoena by Sen. Jack Harper (R-Surprise), who chairs the Government Accountability and Reform Committee in the Arizona state Senate. Harper issued a second subpoena to allow Jones to examine the ballots in a contested 2004 election, but a judge refused to force the Maricopa County treasurer to comply with the subpoena, at least temporarily. Harper has since dropped the lawsuit until he has had time to read Jones’ report.
The unconventional arrangement between Harper and New Times drew a flurry of media coverage. Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas told Arizona Capitol Times that “the subpoena power of the Legislature has been rented out to a tabloid newspaper.” The Arizona Daily Star ran a piece with the headline “Did Phoenix’s New Times Buy a Subpoena?” and suggested that New Times might not even release Jones’ report to the Senate.
A member of the Senate’s Ethics Committee filed a formal complaint against Harper, saying his “conduct raises grave ethical concerns.”
Jones’ report was scheduled to be released to Harper on Jan. 12. New Times received an advance copy as part of its financial arrangement with Jones, enabling the paper to publish a story on his findings before they became public through other channels.
Phoenix New Times Editor Rick Barrs said that local politicians and press have drummed up controversy over the subpoena to obscure the real story: the fact that local elections are operating in a way that could allow for vote miscount or tampering. His Jan. 12 Editor’s Note is a strongly worded reprimand of local officials and media outlets.
According to Barrs, the local mainstream media are quick to criticize because they dislike New Times. “When you get a major newspaper going around denigrating the idea of the media getting a scoop as if that’s a bad thing, that tells you the kind of people you’re dealing with,” Barrs said.
It’s very common for journalists to pay for an analysis of information in order to better serve their watchdog function, said Poynter ethics group leader Kelly McBride.
“I don’t see a problem. [New Times is] paying for experience that they can’t provide,” McBride said. “It’s a matter of public interest if the votes were counted right.” She added that she could not address the actions of the senator.
The election at the center of the debate was a primary for state representative in District 20 and was held on Sept. 21, 2004. The margin of victory was four votes, which triggered an automatic recount. During the recount, 489 additional votes appeared that changed the outcome of the election.
On Oct. 27, 2005, New Times wrote about Sen. Harper’s investigation into this election. After Senate President Ken Bennett refused to authorize state funds for an independent consultant, Harper sought private funding. He found it at New Times.
New Times agreed to pay up to $3,000 to Jones, and wrote a letter to Bennett telling him so. As a result, the paper had first dibs on the results of Jones’ investigation.
What Jones found, according to the Jan. 12 article, was “a systemic problem with election administration in Maricopa County and a failure by the state to properly oversee the county’s handling of elections.” The voting machines Jones examined were improperly calibrated, meaning in some cases they would fail to detect votes and in others they would detect votes where there were none. Voters were instructed to use black ballpoint pen, which was the least effective method and resulted in a 1 in 12 chance of a vote not being counted.
However, Jones also said that vote tampering was a possible explanation for the 489 votes that appeared in the recount. He suggested that examining a scientifically random selection of 1000 ballots would be sufficient to determine if tampering had occurred.
“If someone [were] in a hurry to surreptitiously alter large numbers of ballots, I would expect them to mark those ballots all with the same pen or pencil and to make no serious effort to match the style of marks made by the original voter,” Jones said.
Harper officially dropped his original lawsuit seeking access to the ballots on Jan. 12, after Thomas opposed his request for a continuance. However, Harper said he expects to file a new suit after he has had time to read Jones’ report.
Both McBride and Barrs likened the situation to the group of media organizations who paid for an independent recount in Florida after the 2000 presidential election. An investigation won’t change the outcome of the election because a judge has already certified the results, but Barrs said finding the truth is still necessary.
“It’s almost like arguing with the umpire,” Barrs said. “You do it because you want to see differences later.”
Lindsay Kishter is a junior at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. She interned at the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies in summer 2005.
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