Arizona recount uncovers several ballot-counting errors in Pinal County

The final recount results released Thursday in the Arizona attorney general’s race — which shrank to a razor-thin margin of 280 votes and confirmed Democrat Kris Mayes’ victory — show that ballot-counting errors in Pinal County were largely responsible for the shift.

Pinal County, which has been plagued with election problems for the past year, included 507 more votes in its recount total than in its original canvass. Of those, 392 were cast for Republican Abe Hamadeh and 115 were cast for Mayes. Nearly all inconsistencies were the result of mistakes made by election officials: misfiled provisional ballots, poorly trained poll workers, and improper tabulation were to blame, according to a report from the county.

Charles Stewart, a professor of political science at MIT who studies elections, said that while it is normal for counties to see small changes in the results (“ones and twos”) because “people make different judgements than machines,” Pinal’s results suggest a larger problem. “When you get numbers in the dozens or hundreds, that tells me there was something wrong with the management of the original election, for sure.”

Pinal County has experienced tremendous turnover of its election staff in the past year. This summer, the elections director was fired after only a few months on the job for botching the county’s primary. As a result, the county hired outgoing Recorder Virginia Ross, who’d previously managed elections in the county, to oversee the general election. They paid her $200,000 for the job, which ended in early December, after the original canvass but before the start of the recount.

The office is now run by Geraldine Roll, previously deputy county attorney in Pinal, who has not responded to requests for an interview. Roll worked closely with the state during the recount process, realizing early on that there were multiple and varied errors in precincts across the county. All errors, as described in an eight-page summary released by the county, appear to be related to insufficient poll worker and employee training and management.

“We conclude that human error was the cause of our election day miscounts,” the report said, offering multiple examples of poll workers failing to follow correct procedures during both voting and tabulation, leading to uncounted or miscounted votes. For instance, “It seems clear that a stack of ballots from Precinct 68 was not scanned. Again, human error.”

In another, the report explains that 63 Election Day ballots with unclear markings by voters were overlooked.  Because of an incorrect tabulator setting, they were scanned but not set aside to be adjudicated — examined to determine the voter’s intent. When officials discovered the ballots during the recount, a bipartisan board adjudicated them, copied votes onto new ballots, and correctly counted them. “The result was that even in precincts where there were no differences in Election Day ballots cast and recount ballots cast, candidates did pick up votes,” the report explained.

Pinal’s recount results come at a time when counties across the country, and especially Arizona, are facing pressure from conservative activists calling for officials to reject election results due to vague — and often false — claims of malfeasance. Election offices across Arizona have been bombarded with public records requests by hundreds of activists, overrunning their staff with tedious and often pointless work.

In Pinal County, voters have pelted local officials with a slew of conspiracy-laden accusations. The county’s sheriff, Mark Lamb, has been among the nation’s most vocal proponents of law enforcement officers involving themselves in election administration. And, of course, Pinal County was operating with brand-new staff and a director who’d publicly said she would not remain in office past early December.

A similar situation played out in 2020 in Coffee County, Georgia, which stumbled through a recount process while management faltered. Ultimately, the Georgia Secretary of State opened an investigation into the county and the director resigned to avoid being fired.

Tammy Patrick, CEO for programs of the Election Center at the National Association of Election Officials, formerly ran elections in Maricopa County. In counties that experience such election management problems, poll workers and tabulators may “create their own solution to a problem, election professionals might be rushed in their work, contingency plans might not be followed,” she said. “These concerns might impact the margin of victory, but rarely impact the outcome of the election and ultimate victor.”

In the last two decades, recounts have overturned results from only three races out of 6,000 statewide elections, though the margin between Hamadeh and Mayes is among the closest races in the state’s history.

Recount results in two other counties — Apache and La Paz — also contributed to the shrinking margin, though both counties found far smaller changes in vote totals than Pinal did. Of the 72 votes added to Apache’s total, 13 went to Hamadeh and 59 went to Mayes. Of 18 votes added to the total in La Paz, 13 went for Hamadeh and 5 to Mayes.

Deb Otis, research director at FairVote — a nonprofit that advocates for electoral reforms — said that it is normal for counties to have around a 0.1% vote increase from the original tally during the recount. Using county-level data released by the state, Votebeat determined Pinal’s increase in the attorney general’s race was 0.36%, La Paz’s was 0.33%, and Apache’s was 0.27%.

The discrepancies in all other Arizona counties, as a percentage of their total votes, were nearly zero percent. Maricopa County, with its 1.5 million votes cast in the race, found a discrepancy of five votes for each candidate, for a net change of zero in the margin.

FairVote’s research shows that around only 14 percent of statewide recounts performed nationally vary by 0.27% or more.

Neither La Paz nor Apache county responded to interview requests, though all counties submitted variance reports to the secretary of state explaining the inconsistencies between the recount and the original canvas.

In an interview with Votebeat, State Elections Director Kori Lorick said La Paz County’s 17-vote disparity was a result of the failure to save the results of a batch of ballots counted during the initial tabulation. In Apache County, 72 ballots across two batches were not scanned. As in Pinal, all were human errors, though both represented less extensive failures of election administration than the list of missteps described in Pinal County’s report.

This is Lorick’s last week in her position before the new secretary of state, Adrian Fontes, a Democrat, arrives with his own staff. She said her recommendation will be to better train officials around the state in how to perform reconciliation, a process that checks each precinct’s results to ensure that all ballots are accounted for properly. While state guidelines recommend the practice, it is not required in Arizona. Large counties, like Maricopa, perform reconciliation as a matter of course, while smaller counties have inconsistent procedures, resulting in the types of errors uncovered by the recount.

“That’s the learning lesson. We need to make certain that reconciliation procedures are solidified across all of the counties,” Lorick said. While the state provides training on reconciliation best practices, the secretary of state’s office does not have the authority to require counties to take it.

Regardless, Lorick said, Arizona’s heavy turnover of election workers makes it clear that the state needs to “beef up” its current one-day training session. “La Paz’s director was new. Pinal’s entire team is new. We have a lot of turnover, and the smartest move going forward is to make sure they have those procedures in place.”

Pinal County was the last county to submit recount results to the state, forcing the secretary of state’s office to delay presenting final numbers by a week as the county toiled through reconciliation procedures to complete the recount under a brand-new elections director.

Before the recount, Roll was publicly optimistic, predicting the recount would take only “a couple of days” and that little was likely to change. One early December headline that didn’t hold up: “Pinal officials say recount should be quick and smooth.”

Votebeat Arizona reporter Jen Fifield and story editor Carrie Levine contributed to this report.

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