An independent expert hired by the Pinal County Board of Supervisors to review the Elections Department’s performance in the August primary reported Wednesday there was no crime or fraud but gross incompetence.
Brad Nelson suggested the department essentially be rebuilt from the bottom up, which the county already had done beginning the day after the Aug. 2 primary.
“You are on the right course now,” Nelson told the supervisors.
The supervisors, in a move toward transparency, unanimously agreed Wednesday to make Nelson’s report available to the public on the county clerk’s webpage.
Read Nelson’s full report here
Since August, the county not only commissioned Nelson, a former elections director in Pima and Mohave counties, to perform an investigative review but also:
- Fired County Elections Director David Frisk and a staffer. Nelson found that Frisk did not follow state statue in the number of ballots he ordered. Nelson said Frisk did not return voice messages and emails seeking his input for the audit.
- Hired Recorder Virginia Ross, who ran previous elections in Pinal County, to succeed Frisk as elections director.
- Appointed Dana Lewis, who was trained by Ross, as recorder. Their communication and familiarity are vital to improving the election, Nelson said.
- Increased staffing, resources and poll-worker training. Ross’ retooled department now has 11 staffers. There will be nearly 1,000 elections workers at 97 polling sites across the county in November. Ross said despite negative publicity, she experienced positive response from those who want to join the team and improve the outcome.
Jeffrey McClure, chairman of the Pinal County Board of Supervisors, called the August elections performance “embarrassing” and understands the county will be watched closely across the state.
“And beyond,” McClure said, acknowledging national reports of the August debacle.
For those who still doubt Pinal can conduct a competent election, McClure says, “don’t just listen to what we say, watch what we do. It will show that we have changed a lot.”
Among the problems was omission of local races in early ballots mailed to Maricopa voters.
Some precincts opened an hour or two late on Election Day. More than 20 polling places ran out of ballots. Many voters waited hours while more ballots were printed on two old machines that could spit out only 20 ballots an hour. Those then had to be trucked to voting sites across Arizona’s third-largest county. Some in line gave up and left without voting.
This came after more than 63,000 mailed early ballots omitted local races, including those in Maricopa. Elections officials scrambled to get out supplementary ballots with the missing races.
Poll workers, many in their first election, later said they weren’t sufficiently trained or equipped to do their jobs.
Contrite, the supervisors voted unanimously to refund more than $100,000 to cities for costs of elections the county was contracted to run.
“Our problem is growth,” McClure said. “Virginia, when she was recorder in 2012, when we had like 70,000 voters, had the same number of (staffers) we have now with 257,000. It’s not that the process has changed, but the volume has changed and needs have changed. And now we need to beef it up and that has been taken care of. Our Elections Department org chart now looks like a corporation org chart.”
Ross to the rescue?
Ross was persuaded in August to leave her elected job as county recorder after 12 years to head the Elections Department, handling operations that include polling places and ballot counting.
“When they looked around and didn’t see anyone else with the depth of election experience or even a certified elections officer who could step up, I thought about it and decided it is important enough to go ahead,” Ross said. “Pinal County deserves to have a credible election without problems.”
Ross, who will retire at the end of the year, was assured she’d be given the necessary resources.
“I was able to hire the people I wanted,” she said. “It’s important that I know their work ethic and I trust them. Some worked for me in the recorder’s office.”
Among Ross’ staffing additions is Geraldine Roll, a member of the County Attorney’s Office, who has experience with the Elections Department.
“I had to think about, can it even be done?” Ross said. “I told them I can do the work but I’m going to need a lot of people and resources to pull this off because even though we have increased staff, they don’t (all) have elections experience.”
While she was recorder, Ross ran elections for five years with no major problems before the county took those duties from the recorder and created a separate Elections Department in 2017.
A county criticized for administering previous elections on the cheap backed its commitment to improvement by giving Ross a four-month contract for $175,000 to direct the November election with a $25,000 bonus if the election goes off smoothly.
To get the bonus, Ross must have sufficient ballots accurately and properly formatted and delivered to precincts; open polling locations on time with properly trained workers, operate equipment that passes logic-and-accuracy tests; conduct reports as required by law; coordinate with city and town clerks in all jurisdictions; and have election results accepted, or canvassed, by the Board of Supervisors.
“We took the poll-worker manual and essentially rewrote it,” Ross said. “We’ve gone through several rehearsals, and then talked to poll workers. We’re getting very positive feedback from every training class. It’s much, much better.”
Nelson, in his report, said the reworked manual “looks absolutely perfect.”
Lewis succeeded Ross as recorder, handling voter rolls and mail-in ballots. A retired Air Force staff sergeant, she is a certified election official for the state.
“One of the key things now is the relationship between the Elections Department and the recorder,” Lewis said. “Virginia and I have a great relationship. We speak daily. We’re able to improve our workflows and processes. Communication is key. That did not occur the way it needed to during the last election.
“We tried our best from the recorder’s office to communicate concerns and hurdles we’d identified, making sure enough staff was on hand, that we had the resources we need to execute our duties.”
Nelson agreed in his report that poor communication and ways to communicate were the biggest problems in the primary, not only in advance of the election but also on election day.
He said poll workers had only one help line to call when ballots were running short and tried as many as 20 times to get through to report the problem.
“I think we are going to be more than effective going into the general election,” Lewis said.
So far, so good.
Procedures were in place to assure multiple people proof-read ballots for completeness and accuracy.
Early ballots went out last week on time with no major problems reported.
Recently, a mock election conducted by the Elections Department with four standard polling places went smoothly.
“Of course, there’s a million things with a lot of little details when you have a thousand poll workers,” Ross said. “But I’m a detail-oriented person and I’m working every single day, all day, making sure we go through everything as thoroughly as possible.
“I told the board I’m not a miracle worker, but I am a hard worker. I’m going to do everything I possibly can to demonstrate that, yes, we can have an election, properly held, according to statute and procedures so people have confidence their vote will be counted.”
After national scrutiny over the August disaster, Pinal officials know they’re under intense pressure to get it right this time.
While the finger was pointed at Frisk, the county manager and Board of Supervisors also must be scrutinized, County Attorney Kent Volkmer told the board.
The county was criticized for running its elections operation lean to save money. That deprived the Elections Department of sufficient staffing and resources. Frisk, who had been on the job only five months and had a staff of two, did not follow Arizona statute for ballot ordering, which is 101% of registered voters in each precinct.
For November, 110% have been ordered, Ross said.
“I am confident in the process this time, yes, because of the people Virginia has in place,” McClure said. “It’s just like a play. You don’t rehearse it one time, you do it three, four, five, maybe six times. It’s the same thing here, making sure the procedure manual is correct, making sure what we’re training poll workers to do is correct and processes are followed, which I don’t believe happened last time.”
Lewis reminds voters it is a two-card ballot, with races and measures on the front and back of both cards.
“I think this team has it. I think we’re good,” Lewis said. “I would have never thought what happened during the primary election could have happened.
“When you have a formidable team that’s educated, deeply vested in our county and our processes, wants to do nothing more than accomplish a stellar election with the right people in the right places, there’s reason to have hope for success. They understand in no uncertain terms the task at hand and they’re willing to execute as accurately as can be expected of them.”
READ MORE REPORTS ON PINAL ELECTIONS PROBLEMS HERE