County election recount uncovers undercount, no outcomes changed

A recount of two statewide races in the November election showed an undercount of more than 500 votes in Pinal County. [Bryan Mordt]

Pinal County, which seemingly had cleaned up malfeasance that put it in the national spotlight during the August primary election, once again is under scrutiny after a recount of two statewide races in the November general election revealed an undercount of more than 500 votes.

The discrepancies, however, did not change the outcome of the races for attorney general and superintendent of public instruction. Democrat Kris Mayes was elected attorney general by a razor-slim 280 votes statewide after the recount and Tom Horne was elected state schools chief by 9,188 votes, put over the top statewide by his margin of 24,346 in Pinal County, which bucked the statewide trend and went heavily Republican up and down the ballot.

Virginia Ross, hired on a four-month contract for $175,000 to run Pinal County’s November election after David Frisk was fired after the August turmoil, essentially rebuilt the department in three months, investing heavily in training elections staff. Still, human error was cited as the cause of the undercount.

Ross was to receive a bonus of $25,000 if the election came off without problems. It is not immediately known if the discrepancies uncovered during the recount will impact her receipt of the bonus, although a statement issued by the county suggests that she could still receive it. Ross retired Dec. 2.

Virginia Ross retired as Pinal County elections director on Dec. 2. [Bryan Mordt]
The Pinal County statement issued after completion of its recount said it is “reasonable to expect some level of human error in a dynamic, high-stress, deadline-intensive process involving counting hundreds of thousands of ballots.”

“Recounts occur when the difference in reported election outcomes is narrow enough (0.5%) that a recount could alter election results,” the statement continued. “In this case, the State of Arizona had two statewide election results fall within this margin. Thus, a recount occurred and the recount process did what it was supposed to do: It identified a roughly five-hundred vote undercount in the Pinal County election, attributable to human error. This undercount amounts to a 0.35% variance across a total county-wide vote count of around 146,000 casted ballots. In other words, the recount demonstrated that Pinal County exhibited an election consistency rate of 99.65%. Although not perfect, this consistency rate is within the state’s predetermined .5% statutory margin.”

Initial tallies showed that Republican attorney general candidate Abe Hamadeh carried Pinal County by 23,771 votes over Mayes. Both candidates gained votes in the recount: Hamadeh 392 and Mayes 115, slightly trimming Hamadeh’s recounted margin by 277 votes in the county.

In the schools superintendent race, Horne ousted Democrat incumbent Kathy Hoffman, easily carrying Pinal County by 24,346 votes in the initial count. Horne gained 385 votes and Hoffman 117 in the recount, slightly tightening Horne’s sizable margin in the county by 268 votes.


Geraldine Roll, who succeeded Ross as county elections chief this month, wrote in her Dec. 21 Recount Discrepancy Report to Arizona Elections Director Kori Lorick, that one factor in the undercount is the initial certification “was filed prior to taking an adequate opportunity to investigate any possible anomalies we could discern from polling-place returns.”

Roll cited human error for:

  • Mishandling workarounds when some voters’ driver’s licenses would not scan for several hours on election day (Roll promised intensified training to handle this moving forward).
  • A bipartisan team not alerting an election employee to paper jams of machines, leading the operator to believe some ballots had been counted when they had not been counted. Some ballots were not returned from an output tray to an input tray to be rescanned.
  • A stack of ballots at “co-located precincts” mistakenly was not scanned.

Roll wrote that no foul-play is suspected in the discrepancies. Ballot boxes were locked, placed in a vault and monitored by video cameras, she said.

Ross said during her brief tenure as elections chief performance of the department improved dramatically. During an interview after the election but before the recount, she credited retraining poll workers, public-works officials, information-technology workers and following procedures put in place to ensure the election came off as planned.

“We made sure all of the chain-of-custody and handoff procedures were in place so we could track everything that was being done throughout the day,” Ross said. “We didn’t skip steps or cut corners. Organization is the key. You have to be extremely organized and understand how long each step takes and when you can start the next step. It all goes back to project management.”

The county had about 300 different ballots to print and distribute, considering the various precincts, cities, towns and school districts. Ballots also had to be printed in English and Spanish.

Ross said the only significant problem during the general election was the procedure for a ballot not scanning properly.

“We had a couple of instances where our poll workers needed a little more training on how to handle that scenario, but that will be addressed in some post-election training we’ll be implementing,” Ross said.

The county’s post-audit statement said upon continuing investigation, the Elections Department and County Attorney’s Office “will report any further findings and recommendations back to the Pinal County Board of Supervisors in a future public Board of Supervisors meeting, likely in February, from which our Board of Supervisors, who wholeheartedly believe in free and fair elections, will leave no stone unturned to ensure future elections in Pinal County are conducted with the strongest, most fail-safe procedures.”

“Until then,” the statement continues, “in light of threatened litigation and rumored appeals, Pinal County can make no further comment at this time.”

Hamadeh said he plans to continue a legal challenge of his defeat in court.