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Voting GEMS

A lawsuit regarding election procedures has raised tensions at Pima County headquarters

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Vladimir Putin, come on down. Why stay in cold Russia, you kooky, Vodka-swilling dictator?

The warm climes of Tucson may have just what you need: a system that could allow you to secretly change the outcome of an election without anyone detecting your meddling.

But seriously, Mr. Putin we kid. Others in Pima County, however, don't seem to have a sense of humor when it comes to the Diebold GEMS (Global Election Management System) software, used by the Pima County's Elections Division to tabulate votes since 1995.

The Elections Division is the focus of a lawsuit filed by the Pima County Democratic Party, which is going to trial next week. (See "Voting Counts," Page 15.) The legal action has resulted in a political fray putting the Democratic-led county administration under the scrutiny of its own party, and has brought forward a debate on government transparency.

Just ask Ray Carroll, one of two Republicans on the Pima County Board of Supervisors. While Carroll is used to being a squeaky wheel when it comes to tax votes and other matters, he says the tension on the 11th floor of the Pima County Administration Building is thicker than usual.

As Democratic Party attorney Bill Risner mounted his investigation in preparation for the Dec. 4 trial, he turned to county supervisors to get more information on the elections process and the Elections Division. Carroll was the only supervisor to talk to Risner, and as a result, he is the only supervisor the Democrats didn't try to subpoena for depositions.

On Oct. 26, the party's request to subpoena the remaining supervisors was denied by a Pima County judge.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry says he agrees with that decision. The county supervisors--who are elected themselves--are prohibited from directly working with elections staff members and other county departments' employees. The Pima County Code outlines a strict protocol that prevents supervisors from discussing issues with county staff members. If a supervisor needs information, the supervisor must first go through Huckelberry's office.

Carroll sees the process differently.

"I've never denied anyone a meeting, and I don't just serve Republicans," Carroll says. "It's flattering to hear from people asking for the depositions that they don't need to fear I'd hide information."

Carroll says he's read the depositions collected by Risner, of sworn testimony from Elections Division employees, and he feels Pima County's government has failed the public.

"There's been a failure (on the county administration's part) to disclose ... election information. The things done in the service of our community are transparent. If not, than the government has failed."

Carroll says his willingness to talk to Risner and other election-integrity activists regarding election fraud issues isn't meant to be a thorn in anyone's side, including Huckelberry or Carroll's fellow supervisors. After all, he doesn't have any information on the Elections Division, and therefore, he didn't have much to tell Risner.

While there isn't much interaction between Carroll and his fellow supervisors, Carroll says he did hear from other supervisors that he could be held in contempt by the board just for talking to Risner. However, he doesn't think that will happen.

"Throw me in jail," Carroll says. "I find (the threats of contempt by the board) repulsive... (These are) just comments made to shame me. Obviously, my sins have been forgiven in the public eye when it comes to open government."

At the center of this hullabaloo from the lawsuit is the GEMS software used by the Elections Division to tabulate votes. An investigation by the state Attorney General's Office said the system had security issues, although the AG's statement issued in September said no criminal activity occurred. iBeta, the Colorado-based computer-forensics company contracted by the AG's office, described the security of the voting system as fundamentally flawed, noting that anyone going into the system could not only change votes, but cover their tracks, too.

The GEMS system evidently has an expiration date. Huckelberry says the county has been using it for more than 10 years, and that after the 2010 elections, the county is due for an update in software.

"After this election, (GEMS) will be nearing the end of its useful life," Huckelberry says.

Huckelberry says the county is interested in hearing from "anyone and everybody" regarding what system the county could end up purchasing next, for an estimated $5 million. That price tag also includes security cameras at vote-processing areas, as well as other elections equipment. A 60-page report Huckelberry issued to the Board of Supervisors on Oct. 10 outlines not only a long-term plan to replace GEMS, but new security protocol he's put in place at the Elections Division to address security issues brought to light by the AG's investigation. It outlines plans to build a new Elections Division home to further address those security concerns, at the cost of about another $5 million.

Huckelberry says he has changed other Election Division protocol based on Risner's depositions of two employees. Under oath, the employees stated election technician Bryan Crane regularly took home disks each night as a backup in case the building caught fire.

Huckelberry says he wasn't aware this was going on until the depositions were conducted. While Crane remains on staff, the process of taking home backups on disks was put to an end. Huckelberry says he doesn't feel it was done with any malice, and was simply the result of a Pima County employee with legitimate concerns trying to do a good job.

Despite the lawsuit and the corresponding criticism, Huckelberry says Pima County government is transparent, and any changes made to the elections process are open to public comment. His report to the supervisors regarding election security is on the county's Web site, with an area for public comment. Only four comments, however, were posted as of press time.

Huckelberry says 25 copies of the report have gone to election-security specialists and local party leaders for additional comment. Once all litigation comes to a halt, Huckelberry says, the board will begin its own discussions on the security plan at a public meeting.

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