Pinal County election director noticed evident errors, cashed out, then fled

By the point Virginia Ross appeared earlier than Pinal County’s supervisors one final time, she had already offered her home.

The elections director simply wanted the supervisors to vote “sure” on Nov. 21, finalizing the November election, and he or she can be on her solution to retirement.

“I stand by the outcomes,” she assured them.

Loads hinged on this second. After a major election debacle in August, the county supervisor had introduced Ross on to proper the ship. The county paid her handsomely: greater than $40,000 a month main as much as the election. That’s greater than 5 instances what the previous two elections administrators had made. Plus, she would get a $25,000 bonus if supervisors voted sure. 

The supervisors made it simple for her: They didn’t ask her any questions, voting unanimously to certify the outcomes. She acquired her bonus, and rapidly moved to an East Texas city with fewer than 1,000 residents. 

It will be one other month earlier than Arizona voters discovered what inside proof already confirmed — that Ross had botched the rely in a means that excluded a whole bunch of votes from the unique outcomes, sufficient to just about overturn the result of a statewide race.

Whereas county officers have repeatedly stated the county didn’t know of potential issues with the outcomes earlier than the supervisors’ vote, a Votebeat investigation discovered that election officers had documented quite a few errors counting ballots and witnessed a number of pink flags earlier than the vote. One supervisor publicly stated he had heard of issues that might have affected the rely. However election officers didn’t resolve the issues, didn’t say something publicly, and really helpful certifying the outcomes anyway.

By reviewing a whole bunch of inside paperwork, emails, and textual content messages in addition to publicly-available assembly footage, Votebeat has discovered that:

A half-dozen election consultants from different states who reviewed the discrepancies within the county’s stories have been shocked Pinal officers didn’t instantly hit the brakes. 

“I can’t even fathom seeing these stories, seeing how the numbers have been off and never doing all the pieces I may as a frontrunner of the group — the individual that is finally accountable for the integrity of the election — to determine what occurred,” stated Jennifer Morrell, founding father of an elections consulting agency and an professional on post-election reconciliation. 

Morrell stated she couldn’t consider Ross left earlier than guaranteeing the outcomes have been correct. 

“As a former election administrator, the factor that shocks me is the individual that was in cost simply walked away with out reconciling all of this,” she stated. “I can’t consider she simply walked away.”

The errors have been solely made public throughout December’s statewide recount, required due to tight ends in three races. It revealed that Pinal election officers initially did not tabulate a whole bunch of ballots forged on Election Day, and likewise did not correctly rely some votes on dozens of others. The brand new tally practically overturned the legal professional common’s race. 

With out the recount, the errors wouldn’t have come to mild.

The recount course of additionally confirmed no different Arizona county had made such vital errors. In at present’s election environment, the place even the smallest issues can provoke false claims of fraud or malfeasance, election consultants elsewhere advised Votebeat that they have been stunned by the shortage of diligence, particularly in a county the dimensions of Pinal, with greater than 145,000 ballots forged within the midterm. The errors within the grasp spreadsheet alone have been alarming, Morrell stated.

“I can’t think about being off greater than 10 and never panicking,” she stated.

Solely Pinal County Legal professional Kent Volkmer — who acknowledged the gravity of the errors — agreed to an interview for this text, and he solely agreed to handle particular questions on his data of occasions. 

Different county leaders refused to speak in particular person or by telephone and declined to reply particular questions in regards to the paperwork they supplied in response to Votebeat’s data requests. 

In a press release to Votebeat, County Spokesperson James Daniels stated the county recorder, county legal professional, supervisors, and different “management” didn’t learn about issues with the counts previous to certifying the outcomes, however he refused to say how a lot election officers knew on the time of the supervisors’ vote. County leaders, he wrote, “need to the long run and to not the problems of the previous, and subsequently there isn’t any urge for food to do an interview.” 

Ross didn’t reply to requests for remark. No working telephone quantity or electronic mail could possibly be discovered, and county officers earlier this 12 months stated that they had no solution to relay an interview request. Votebeat mailed two licensed letters, to her new deal with and put up workplace field in Texas. The native put up workplace documented receipt of each letters, although Ross didn’t reply.

Ross, a Republican, had been the county’s elected recorder for practically a decade when she was put within the elections director spot. The county supervisor agreed to pay her such a placing sum as a result of the county was already in restoration mode from the first. 

About one-fourth of polling locations had poll shortages on Election Day. County Supervisor Leo Lew swiftly fired the elections director, David Frisk, and pulled in Ross. The supervisors greater than doubled her workers and stated they trusted her to repair the system within the three months earlier than the overall election.

Volkmer now says that was a mistake.

“This was a end result, for my part, of getting folks and not using a ton of expertise in crucial jobs and having single factors of failure, not having redundancies in place to catch errors,” he stated. “There are proactive steps the county is taking in order that this doesn’t occur once more.”

As recorder, Ross had expertise operating early voting, however tabulating and finalizing the vote totals weren’t amongst her duties.

A month earlier than Election Day, she took questions from reporters contained in the historic Florence courtroom now used for supervisors’ conferences. Sitting behind a desk close to the doorway, Ross advised Votebeat that she had been working each weekend. 

She was virtually absolutely staffed, she stated, however everybody was new. She had already rewritten the county’s ballot employee coaching handbook, created extra detailed and longer in-person coaching, added a further accuracy check of tabulation machines, and arranged a mock election.

“There may be simply plenty of work to do,” Ross stated.

Ross was assured in how the election would go — though she was anxious in regards to the county’s new two-page poll. Pinal County had been compelled to separate its poll into two pages for the primary time anybody may bear in mind, due to the variety of contests. Officers knew that was going to make monitoring and tabulating ballots logistically difficult. 

The county had arrange the open home within the title of transparency, however officers refused to speak about what precisely occurred in the course of the major – they stated as a result of it was nonetheless below investigation. And so they stopped in need of offering explanations for the bigger selections the county had made, over time, that might have prevented the issues.

Requested why voters ought to really feel assured the November election would go effectively, Ross stated simply placing her in cost ought to enhance public confidence. “Individuals know me,” she stated.

In his workplace that very same day, Supervisor Jeffrey McClure — then serving as chairman — exuded confidence. The supervisors have been paying Ross a excessive wage — first reported by The Arizona Republic — as a result of they wanted “to make this work,” he stated. “The directive was what does it take to repair it, who do we have to repair it, give it to her, and go do it.”

He stated he didn’t need to be like Maricopa County. “You already know, all the time within the information.”

McClure’s quip nonetheless resonated the day after the election, when Maricopa County was consuming the media’s consideration with widespread issues tabulating ballots. 

In the meantime, all the pieces appeared to have gone effectively in Pinal County. County officers highlighted a number of “minor errors,” together with a noticeable delay in reporting election outcomes they stated was triggered partially by the two-page poll. However, in any other case, county supervisors praised the elections staff for a job effectively achieved. 

“It was good to not be the focal point, backside line,” Supervisor Mike Goodman stated. “I’m fairly assured that we have now put again the boldness of our voters right here in Pinal County.”

The election had not completely gone as deliberate, although — in ways in which weren’t instantly evident.

For one, election officers hadn’t correctly loaded voter registration info into the county’s database earlier than the election, so ballot employees couldn’t correctly verify some voters in on Election Day  — an issue county officers ultimately acknowledged publicly.

Additionally, the varieties that ballot employees used to stipulate how ballots have been used at their places, known as “poll stories,” have been stuffed with errors, in line with copies supplied to Votebeat — maybe due to a complicated type, the two-page poll, lack of correct coaching, or all three. The varieties be certain that the proper variety of ballots have been counted and are all returned from the polling location, however ballot employees seem to haven’t understood which numbers they need to put the place when filling it out. 

Lately proven Pinal County’s varieties, Morrell and Michele Forney, elections director in Pinal till 2019, stated the paperwork was complicated and that they have been unsurprised by the variety of errors. 

The errors on these stories have been “an absolute nightmare,” and had speedy repercussions on election evening, stated Jennifer Hilsbos of San Tan Valley, an official political observer for the Democratic get together that evening. 

Staff who acquired the ballots on the county’s election headquarters tried to type out the numbers however usually have been unable to achieve ballot employees, Hilsbos stated. This meant the non permanent employees charged with tabulating the ballots usually didn’t know precisely what number of ballots they need to have to start with, making it troublesome for them to verify their work as they went. 

They didn’t notice on the time that, as paper jams occurred and different small errors piled up, some ballots have been by no means tabulated. Additionally, county officers had erred whereas programming the machines, inflicting them to fail to rely unclear votes on some ballots, which suggests some ballots have been solely partially tabulated. The county disclosed that in a report on the issues launched after the recount outcomes have been introduced. Staff additionally failed to make use of a separate log to match the beginning variety of ballots to the variety of ballots they’d scanned, which consultants agree is a greatest apply. 

Maricopa County, for instance, has detailed and clear varieties for this level within the course of. The variety of ballots forged after which tabulated is tracked by machine, batch, and day. Maricopa Elections Director Scott Jarrett stated discrepancies are resolved on the spot — employees and supervisors transfer right into a separate room to huddle and work out what’s fallacious. In 2022, he understood his numbers right down to the final poll, he stated.

None of this seems to have occurred in Pinal County,the place poll counting stretched into the early hours of the day after the election — most employees didn’t go away till 4 a.m., logs supplied by the county present. 

A bit-noticed signal the outcomes have been off got here in the course of the county’s required hand-count audit a number of days after the election, when political get together appointees counted the votes forged in 4 randomly chosen races on a small proportion of early and Election Day ballots.

As employees hand-counted ballots from two polling locations, or about 435 ballots whole, they tallied one further vote for 3 candidates in three of 4 races. Nobody may work out why, however they carried on anyway.

Geraldine Roll, who was a deputy county legal professional on the time in coaching to interchange Virginia Ross as the following elections director, talked about this 5 days later as she up to date the supervisors as to how the counting was going.

“The board spent a number of hours attempting to determine the place that discrepancy got here from, and eventually decided that as a result of it was below the margin of error they might transfer on,” Roll stated on the Nov. 16 supervisors assembly. The basis of the issue — that the county had initially did not tabulate two ballots from a type of precincts —  was not unraveled till the recount outcomes have been closing on Dec. 29. 

Roll additionally advised county officers that, as of the Nov. 16 assembly, she was unaware of what number of unused ballots have been left over at polling locations, one thing different election officers advised Votebeat ought to have been apparent from the poll stories. She didn’t spotlight any issues with these varieties on the assembly.  

As a substitute, she advised the supervisors that elections workers would evaluate the variety of unused ballots with the used ballots and forged ballots to confirm the outcomes previous to certifying them. Ross, the elections director, had beforehand advised supervisors that they might use a grasp spreadsheet to trace all the pieces, which might enable them to identify errors and steadiness the numbers earlier than the outcomes have been licensed — a course of additionally known as a canvass. 

A duplicate of this spreadsheet obtained by Votebeat exhibits that it was by no means balanced.

For instance, on the primary row, which exhibits knowledge from the county’s first precinct — the small japanese Pinal city of Kearny — employees reported that voters forged 308 ballots. However the variety of ballots counted by the tabulation machines from that location solely says 210. The recount discovered that the county initially did not tabulate 90 ballots — practically one-third of all ballots from voters within the city.

After the recount outcomes have been introduced, Roll, the elections director in coaching, advised supervisors that wanting on the numbers for this precinct had made her suppose “hmmm,” however it isn’t clear when she first noticed them. Neither she nor different county officers would touch upon why the election was licensed regardless of the plain errors, nor would they are saying who had entry to the spreadsheet previous to the vote. The doc’s properties present it was created by Ross. 

Minimally the “audit board” — which election administrators are legally required to assemble — ought to have reviewed the numbers. By regulation, their work consists of sifting by means of paperwork containing poll and voter numbers to confirm the outcomes, in line with necessities of Arizona’s Elections Process Guide, an in depth doc outlining how elections have to be run within the state that has the power of regulation. 

The audit board should resolve errors earlier than the outcomes are licensed, in line with the EPM. The county didn’t present any paperwork exhibiting that this occurred. Additionally, the audit board ought to have met between when officers completed counting ballots and when the elections director packaged the outcomes for the supervisors’ approval. 

In Pinal County, the time interval for holding that assembly was “a half-hour or so” on the afternoon of Nov. 17, in line with Roll. 

Supervisor Kevin Cavanaugh, after reviewing Votebeat’s findings, stated he needed to know the way the county may have met the audit board requirement. 

Roll revealed to the supervisors at a Jan. 4 assembly that she had seen sufficient potential issues within the outcomes earlier than the supervisors’ vote to consider they need to postpone certifying whereas they seemed into them, and it wasn’t her determination to go forward. There was nonetheless greater than every week left earlier than the county’s deadline to finalize outcomes. It was Ross’ determination to maneuver ahead after they did, Daniels, the county spokesperson, wrote in a press release.

Roll didn’t elevate her considerations publicly or to Volkmer at the moment, although, in line with Volkmer. Neither did Scott Johnson, an legal professional who was working intently alongside Ross and Roll on a short lived project as deputy elections director and who was wanting into errors in voter numbers earlier than the certification, in line with an electronic mail he despatched to the secretary of state’s workplace. 

It was Roll, not Ross, that was actively supervising tabulation on election evening, in line with Hilsbos, the observer. Key card logs present each Roll and Johnson have been out and in of poll storage repeatedly within the days simply earlier than the outcomes have been licensed.  Roll and Johnson declined to touch upon what precisely they knew in regards to the issues and when. By the point the certification of the outcomes occurred on Nov. 21, these election officers had not publicly mentioned any main errors. 

The identical week Ross made the choice to maneuver ahead, she offered her San Tan Valley home, county property data present. 

Through the supervisors’ assembly the morning of Nov. 21 — simply earlier than they voted — Supervisor Jeff Serdy stated that though he didn’t “actually need to focus on it now,” he was listening to about “points” that might have “affected the rely.” 

Volkmer, the county legal professional, responded with shock, saying this was “information to him” and “all the pieces would recommend there was no irregularities.” 

Nobody urged wanting into this additional earlier than certifying.

“I can inform you that I’m extremely assured, as assured as I may probably be, within the numbers which are being supplied to this board,” Volkmer stated. “I don’t consider there may be something nefarious.”

The day after the outcomes have been licensed, Lewis, the recorder, emailed an worker within the secretary of state’s workplace with the topic line “Scenario – Fairly Essential,” saying she was seeing discrepancies when taking a look at early voting totals.

Whereas Lewis declined to talk to Votebeat about her electronic mail, the worker on the secretary of state’s workplace defined intimately that this referred to an unrelated drawback that didn’t have an effect on the county’s election outcomes. Nonetheless, it’s unclear why Lewis hadn’t seen and resolved these discrepancies in her numbers previous to the county certifying outcomes.

That very same day, the day after the certification, Ross was quoted in an area newspaper saying that she was conscious that some employees hadn’t adopted procedures when a poll did not tabulate correctly. 

“We had a few cases the place our ballot employees wanted a bit extra coaching on the way to deal with that situation, however that might be addressed in some post-election coaching we’ll be implementing,” she advised the reporter.

The county grew to become one of many first, to certify their outcomes. Underneath state regulation, they nonetheless had one other week earlier than the deadline.

Geraldine Roll formally signed a contract to take over for Virginia Ross on the final day of November — two working days earlier than Arizona licensed its statewide outcomes. Her contract got here with a $154,000 wage. The 2 most up-to-date election administrators, Frisk and Forney, had each made about $100,000. 

That very same day, Roll known as Volkmer to inform him she knew that 245 ballots had not been counted throughout 4 precincts, in line with Volkmer. Regardless of the approaching statewide certification, Volkmer advised Votebeat nobody talked about these errors to the secretary of state’s workplace. 

The state then licensed the outcomes on Dec. 5 and the courtroom ordered the statewide recount, barring county and state officers from speaking about recount outcomes. County and state officers say they took that as a gag order stopping them from speaking about errors within the authentic rely.

County officers say they first advised the secretary of state’s workplace about errors within the outcomes on Dec. 7 — greater than two weeks after the county licensed its election. A spokesperson for Gov. Katie Hobbs — a Democrat who was secretary of state on the time — defined that her workplace didn’t share this reality in courtroom proceedings over the outcomes, together with dropping Republican legal professional common candidate Abe Hamadeh’s election contest, due to that gag order.

Requested why the county didn’t say something publicly or to the secretary of state’s workplace in regards to the errors in the course of the quick interval between when Volkmer knew about them on Nov. 30 and when the gag order was issued Dec. 5, Volkmer stated that county officers knew a recount can be ordered due to the tight outcomes and — as a result of the county had already licensed outcomes — officers noticed it as their solely actual solution to recount all ballots successfully. “We have been in a troublesome spot the place we didn’t have the power on our personal to do the recount,” he stated. 

If the county didn’t consider a recount would occur, he stated, “we in all probability would have taken a unique place.” 

As soon as the errors have been introduced publicly, some residents stated in public feedback at a Jan. 4 assembly that county officers ought to have stated one thing sooner. Ally Miller, a former Pima County supervisor, questioned why Volkmer didn’t notify the courtroom within the Hamadeh case.

“Why didn’t your legal professional, who’s an officer of the courtroom, notify the courtroom of those discrepancies?” Miller requested supervisors. “I do know it’s the obligation of the secretary of state to report that. She didn’t, and I believe everybody was watching that.”

Cavanaugh, the one supervisor that responded to Votebeat’s request for an interview, stated if the recount hadn’t occurred, “these errors and unhealthy practices would by no means have been found.”

“How lengthy have we had chain of custody and counting errors?” he stated.

On Dec. 16, because the recount progressed in Arizona, Virginia Ross finalized the deed on a newly-constructed home down a two-lane highway in East Texas. 

Across the identical time, Pinal officers determined they didn’t really feel assured of their preliminary recount and would begin on a 3rd rely of the Election Day ballots. 

When the recount outcomes have been launched on Dec. 29, they confirmed a laundry checklist of simply preventable issues. Amongst them: Due to employee errors programming and working poll tabulators, the county had completely did not rely 442 Election Day ballots. The county had additionally did not rely some votes on 63 different ballots, in races the place voter choices have been unclear. 

The recount had included three races: the legal professional common race, the state superintendent race, and — in a unique a part of the state — a legislative race. 

Previous to the recount, Democrat Kris Mayes was main Hamedeh within the legal professional common race by 511 votes statewide. Within the recount, Hamadeh picked up 392 votes in Pinal County and Mayes gained 115. Statewide, Mayes’ lead shrunk to simply 280 votes out of greater than 1.25 million ballots forged.

On the first public assembly after the outcomes have been introduced, on Jan. 4, residents stated they have been astounded by the errors. Pete Sabin of Marana identified that, if wanting simply on the 36,000 Election Day ballots, there was a few 1.4% error price.

“We wouldn’t tolerate this with our cash in banks if it was being counted with that degree of inaccuracy, and we shouldn’t enable that with our vote, which arguably is far more vital to a republic,” Sabin stated.

Miller and different residents stated they have been offended by Ross’ excessive pay and bonus, and advised supervisors to attempt to get the $25,000 again.

At the very least one supervisor was excited about attempting to claw again the bonus, which was tied to a couple necessities, together with profitable coaching of ballot employees. At a gathering to debate this on Feb. 1, Volkmer advised supervisors the county was setting itself up for a dropping authorized battle if it tried to get the cash again, due to the best way the contract was written and since ballot employee coaching nonetheless had improved from the first.

At that assembly, County Supervisor Leo Lew stated that Ross had written the phrases of the contract herself, he permitted it, and he didn’t run it by Volkmer earlier than finalizing it. 

Lew defended the phrases, the excessive price, and Ross.

“​​I believe that Virginia did considerably do her job and I believe she did considerably fulfill this contract and I’m grateful that she did,” Lew stated.

Ross had requested for such a excessive price partially as a result of, county officers stated she advised them, by leaving her place as recorder earlier than she hit the 10-year mark, her pension can be calculated at a decrease price. However elected officers’ pension charges don’t enhance on the 10-year mark, in line with officers with the state’s retirement system. The one extra credit score Ross would have acquired would have been for extra months within the system. 

As it’s, she receives $1,549 per 30 days.

Shifting ahead, the state has been working straight with Pinal County to attempt to enhance their processes, stated Paul Smith-Leonard, communications director for present Secretary of State Adrian Fontes, a Democrat. He stated it’s “clear they perceive the reason for the difficulty and plan to make sure procedures are adopted going ahead to stop it.”

“Our workplace has met with Pinal to speak about required election processes and helped join Pinal with different election subject material consultants across the state and nation to assist them construct in some greatest practices,” he stated. 

Fontes can be asking the state legislature for six extra positions in his workplace to help, information, and practice counties, he stated in a written assertion.

His workplace will host election officer certification coaching beginning in June, and it “will embody particular steering to assist be certain that points like those who occurred within the final election, don’t occur once more,” Fontes wrote.

For Pinal County’s half, leaders are attempting to construct out a staff of skilled election officers round Geraldine Roll, and are working to create extra substantial oversight for future elections, Volkmer stated, comparable to constructing an inside procedures handbook and including audits.

County officers refused to reply particular questions from Votebeat for this text, however after receiving them, Roll addressed some publicly on Might 3.

Elections workers are making ballot employee varieties simpler to grasp, higher coaching workers on the way to tabulate ballots, and including extra paperwork to trace ballots throughout tabulation, Roll advised supervisors. 

“I’ve no plans in bringing you a canvass I’m not 100% assured in,” Roll stated.

In a telephone interview after the assembly, Cavanaugh stated the county must have a fuller dialogue.

“If we will’t acknowledge the issues which have occurred up to now, we’re not more likely to repair them,” he stated. 

“Sweeping them below the rug isn’t a great coverage.”

Votebeat is a nonprofit information group reporting on voting entry and election administration throughout the U.S. Join our free newsletters right here.