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Polk County recorder to contest election
Tim Brien says he can't accept his primary loss without ensuring that another county's error wasn't duplicated.

The Des Moines Register, June 24, 2006

Polk County Recorder Tim Brien, a five-term incumbent who was soundly defeated by a political newcomer in June's primary elections, plans to challenge the election results based on the failure of similar voting machines in another Iowa county.

Brien lost his re-election bid to a former colleague, Julie Haggerty, by 3,670 votes. He said he can't accept the numbers without firm assurances that a ballot-counting error in Pottawattamie County did not also happen in Polk County. Brien has suggested recounting ballots by hand, as Pottawattamie County officials did when they discovered that they had improperly programmed their new counting machines.

"I think it's the only way to lay it to rest," Brien said. "It could be totally clean as a whistle. But if I don't ask, I never will find out. I just want to make sure the process worked like it should work."

But some county officials fear that Brien's protest will have farther-reaching effects than on his own livelihood. By contesting the election results, Brien is effectively challenging the competence of Polk County's election commissioner, Auditor Michael Mauro, who is campaigning to become Iowa's top election authority as its new secretary of state.

Mauro acknowledged that it is within Brien's rights to contest the vote, but he seemed offended at Brien's call for a recount and was adamant that his office took every precaution to assure an accurate count of ballots.

Mauro and Brien, both longtime Democrats, have been uneasy acquaintances since Mauro hired a woman Brien fired last year. That woman and a former co-worker have since sued Brien, alleging civil rights violations. Some of Mauro's employees also followed the lead of the county employees' union and campaigned for Brien's opponent.

"If he could make me look bad, I think it would give him some satisfaction," Mauro said of Brien. "Any recount is going to show that we run a top-notch office. At the end of the day, the one who's going to be embarrassed is not going to be me. It's going to be him."

County supervisors were informed of Brien's intentions by letter on Thursday, when he cited "a growing and abiding concern" that the county's electronic ballot-counting system might be susceptible to error. Brien asked the board's chairwoman, Angela Connolly, to publish his letter during supervisors' regular board meeting on Tuesday.

Connolly asked Brien to reconsider, citing the wide vote margin and Mauro's record as a respected election official, but to no avail, county officials said. Brien's letter could be entered into the public record as early as Tuesday.

Brien, who has been Polk County's recorder since 1986, said he is seeking a public platform to discuss the accuracy of the ballot-counting machines.

The accuracy of emerging voting technology has been questioned across the country for several years, but much of that controversy centers on touch-screen voting that leaves no paper trail to be double-checked at a later date. Mauro's system still uses paper ballots, but counts them electronically. Those ballots are retained for a period of months and can be rechecked by hand.

The same sorts of counters employed by Mauro's office for years were used for the first time in June in Pottawattamie County, without success. Officials there on Friday said that they had failed to program the machines to account for the fact that candidates' names appeared in a different order in different precincts. The ballots are devised in that fashion to prevent a single candidate from getting top billing over opponents.

Pottawattamie County elections deputy Gary Herman said anomalies were noticed almost immediately. Electronic results were posted, but with a disclaimer that ballots would be hand-counted the next day.

The results were dramatic. Every winner in Pottawattamie County's nine contested races turned out, in retrospect, to be a loser. Initial returns that showed incumbent Recorder John Sciortino losing by a margin of 1,245 votes to 1,167 was found to have actually won the election 2,061 votes to 347.

Herman said the problems were squarely attributable to human error that he would not expect Polk County to make.

"It was a simple problem, a dumb mistake," Herman said. "Things happen sometimes. But just because one county did something wrong doesn't mean another county was wrong, too. That's not good logic."

Officials in the office of Iowa Secretary of State Chet Culver did not return repeated phone messages Friday to say whether other Iowa counties had experienced irregularities with their voting machines.

Tom Henderson, an attorney and chairman of the Polk County Democratic Party, said it was "totally preposterous" to think that Brien could make up 3,700 votes in a recount when there is no evidence of specific problems at the polling place.

"He's trying to find a way to preserve his office, and that's understandable," Henderson said. "It should not be perceived as a slap at how elections are run in Polk County."

Official election results released by Mauro's office show that Brien won 42 percent of the vote, and carried just 20 of the county's 183 precincts.

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