Arizona Voters Brave Long Lines for Presidential Preference Election

Polling places in Maricopa County were swamped with enthusiastic voters today, spurring gripes and a possible election complaint over party identification problems.

While some polling spots experienced wait times as short as 15 minutes during the Presidential Preference Election, waits of an hour to 90 minutes to vote were typical. Some voters reportedly had to wait up to four hours.

"I've never experienced this in the 25 years I've been voting. There was a line at the last primary, but not like this!" — Yvonne P.

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Many voters had no problem with the long queues. They enjoyed the breezy weather, chatting politics with fellow voters and witnessing the raw democratic process in action.

But the state Democratic Party sent an e-mail to constituents asking them to send their election-day stories for a complaint that would be submitted to the Arizona Secretary of State's Office. Enrique Gutierrez, Arizona Democratic Party spokesman, said some Democrats waited in long lines — then were told they weren't really Democrats when they tried to obtain a ballot.

"We've received complaints throughout the whole day of lifelong Democrats showing up to the polls and being told they are either independent or have no party affiliations," Gutierrez said. No official election complaint will be submitted — yet, he says. But the party will continue to gather information.

The long waits themselves aren't the issue, he said, although adding, "It has been a really badly run process."

Gutierrez was referring to the fact that while Maricopa County usually has about 160 polling places open for major elections, there were only 60 open for today's election. Combined with an extra-enthusiastic turnout, many polling places had lines like those seen at Disneyland for a new attraction.

"Is there a fast-pass?" a voter asked an election official at the Arizona Historical Museum polling location in Tempe, which had an afternoon line that took an hour to 90 minutes to get through.

New Times saw several people who approached the lines, found out how long the wait was, then turned around. Other voters left a queue, then came back when they had more time, or tried to find a location that might have a smaller line.

Kiersten of Tempe, (who, like some others interviewed for this article, didn't want to give a last name), said she waited for 40 minutes at the Historical Museum site, then had to leave to run an errand just before she got to the front of the line. She was back in line at about 1 p.m., and waited more than an hour the second time.

"I would stand in line all day to vote today," she said with a broad smile. "I was so grateful to pull up and see the parking lot full."

Several voters told New Times that they initially visited the wrong polling place. They heard that "any" polling place would do, but they found out their typical polling location wasn't open.

"I think they really missed the boat on this," said a Tempe man of the Maricopa County Elections department.

The man, who gave his first name as Carl, said he's an Independent voter, but he re-registered as a Democrat for the first time in 25 years to vote in the preference election, which was open only to Democrats, Republicans, and Green Party members.

Brent Welker and his wife, Debra, who's in a wheelchair, sought a patch of shade and asked someone to hold their place in line. They had waited about 45 minutes when they spoke to New Times and expected to wait another half-hour before they got inside to vote. He didn't mind waiting and liked seeing the "good turnout," he said.

"There a lot of interest" in this election, he said. "A lot of passion."

A Republican, Welker planned to vote for Ted Cruz and said he hoped the candidate would be selected over Donald Trump at the GOP convention this summer. If this happens, though, he admitted "it could be very crippling to the party, and we could end up with a divide of some sort."

At the polling location at Fillmore and Third Avenue in Phoenix, a line snaked out the door for more than three blocks.

"If this is a strategy to making voting harder, I'm not going to comply," said one of the Phoenix voters, Ann. She and her friend Tish smartly carried an umbrella as a sunshade.

"Clearly the state secretary didn't think this one through," Tish said. They'd been waiting more than an hour and were only halfway through the line.

"I've been waiting all my life for my candidate [Bernie Sanders]," said another woman, B.F. Jefferson. "I can wait a few hours in line."

While some voters wished openly they'd have mailed in an early ballot and avoided the lines; others said they appreciated voting in person.

"How do you really, really know that your mail ballot is received and counted?" wondered voter Yvonne P. "Many states have had problems, and so I want to be here in person ... I've never experienced this in the 25 years I've been voting. There was a line at the last primary, but not like this!"

Arizona State Senator Martin Quezada (D-Maryvale) sent out a news release on Tuesday claiming that if only several bills he sponsored this year had been passed, the problems would have been fixed.

"We are learning a valuable lesson today at the expense of suppressing many votes," Quezada said. "I call on the state and the county to implement additional polling locations, particularly in districts where large numbers of minority voters [of both parties] are heavily reliant on public transportation and have limited time to cast their vote."

One reader, Candace Odle of Phoenix, said she stood in line from noon until 4 p.m. to vote at a polling spot at 19th Avenue and Greenway Road. Odle says it's possible "this was a concerted effort to reduce the Democratic vote that young voters typically turn out. I believe that Maricopa County should come under severe scrutiny for their handling of this vote in order to prevent this from happening for the presidential election."

Tim Sifert, spokesman for the state GOP, had waited in line for half an hour in Scottsdale by 7 p.m., and expected to be waiting another hour.

The polls closed at 7 p.m., but anyone still in line at that time was allowed to vote. Results are expected after 8 p.m., and Sifert said it's possible he may hear the initial results before he gets the chance to vote.

One problem creating the lines, he said, were the many registered Independents in line. Voting officials have no authority to send a hopeful voter home, so they had to give those people provisional ballots and let them vote, even though odds are the vote wouldn't count.

Not all polling locations had long lines. At the Cooperative Extension at 43rd Street and Broadway Road, only 15 to 20 minutes were required to vote for much of the afternoon.

"I'm very excited," said Joy of Mesa, who voted for Hillary Clinton. "It's going to be a big change."

Republican Philip Burch of Phoenix agrees — but says it's his preferred candidate, Donald Trump, who will cause that change.

A message left for county Elections wasn't immediately returned.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser