Contempt of Canvass: Helen Purcell's Election Day Fiasco Creates an Opportunity for Dems in Ruby-Red Maricopa County

For a showcase of gross incompetence on behalf of public officialdom, it doesn’t get much better than the March 28 hearing of the Arizona House Elections Committee.

In the pillory that day before a packed-to-overflowing room of angry citizens sans pitchforks was Republican Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell, a prim, Nancy Reagan-esque figure, first elected in 1988, who, if re-elected later this year, will find herself serving her eighth term in office. Purcell, 80, has never been a voluble individual, and often seems ill at ease before the media, a kind of shyness that could be misinterpreted as imperiousness, or vice versa.

In the face of questioning from members of the committee about what chairwoman and fellow Republican Michelle Ugenti-Rita called Maricopa County’s “elections debacle” on March 22 — Arizona’s Presidential Preference Election, in which thousands stood in line for hours in the state’s most populous county to cast votes for their presidential candidate because Purcell had, in the name of frugality, decided to slash polling sites to the nub – Purcell was eager to hand off the mic to an unofficial assistant: Jennifer Marson, executive director of the Arizona Association of Counties.

The AAC is a nonprofit organization that lobbies on behalf of all 15 Arizona counties. Marson is not an elected official. Still, after apologizing to the committee and to the sometimes hooting audience for the “long lines” and the “inconvenience of the voters” during the PPE, Purcell left her office’s official presentation about the failed primary in Marson’s hands.

“You’re not going to lead the presentation?” asked Ugenti-Rita, incredulously.

Purcell had mumbled something about not being a “technology person,” and said “Jennifer” would be explaining the teed-up slideshow for the committee.

Marson characterized the problems with the PPE as specific to Maricopa County. “In 14 of our counties, we did not have this issue [of long lines],” Marson said. “But it was a significant issue in Maricopa County.”

That is an understatement for sure, with some Maricopa County voters forced to wait past midnight to cast their ballots.

In the 2016 PPE, the county drastically reduced polling places from 400 in 2008 to just 60, an 85 percent drop. (There were 200 polling places in 2012.) In fact, some Arizona counties with much smaller populations had more polling locations than Maricopa County with its 2 million registered voters. Pima County reportedly had 124 polling places; Pinal County, 88.

The putative reason for Maricopa County’s reduction in polling sites was to save money. Counties in Arizona have to front the money for their elections; then, they are reimbursed by the state. Purcell would later claim that she wasn’t sure if the election would be fully funded by the Arizona Legislature, though at the time her plan was finalized, a bill was moving through the legislature to pay for the PPE.

Also, since the PPE is a different animal under state law than primaries and general elections, Purcell was not required to offer the 724 precinct-bound polling places that she must for general elections and primaries. Normally, in a general election or a primary, a voter would be assigned a polling place based on his or her home address. But in special elections and the Presidential Preference Election, this rule doesn’t apply.

The penny-pinching recorder took that to the bank. For the PPE, she assigned 60 “voting centers” where anyone eligible to vote could show up and cast a ballot.

Why 60?

According to the county’s PowerPoint presentation, obtained by New Times through a public-records request, the county used numbers from the 2008 PPE to project how many people would show up in person at the polls versus mailing in early ballots. With 60 voting centers, county officials were assuming they could process up to 1,500 voters per polling location without breaking a sweat.

Purcell, however, relied mostly on social media and interviews with local news outlets to get out the word about the 60 new voting centers, and about another source of puzzlement for the public: the exclusion of independent voters from the PPE.

Independents, Arizona’s largest bloc of eligible voters, normally can vote in Arizona’s regular primaries by choosing a ballot for either the Democrats or the Republicans. But in the Presidential Preference Election, independents are prevented by state law from participating. Nevertheless, thousands of independents showed up to polling centers on March 22 thinking they were able to vote in the PPE as if it were a regular primary or general election. 

Federal law states that elections workers must provide an individual with a provisional ballot to be checked later against the voter rolls, so if a registered independent wanted to vote provisionally, he or she was allowed to do so.

Out of the more than 88,000 people who chose to vote in person on election day (versus the nearly 534,000 who voted by mail), there were approximately 24,000 provisional ballots cast. The county reports that some 18,000 of these provisionals were cast by independents and therefore didn’t count. That equals a lot of ticked-off voters. 

The county estimates that explaining a provisional ballot to a voter takes more than five minutes on average. As a result, provisional voting might have taken up some 2,000 hours of poll workers’ time on March 22. This and the paucity of voting centers help explain the human logjam at the polls.

Confusion and annoyance were rampant that day. Reporters for New Times and other outlets witnessed people arriving at the voting centers, then leaving because of the long wait. Wait times varied from five minutes to more than five hours. Elderly and handicapped people, as well as parents who brought their young children, had to wait in the warm Arizona sun, often with no water.

And how did the recorder choose where to place her 60 voting centers? Marson was prepared to answer this question, but Ugenti-Rita, to the delight of the crowd, wanted the thin woman next to Marson to answer instead. “I want to hear from Helen Purcell,” she said.

Purcell explained, somewhat obtusely, that she and her elections director, Karen Osborne, simply “looked at the county as a whole” and picked polling locations “where we could find large areas” in which to place a polling center. Purcell and Osborne had been hoping that the supposed convenience of polling centers, combined with the use of new electronic polling books, allowing workers to look up a voter’s record instantaneously, would make up for the lack of physical polling sites.

One committee member asked: Didn’t the county recorder see the enthusiasm for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders? Didn’t she anticipate the need for more polling places based on this?

“We set up polling places way in advance of an election, as we have to do,” Purcell answered meekly, adding, “and as I have said before, I apologize profusely for those polling places being inadequate.”

In reality, Purcell’s plan had been presented to the county Board of Supervisors in February, about a month before Arizona’s PPE. There, she and Osborne faced many of the same questions about their 60 polling sites that they would face after the fact.

Their answer in February? Trust us. We know what we’re doing.

The PPE catastrophe proved they didn’t, and made a newly image-conscious Arizona the butt of national derision. In its wake, there have been calls for Purcell’s resignation, lawsuits over the mess in federal and state court, cries of “voter suppression,” and an inquiry by the U.S. Department of Justice, requested by Phoenix’s Democratic Mayor Greg Stanton.

Purcell faces a challenge from within her own party, and for the first time in decades, from a Democrat in the general election. Suddenly, the recorder’s race, normally a down-ticket contest few pay attention to, could be in play.

In Arizona, Republicans have stacked the deck against Democrats and a big part of the Democratic coalition, Latinos, with a new law that outlaws the mass collection of early ballots, a tactic that in recent history has been a boon for Dems.

Still, Democrats’ hopes might receive a boost from an unlikely source: the GOP’s presumptive nominee, Donald Trump, who may motivate Democrats and Latinos to show up in droves to vote against him and for their party’s expected nominee, Hillary Clinton.

If so, down-ballot races could fall to the Democrats, and at least in theory, the recorder’s office could be one of them.

On the day of the PPE, as people were standing in line waiting to vote, some of them in walkers or wheelchairs, Purcell was interviewed by a Fox 10 reporter, who asked the recorder who was to “blame” for the disaster.

Purcell’s reply was blithe, and for a public servant, incredibly dense.

“Well, the voters for getting in line,” she said. “Maybe us for not having enough polling places or as many as we usually have.”

When the reporter, flabbergasted, asked how Purcell could blame the people who had been and were still queued up in lines that would look at home in some democracy-challenged part of the globe, like Iran or Venezuela, the county’s top elections officer dug her hole deeper.

“They’re not to blame for standing in line,” she said. “But they went to the polling places. They could have voted early.”

Purcell’s nearly 30-year career as county recorder reached a nadir with those comments. Outrage and white-hot anger from the public focused on Purcell, with cries for her resignation coming from the general public and local pundits.

During the Ugenti-Rita hearing, several speakers in the audience demanded Purcell’s head. A local pastor, the Reverend Reginald Walton, likened Purcell to Marie Antoinette and said her actions had made a “laughingstock” of Arizona. “If you were a private citizen,” he intoned, “working for a privately held company, you would have been terminated without hesitation.”

He told her that she should resign at the end of the hearing, a sentiment echoed by other speakers. But Purcell is not stepping down. She pushes aside all suggestions of retirement, telling New Times in a recent interview that she had already decided to run again before the March 22 PPE.

“I love my job,” she says. “I love the people I work with ... We’ve done some wonderful things. I would like to continue that.” 

She adds: “Of course, it’s up to the people whether or not I’m re-elected. I would hope that this one story wouldn’t be this one election.”

In years past, Purcell’s office has been hailed for automating its recording of documents, moving to ballots that are scanned by machine, and overseeing the implementation of voting by mail. As a result, the Kansas-born Purcell became a sort of quiet icon, winning plaudits for her understated demeanor and for running her office in a nonpartisan manner with a Democratic elections director, Karen Osborne.

Purcell has often run unopposed. In 2008, when she faced a rare challenge, she earned a glowing endorsement from The Arizona Republic, which called her “one of the most respected public servants in metro Phoenix,” noting her dedication and expertise.

This year, Purcell faces a primary challenge from Phoenix Republican Aaron Flannery and a general-election challenge from Democrat Adrian Fontes. Both men are motivated in part by Purcell’s recent screw-ups. 

Fontes actually announced his intention to run at the March 28 Ugenti-Rita hearing, where the tall, leonine former prosecutor said he didn’t want Purcell to resign because he wanted “to beat her at the ballot box.” 

Flannery filed his paperwork to run for the position before the PPE debacle. Via e-mail, Flannery tells New Times that he had decided to run as far back as 2014, when, to his mind, “it became evident that the Recorder’s Office was not living up to expectations.”

He cites an incident from that year. The recorder’s office, which is responsible for running elections in cities and towns within its jurisdiction, caused serious problems for Peoria during a city council election. The name of one city council candidate was left off of two sets of early ballots. The candidate sued in federal court and won a new election because of the misprint.

Flannery also mentions an incident in which Spanish-language elections materials were printed with an incorrect date for the 2012 general election, causing major angst in the Latino community.

And in late April of this year, just one month after the PPE bungle, it was deja vu all over again when Purcell’s office misprinted early Spanish-language ballots for a statewide special election to take place May 17 for one of two propositions under consideration, in this case Prop. 124, which addresses a pension fix for public-safety employees such as firemen and police officers.

The May 17 special election covers another proposition, Prop. 123, which aims to pump much-needed revenue into state schools. The recorder’s mistake involved printing the header for Prop. 123 twice: once above the language for Prop. 123, and once above the language for Prop. 124.

“Should have it been caught?” Purcell admits. “Absolutely.” She insists, however, that the ballot was reviewed by someone fluent in Spanish.

Fontes was incredulous about the gaffe when New Times caught up with him at a recent meet-and-greet in the Roosevelt Row arts district. “You can’t tell me they weren’t already on notice that they should be working with extra-special care,” says Fontes, who grew up in Nogales, Arizona, and is bilingual.

The cost of the error is substantial: $400,000 to reprint the ballots and send out 1.3 million corrective postcards.

When asked by New Times where the accountability was in her office for the PPE and the botched Spanish-language ballots, Purcell got a little snippy. “I guess I don’t know what you mean,” she said. “We have been accountable. And we have tried to take whatever steps we thought we could to change whatever needs to be changed.”

Purcell says her office will be doubling the number of polling places for the May 17 election on the two propositions, up to 120 from 60. But once again, this begs the question of why Purcell had been so stingy on polling places to begin with.

The February 17 meeting of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors was tediously routine, with far more seats than people. The snore-worthy agenda included liquor-license applications, the approval of easements, and the acceptance of donations by the county.

Also on the agenda were plans for the March 22 Presidential Preference Election about a month away, with a presentation to the board from Purcell and Osborne.

In the video of the meeting posted on the county’s website, both women stand at the podium before the horseshoe dais, where the supervisors sit like a blue-suited council of elders. Osborne takes the lead in explaining the recorder’s office’s decisions, joking about how they had saved the supes some money recently. 

Then, she launched into how her office would do the PPE in a most miserly manner.

“We have had at your direction to try and keep the [PPE] as cheap as humans could do it,” Osborne said. “I still, as we stand here, do not have the governor’s signature on any bill that would fully fund what it’s going to cost.”

But there was such a bill en route, backed by the leadership of the state House and Senate, which would apportion more than $6 million to the Arizona Secretary of State in order to reimburse the counties for the cost of the 2016 PPE. (The Legislature finally funded the PPE on May 4 through a supplemental budget appropriation.) There were and still are many ironies concerning that bill, but the funding was never really in doubt.

Republicans had linked the appropriation to a legislative proposal to do away with the publicly funded PPE beginning in 2020 and kick the state’s presidential “primary,” as many people think of it, back to the respective political parties. In 2020, the parties could finance their own PPEs, or, more likely, hold less-expensive caucuses. 

Arizona counties backed the bill, primarily to obtain the money that came with it but perhaps also to say sayonara to the PPEs, which the counties seem to regard as something of a pain.

But Maricopa County’s poorly executed PPE and the resulting voter backlash quelled any enthusiasm in the legislature for doing away with the preference elections that the public clearly wants.

Following the PPE and the poor press it garnered nationally, Governor Doug Ducey opined that the PPE should allow independents to participate like they do in other Arizona elections. Some legislators, who once supported eliminating the PPE, now talk of passing laws to open them up to independents.

When Supervisor Steve Chucri asked how the county would educate voters who were used to going to their usual neighborhood polling places, Purcell replied that her office would “do as much as possible” to get the word out.

After the fact, Purcell admitted that education was mostly done through interviews with local media, the recorder’s website, and Facebook. And even those modest efforts had been last-minute, because Tempe had a municipal election planned for March 8, and the county was worried that it might confuse Tempe voters with all the new info. This gave the recorder less than two weeks to educate the public, without special mailers, TV ads, or billboards.

The short learning curve indicated misplaced priorities. The Tempe election had only five polling locations and about 20,000 ballots cast in all, just a fraction of the 622,000 ballots cast across Maricopa County during the PPE.

Supervisor Steve Gallardo, at the same February meeting, wondered: “Why not 80 [polling places]? Why not 100?” He mentioned the recent record turnouts for caucuses and primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire.

But the recorder and her elections deputy stuck to their guns, and the board deferred to them, unanimously approving the plan.

The scarcity of polling places later would become fodder for two lawsuits: one brought by the Democratic Party, and another brought by AUDIT-AZ, an elections watchdog group represented by Mesa attorney Michael Kielsky.

AUDIT-AZ actually wanted the entire PPE decertified by the Arizona secretary of state, possibly resulting in a do-over PPE. The complaint alleged that there had been tampering with the voter files, resulting in voters being labeled “party not declared” without their permission, thereby denying them the right to vote in the PPE. 

The suit also alleged that the county suppressed the vote “by unreasonably closing or failing to open sufficient polling places” and had allowed “illegal voting” to take place.

One witness for AUDIT-AZ estimated that Maricopa County’s turnout should have been higher, suggesting that as many as 153,000 people may have not voted, in part because of the long lines and few polling places. But a superior court judge found the evidence anecdotal at best and dismissed the case after two days of testimony.

Following the dismissal, Kielsky admitted to New Times that his evidence had been “sparse,” but given the nature of such elections cases, he was not allowed to do any substantial discovery before a hearing was held. Instead, he was forced to rely on a handful of witnesses and hope that he could get Judge David Gass to extrapolate from the data and testimony presented.

Particularly disappointing was Gass’ refusal to address the Draconian reduction in polling places for the PPE. Rather, Gass said such issues must be challenged “before the actual election.”

This left Kielsky pondering a Catch-22. His client AUDIT-AZ would have had to sue the recorder shortly after she announced the 60-polling-place plan in February, and convince a judge that AUDIT-AZ knew better than a recorder with almost 30 years of experience running elections.

“The courts, and to some extent, the politicians, really have this deference to the supposed experts,” Kielsky said. “So the only way we know that the experts are completely wrong is when it blows up in their faces like it did.”

One issue raised in the AUDIT-AZ lawsuit and elsewhere that’s slow to die concerns the 18,000 provisional ballots cast by people who believe they were registered incorrectly as independents. Out of those 18,000, Maricopa County Elections spokeswoman Elizabeth Bartholomew confirms that 15,000 were connected in some way to Service Arizona, the online motor-voter registration site run by the Arizona Department of Transportation.

Both Bartholomew and a spokesman for ADOT say there is no glitch in the system whereby a large number of people could have been mistakenly labeled as independents. But Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan has stated publicly that one of her employees may have had this same problem on Service Arizona. Her office reportedly is investigating the issue.

The Democratic Party claims in its lawsuit that Maricopa County is not to be trusted, and that voter disenfranchisement and suppression of the minority vote are widespread. The suit, in fact, seeks to bring back federal oversight of Arizona’s elections.

For 38 years, because of systemic and widespread discrimination against minorities, Arizona was a “covered jurisdiction” under the federal Voting Rights Act, meaning that it had to submit its election plans to the U.S. Justice Department for pre-approval. But in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the pre-clearance mandate of the VRA, leaving a state sometimes derisively known as “Ari-bama” to its own devices.

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton’s March 23 letter to the DOJ notes that Phoenix is a “majority-minority city,” and claims that the ratios of polling locations to residences “were far more favorable in predominately Anglo areas” during the PPE.

At the March 28 hearing, community organizer Randy Parraz pointed out another type of voter suppression, aimed directly at the Latino community. Parraz inveighed against Ugenti-Rita and her fellow Republicans for sponsoring House Bill 2023, passed earlier this year and signed by Governor Ducey. The new law, which will go into effect before Arizona’s August primary, essentially outlaws the practice of what some call “ballot harvesting.” 

Ballot harvesting had become an effective tool of Latino and Democratic groups in Arizona in the last few years. With access to the county’s permanent early voting list, these groups could target for phone calls or visit individuals who had received an early ballot but not yet turned it in. The phone call or knock on the door served as a reminder to many people that they still had that early ballot lying around somewhere.

These ballots can be returned via mail for free or dropped off at designated locations, up to and including election day. But fortune favored procrastinators in this instance, and progressive groups would offer to pick up an individual’s ballot for them and drop it off at the proper place.

During a January hearing on the bill before her elections committee, Ugenti-Rita summed up the Republican view of ballot harvesting by saying that the practice “flies in the face of elections that are fair, that have integrity.”

Arizona Republicans have been hard-pressed to offer any actual examples of voter fraud because of the tactic. In the same January meeting, Ugenti-Rita’s vice-chair, Republican state Representative J.D. Mesnard, all but conceded the point, saying that it was enough that folks — mainly on his side of the aisle — were suspicious of the practice. But for Latinos and other Democratic-leaning groups, such ballot-collecting had become a way to rectify dismal turnout among their voters, to energize their base, and to achieve victories in a county where Republicans hold a distinct registration advantage over Dems.

In 2011, Parraz’s former group, Citizens for a Better Arizona, used this legal tactic to help successfully recall then-Republican state Senate President Russell Pearce, a notorious nativist and author of Arizona’s infamous anti-immigrant law, Senate Bill 1070. Buoyed by this success, CBA and other Latino groups made ballot harvesting part of their standard playbook, increasing the participation of so-called “low-efficacy” voters in the process.

Republican websites and politicians denounced the practice, though GOPers had been doing likewise for some time, just not in the numbers that Democratic-leaning groups had, and not with vast numbers of Latinos.

Arizona’s GOP-dominated legislature targeted the practice in 2013 with a bill severely limiting the practice along with restrictions on petition circulators. Then-Republican Governor Jan Brewer signed it into law, but the following year, progressive groups gathered enough signatures to put a repeal of the measure on the ballot.

If successful, the repeal would have become “voter protected” under Arizona law and almost impossible to redo under another guise. Rather than risk it, Republicans in the legislature repealed the law themselves in 2014, leaving the door open to sneak in the measure at a later date.

Ugenti-Rita effectively did this in January with HB 2023, which made it a Class 6 felony for anyone other than a family member, caregiver, or employee of the U.S. Postal Service to turn in someone else’s early ballot to county elections.

Although HB 2023 had, on its face, nothing to do with Purcell or the PPE screw-up, for Parraz, it became a way during that emotional March 28 meeting to point out the hypocrisy of Ugenti-Rita and her committee, who ostensibly were holding Purcell to account.

“You all made it a felony if you help somebody ... bring in a ballot,” said Parraz, in a preacher’s cadence, referring to HB 2023. “What is the crime now,” he asked, pointing at Purcell, “when you are denying people the right to vote?”

Granted, back in 2012, Latino groups may have given the Republicans an excuse. The former had been so successful at harvesting ballots that vote-counting in Maricopa County stretched on for days. Latinos had targeted Sheriff Joe Arpaio, their deadly enemy, for defeat, pouring money and other resources into the effort. Arpaio, however, squeaked out a victory. The Latino groups needed someone to blame. Their ire fell on Maricopa County’s elections department, and they alleged that there was something wrong with the slow vote count, protesting at the building where the count was ongoing, surrounding it, and making as much noise as possible.

Some Republicans used this commotion later to justify the first ballot-harvesting law.

Amusingly, Secretary of State Reagan suffered some embarrassment when she was forced to admit that she had engaged in a little ballot harvesting of her own on March 22, when she told folks in Governor Ducey’s office that she or one of her people was willing to come by and pick up their early PPE ballots for delivery.

She denied any hypocrisy, pointing out that the anti-ballot harvesting law had yet to go into effect and that, in any case, this was different, because the people picking up the ballots were elections officials and therefore could be trusted.

Now HB 2023 is part of the Democratic Party’s lawsuit in federal court. The Dems want the court to overturn the law, charging that it is discriminatory and part of a pattern of voter suppression by Republicans, which includes the PPE reduction of polling places. They also want the county enjoined from assigning polling locations for the general election until they are first submitted to the court for review.

At risk, according to the suit, is continuing what Mayor Stanton called in his letter to the DOJ “consistent activity that has created a culture of voter disenfranchisement in this state.”

But aside from the intervention of the court, there’s another way to skin this particular possum. And that is to target Helen Purcell for defeat.

Purcell is guaranteed a primary this year by Flannery, who supports the new ballot harvesting law. In fact, during that initial January hearing on HB 2023, Flannery testified in favor of the bill and also mentioned that he was planning to run for recorder.

Adrian Fontes does not support that law, which will likely put a crimp in the efforts of Democratic and Latino groups to elect him. Fontes faces another problem: there are large swaths of Maricopa County where the last name “Fontes” may not be a welcome sight on a ballot. He agrees his ethnicity will be an issue for some, though he believes it is a “shrinking portion” of the population.

Before the PPE, Fontes would have been a much longer shot, but Purcell’s contempt for the public could give Dems a chance at upending Republican rule in one area where it can make all the difference.

Finally, there is the Trump factor. Already, Democrats are counting on the obnoxious billionaire to energize the Democratic base for Hillary Clinton and assist with get-out-the-vote efforts.

Similarly, many Republicans are fearful of the effect of a polarizing Donald Trump on down-ticket candidacies. More Democrats voting for Hillary could mean more votes for Fontes.

The presidential contest is important, and perhaps more important in 2016 than in many years. But Democrats and Latinos eager for change in Arizona would do well to look closer to home for their victories, because “County Recorder Adrian Fontes” would be a revolutionary change in a Maricopa County dominated by GOP rule and riddled with whites fearful of an enfranchised, Democratic-leaning Latino minority.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons