Federal Government Probing Long Lines at Maricopa County Presidential Primary Election

Brent Welker and his wife, Debra, waited in the shade for more than an hour at a Tempe polling place on March 22 while another voter kept their place in line.EXPAND
Brent Welker and his wife, Debra, waited in the shade for more than an hour at a Tempe polling place on March 22 while another voter kept their place in line.
Ray Stern

The fallout's still coming down from the bungled March 22 Arizona Presidential Preference Election. 

Besides the fact that yet another protest took place at Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan's office, it turns out the feds are investigating — sort of.

On Monday, county officials revealed that a letter was sent by the U.S. Department of Justice asking a whole lot of questions about the excessively long lines at the March 22 Presidential Preference Election in Maricopa County.

By now, County Recorder Helen Purcell and Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan have apologized for the screw-up. Purcell, in particular, blamed her failure to see that there would be too-few polling places.

Although 403 polling places were open for the presidential primary in 2008, the last one that featured both Democratic and Republican candidates, county officials decided that just 60 would be good enough this time. The poor geographic distribution of the 60 places contributed to the problem, resulting in some polling places with no lines and others with wait times of up to five hours. Voting in Arizona's other 14 counties went smoothly.

Since then, the state's been rife with accusations of voter suppression and fraud. Protests erupted at Purcell's office and the State Capitol, and one protester was arrested following a lengthy hearing by the House Elections Committee. News outlets across the country covered the screw-up, and election experts in other states are examining the Arizona debacle closely to make sure they don't repeat it.

The feds are helping along the state in that regard. The April 1 interrogation letter by Chris Herren, chief of the DOJ's Voting Section, doesn't just request information about how the problem occurred. Herren wants the county to describe plans "to avoid such concerns in future elections."

County and state officials tell New Times that short- and long-term fixes are in the works.

Elizabeth Bartholemew, Purcell's spokeswoman, downplayed the idea that the DOJ has begun a formal investigation, saying there's no sign of that yet.

"We have received reports that a number of Maricopa County voters waited several hours to cast a ballot on election day," says Herren's letter (below). "We also understand that there were allegations of disproportionate burden in waiting times to vote on election day in some areas with substantial racial or language minority populations."

Herren's giving the county until April 22 to come up with the information. The DOJ makes no surprising requests, asking only for basic information including a list of polling places on March 22; a description of the criteria used to determine the number and locations of polling places; data on the voters who cast ballots, including the "actual times when the last voter voted and polls closed"; and the county's procedures for recording political party registration in the county's computers.

Voters waiting in line for the March 22, 2016, Arizona Presidential Preference Election.EXPAND
Voters waiting in line for the March 22, 2016, Arizona Presidential Preference Election.
Ray Stern

The last part reflects a separate registration problem that reportedly struck a number of voters on March 22. Some voters reported that after they stood in line and gave their ID to poll workers, they were informed they were not a registered Democrat or Republican and therefore could not vote in the PPE. Arizona Secretary of State Reagan later explained that some voters who registered at a Motor Vehicles Division office forgot to check a box indicating party affiliation and were automatically registered as Independents.

Bartholomew said the county probably will be able to send the DOJ the requested information before the April 22 deadline. Herren's letter concludes by saying: "Our lawyers will be in touch with your office to follow up on this request."

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton had called for a federal investigation following the bungled ballot day.

Meanwhile, officials are taking steps to make sure no similar mess occurs at upcoming elections. The primary and general election plan in August and November shouldn't be affected, Bartholomew said; both of those will include the full gamut of 724 polling places around metro Phoenix, as usual.

However, for the special statewide election on May 17, Maricopa County is doubling the number of polling locations from what it had in the PPE to 120, she said. 

Voters will be determining the fate of Proposition 123, which is Governor Doug Ducey's plan to take $3.5 billion from the State Land Trust fund and apply it to schools, and Proposition 124, which would codify changes made by the state Legislature to the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System.

The exact locations of the last few places still  are being determined. As in the PPE, voters will be able to cast ballots in any of the open polling spots — but of course they'll find a lot more.

Bartholemew said this time, the county's looking closely at convenience and parking as part of its criteria for the selection. Increased training for polling-place volunteers — especially on how to deal with disabled voters — and an increased supply in e-poll books are other ideas that may be utilized.

"I'm sure everybody's going to be looking over our shoulder" for the May election, Bartholemew said.

Yet with voters hassled, delayed, and disenfranchised in the previous election, some activists would like to see even more reforms, and soon.

Last week, a Washington D.C.-based legal-rights group and three local advocacy groups sent letters to Purcell and Secretary of State Reagan, complaining about the long lines and and urging the state to require counties to submit official Election Administration Plans that would include contingency measures for voting emergencies like technological failures and excessive delays.

"There shouldn't just be a desire to do better next time," said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "They should take our call for immediate corrective action."

Each county should produce an EAP before each election and submit it to the state, she said. The plans would take into account: resource allocation, polling equipment, consistent worker training, educational materials submitted in advance of the election, sufficient numbers of provisional ballots and, of course, a healthy number number of polling places.

The letters to the election officials were signed by Clarke and representatives of One Arizona, Promise Arizona, and the Arizona Advocacy Network.

One perennial problem, though, is that not everyone agrees on the types of reforms that should be enacted.

On the Arizona Advocacy Network's website, the group urges "no" votes on bills including a House resolution that would refer a repeal of the Citizens Clean Elections Act to voters this November but supports a bill that would allow the Clean Elections Commission to include federal and judicial candidate statements in voter-education pamphlets.

Arizona lawmakers, like Representative Michele Ugenti-Rita (R-Scottsdale), who chairs the House Elections Committee and sits on the House Appropriations Committee, sponsored the Clean Elections Act repeal resolution as well as a controversial bill signed recently by Governor Doug Ducey that makes it a felony to collect early ballots from voters.

The anti-"ballot-harvesting" law will go into effect 90 days after the current Legislative session ends; it makes exceptions for election officials, postal workers, family members, and roommates.

"After Tuesday, I'm even more confident that championing that bill was the right thing to do," Ugenti-Rita said in an interview last week, when asked about the heavy criticism of the bill. "The public's reaction [to the March 22 problem] shows to me that people do care about the vote. Prohibiting people from collecting other people's ballots protects the integrity of one's vote."

More action by the Legislature could be taken to try and resolve future election-day problems, she agreed.

Addressing things like extended polling hours would be "fair," and maybe same-day registration would help. But those ideas wouldn't have prevented the March 22 debacle.

"If polling places had been open until 8 [p.m.], there still would have been lines," she pointed out, adding that, "I'm not sure it's best to be reactionary."

Ugenti-Rita, who chaired the special Election Committee hearing last week, said that public hearings are important to gathering information, and she's looking forward to the ideas gleaned from hearings planned by the Secretary of State's Office and other sources. Then, for the next legislative session, "you can can digest that and come up with meaningful, substantive solutions to the real problem."

Asked about the money factor, Ugenti-Rita said it wasn't the main issue on March 22, noting that counties have received the same reimbursement rate for years.

"We can have a discussion about whether we should have more or less money," she said. "I've been on Appropriations for six years. That's a fair discussion. But that wasn't the problem."

The problem, she said, was the "poor decision-making" that led to the inordinate reduction of polling places.

Both Ugenti-Rita and Clarke agree they've seen no evidence — so far, anyway — of fraud or intentional voter suppression.

"We're still reviewing," Clarke said. "What's evident is that election officials were not prepared."


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