Arizona News Media Didn't Warn of Presidential Primary Fiasco

New Times blew it, dear readers.

In a March 22 article entitled "How to Vote in Arizona's Presidential Preference Election Today," it states that voting that day would be "super-easy." 

As the whole world now knows, voting in that election in Maricopa County wasn't "super-easy." It was a complete cluster-f#$%.

"When it comes to thin, superficial political coverage, nothing surprises me anymore." — Dan Gillmor, journalism professor

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If there's a consolation for New Times in failing to predict trouble, it's this: All of the other news media outlets in Arizona (with one brief-but-notable exception) also did an exceptionally poor job covering the issues that led to the Election Day fiasco.

The lack of scrutiny by both government officials and journalists ensured the long lines that plagued the polling places. Some voters had to wait up to five hours, casting their ballots long after the landslide victories of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were made public.

Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan and Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell have apologized profusely and accepted responsibility for the fiasco. The top election officials were subjected on Monday to a type of public stockade at the State Capitol, in which they were jeered at by an angry mob and made to answer questions from lawmakers.

As Reagan and Purcell explained at the rowdy Elections Committee hearing at the House of Representatives on Tuesday, the single greatest reason for the problem was the reduction of polling places to 60, from 211 in the 2012 preference election, when there was no Democratic nominee because Obama was running again, and in 2008 when there were 403.

No doubt, the taxpayer-funded elections experts should have caught this one. When going from 403 to 60, combined with the poorly thought-out distribution of those 60, somebody should have raised questions. Purcell and Reagan confessed that they should have.

At a Board of Supervisors' meeting on February 17, Supervisor Steve Gallardo expressed a concern that some areas might not have enough polling places — before voting with the other four Supervisors to approve Purcell's plan for a mere 60 locations. Karen Osborne, county elections director, told the Supervisors at that meeting the thinking behind the plan was to pull off the election "as cheap as humans could do it."

Purcell held back on releasing information about the 60 polling places so as not to confuse voters in a March 8 mayoral and council election in Tempe. She announced the locations of the 60 polling places in a 9:18 a.m., March 9 tweet: "Attention Voters! You will be able to vote at ANY of the following polling places for the March 22 Election. Visit http://recorder.maricopa.gov/pollingplace/."

Some news media dutifully passed along this information in brief news articles that didn't acknowledge any reduction in the number of locations. A search of online news between March 9 and March 20 turns up no coverage of the fact that a massive reduction in polling locations had occurred, or that such a thing might cause delays at the polls.

Several broadcasts aired and articles were published in that time frame about the upcoming preference election. They discussed the candidates and issues behind the election, the wish by some lawmakers to get rid of Arizona's PPE, or reminded voters to mail their early ballots the week before the election so they'd be received in time.

Maricopa County had 1.2 million people eligible to vote in the election, including registered Republicans, Democrats, and Green Party members, but not independents. Eighty-six percent voted early by mail, but as county officials figured, that would leave 71,300 who'd show up at the polls on March 22. That equated to 1,188 voters per polling location, and even rounding up to 1,500, Purcell explained on Monday, should have meant smooth going for most voters.

As it turned out, that was wildly optimistic. Given the geographic distribution of the locations, nearly one-third ended up with fewer than 1,000 voters, with one near Fountain Hills drawing only 20 people all day while central-Valley polling stations were flooded with people.

Even in hindsight, it's amazing how almost no one saw this coming. On March 10, Legislative District 18 Republicans tweeted a subtle warning that "there will ONLY be 60 open." But it seems that no other news media or social media had even that much until the day before the election. (Perhaps there were some far-sighted tweeters, Facebookers, working psychics, or journalists out there that our Google-driven survey missed — if so, please comment with a link or some other evidence.)

A story by Janice Yu of Tucson's Channel 13 (KOLD-TV) published on TucsonNewsNow.com on the night of March 21 discusses how some independents were surprised to learn they couldn't vote. The election was already "causing confusion among voters," the headline read. But it naturally focused on Pima County, which, like all Arizona counties other than Maricopa, had successful elections.

Purcell and Reagan held a news conference together on the morning of March 21 during which the news media in attendance didn't ask questions about whether 60 polling stations would be good enough.

Apparently, the only reporter who had a clue what was about to happen was Brahm Resnik of Channel 12 News (KPNX-TV). But even his warning, commendable though it may be, was tardy. In a 9:16 p.m. article published on 12News.com on March 21, Resnik wrote of three things county residents needed to know if they were planning to cast a vote the next day.

His third thing was this: "Fewer places to vote: If [you] are registered with one of the three parties and plan to vote Tuesday, here's one more thing you need to know: The polling place you usually go to probably won't be open. There are just 60 polling places open Tuesday in Maricopa County, way down from 200 in the 2012 primary. The good news is you can vote at any one of them."

And that's what passed for your news-media coverage on the county's flawed PPE plan until the morning of the election on March 22. A few hours after the 6 a.m. polling-station opening, nearly everyone with access to a smartphone knew an election debacle was occurring.

Joanne Woods, a local activist, told New Times the day after the election, at a protest in front of Purcell's downtown Phoenix office, that the media was partially to blame, because it had failed to warn of the key reduction in polling locations. She's not wrong about that.

Dan Gillmor, a professor of practice at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, says, "When it comes to thin, superficial political coverage, nothing surprises me anymore."

Gillmor watched the snafu from afar; he lives, works, and blogs in California. (Note — he's no longer the director of the Cronkite's Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, which no longer exists.) From his point of view, the general lack of decent political coverage across the country has had a terrible effect on the rise of Donald Trump. He slams the news media in a March 1 article published in the Huffington Post.

"Reporters behave as if they have an absurd obligation to let politicians attack fundamental liberties, without which robust journalism can’t exist in the first place, without pushing back," Gillmor wrote.

He's talking about Trump, but his point extends even to elected officials like Purcell, a seven-term Republican who — up until now — has enjoyed a good reputation even among some Democrats. But in trusting the apparent expertise of Purcell, county experts, the Board of Supervisors, and the Secretary of State, the news media — including New Times — didn't question the bad election-day plan. Because of that, voters were less prepared on March 22 than they should have been.

Possibly, if the media had raised an alarm early in the month, a few adjustments could have been made — like the addition of more polling stations — that would have avoided the fiasco entirely. Coulda, woulda, shoulda!

Every day provides a learning experience for a journalist, (and probably for you, too.)

Some days provide more than others.

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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.