Democratic Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Gallardo Calls for Election Oversight He Failed to Provide

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Steve Gallardo, the lone Democrat on the five-member Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, says federal oversight of county elections is needed after last month's voting debacle.

He may be right – but one glaring reason the county may need federal oversight of its elections is because of the lack of county oversight. And, specifically, Gallardo's oversight.

The former state lawmaker and newest supervisor held a news conference recently to bring attention to a lawsuit filed against the state the same day by the Democratic Party. The suit alleges that the county disenfranchised voters and violated federal law with a bad plan that created long lines during the botched March 22 Presidential Preference Election. The county's election plan featured just 60 polling centers, down from more than 200 in 2012 and more than 400 in 2008, the last PPE that had both Republican and Democratic choices.

Public outrage followed the fiasco that saw thousands of voters waiting hours to cast a ballot; the Democrats' lawsuit followed one in county court by disgruntled voters earlier last week. The U.S. Department of Justice has also launched an investigation.

During the news conference, Gallardo said he “welcomes” the lawsuit and the outside oversight it will bring. He doesn't mind being named as a plaintiff in the suit, he said. Federal oversight of county election plans will ensure “the hammer is there” to force the county to provide better access to all voters.

The county needs some type of mechanism to find out how polling places will work, he said.

Yet the county does have such a mechanism for oversight and finding out such things – it's called a Board of Supervisors meeting.

On February 17, all five members heard County Recorder Helen Purcell and Elections Director Karen Osborne explain the PPE voting plan. That was the fateful meeting during which Osborn said a prime goal was to ensure the election would be “as cheap as humans could do it.”

Then, with the benefit of hindsight, Gallardo said that “money should never have been a determining factor” in the PPE plan. But on February 17, he and the other four Supervisors let it be.

The long lines affected both Republicans and Democrats, but it's the Democrats who are suing and yelling the loudest about voter suppression. Because of that, it's worth looking at what sort of oversight Gallardo provided to protect his county district, which has a lot of lower-income people, including many who rely solely on public transportation and may find it tougher during any election to get to a polling place. As the lawsuit explains, Arizona has a long history of hassling Democratic voters — so Gallardo's responsibility to oversee the plan arguably was heavier than that of his four Republican colleagues.

In fact, during the February 17 County Supervisors' meeting, Gallardo voiced the most concern of any of the supervisors about the county's plan. He wasn't the only supervisor who questioned the plan: Supervisor Steve Chucri asked the pair if they anticipated confused voters who might go to their normally assigned polling place instead of one of the 60 voting centers. Supervisor Denny Barney asked how the county would spread the word about the changes. Supervisor Clint Hickman reportedly talked later to Purcell about the plan.

But Gallardo tossed out several good points during the meeting: “Why not 80, why not 100” voting centers, he asked Purcell and Osborn, noting the much-higher number of polling places in 2012.

He told them he likes the idea of voting centers where any voter could cast a ballot, but “I would have liked to see a little bit more.” He referenced Yuma's bungled 2012 vote that relied on voting centers, but then said, “I have total faith that we're not going to have those problems.”

It's a big county, he pointed out, and maybe 60 is the “magic number, but I just don't know.”

Osborn reiterated to him that the election was getting handled on the cheap. Then Purcell gave Gallardo and the board a hard close, telling members: “We've done some scientific study of it. I think our people are pretty good.”

“I'm not questioning that at all,” Gallardo told her. He said after the election is done, officials could “step back” and see how it went. After making a couple more points, Gallardo told Purcell and Osborn, “I'm just rambling.”

What's not clear is whether Gallardo should get more credit than others because he voiced concerns, or whether he deserves more blame because he didn't follow up on those concerns, leading to – according to him and the suing Democrats – more Democratic voters than Republican being disenfranchised.

At Friday's news conference, Gallardo claimed that he did take steps to address the polling-place issue after February 17. He went to Purcell's office and explained “this was not adequate,” he said. He also “went to the Democratic Party with this issue,” he said.

“I went out and did what I needed to do to make sure” voters knew there were just 60 polling places, Gallardo tells New Times.

As hindsight proves, though, he didn't really do what he needed to do. Gallardo failed to make demands of county officials, insist on greater scrutiny of the plan, push for more polling places, or alert the news media that a problem was brewing. Instead, the plan went into effect with obvious flaws, such as that three polling places were in rural Gila Bend and two in the less-populated Fountain Hills area even as urban population centers – such as those in Gallardo's District Five — didn't have enough. He says he and the board were later told that more polling places would be added.

Before the March 22 election, “my staff called Karen Osborn and said, 'what happened to the additional polling centers?'” Gallardo says.

But after he heard there were still just 60, he stopped his inquiries.

“I had a lot of faith in Helen,” he says. “My gut told me it wasn't [a good plan]. I should have followed my gut … I should have been stronger.”

The U.S. Supreme Court's 2013 gutting of the Voting Rights Act, which removed a provision that would have required the feds to approve Purcell's election plan, helped lead to the debacle by not providing crucial oversight. As New Times reported last month, the media failed the public by not reporting the issues raised in the February 17 meeting, or more generally with the county election plan.

But without the media or the feds, there still was one governmental body that had the responsibility of oversight. As the Board of Supervisors' agenda for the February meeting shows, the supes were supposed to be controlling the number of polling places. And they did – with a unanimous vote.

Had Gallardo put his concerns into real action instead of having “faith” in Purcell, he wouldn't need to welcome a lawsuit by Democrats or to make a plea for outside help in providing the sort of proper oversight that he and the four Republican Supervisors should have performed.

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