Check Wait-Times, Avoid Long Lines at the Polls in Maricopa County

Some voters waited in line for up to five hours during the 2016 presidential preference election.
Some voters waited in line for up to five hours during the 2016 presidential preference election. Miriam Wasser
Maricopa County voters should expect crowds at some voting centers today because of this year's historic turnout, but experts say they won't be waiting for hours like in the county's infamous presidential preference election in March 2016.

Similar to back then, voters can go to any polling location to cast their ballot or drop off a filled-out early ballot. But instead of 60 polling locations, this time there are 175, as well as some other crucial differences.

What the county lacked in 2016 for voters was real-time information about lines at voting centers — something akin to the “Wait Times for Disneyland” app.

Maricopa County now has that info on its website. Click here to check the locations and wait-times at the location nearest to you, or at each of the 175 polling locations. Polls will be open today from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Every 30 minutes, a poll worker at each site will update the estimated wait-time and number of people in line, said Megan Gilbertson, spokesperson for county elections.

Another big difference this time around is that despite the pandemic, most of the locations have somewhere between 9 and 15 check-in stations, which should enable each location to serve 1,500 to 2,200 voters without much fuss, according to the county.

That's an improvement over the November 2016 general election, when each polling location — there were 671 that year, with voters assigned to one (and only one) of them — had only two check-in stations, Gilbertson said.

Voters will see some lines at the polls today because of the election's historic nature, she said. As of Monday, 1.68 million people head turned in early ballots — more than the total votes cast in the 2016 general election.

Of the 2.6 million eligible voters in the county, 2.2 million have requested early ballots. Gilbertson said the county expects somewhere between 160,000 to 250,000 voters to show up at Maricopa County polling locations to either cast a ballot in person or drop their early ballot off.

Voters should expect to see plenty of room for physical distancing at the locations, the county's website states. Besides the PPE and sanitizing protocols by poll workers, masks and gloves will be made available for "all voters" who don't bring their own. The goal of the emergency voting plan approved by the county Board of Supervisors in September was to reduce wait times to less than 30 minutes on average, per voter.

"However, wait-times at some sites during peak voting times (e.g., 6am – 9am and 4pm – 7pm on Election Day) could exceed 30 minutes. In these instances, we will deploy wait-time remediation strategies to reduce the line," the plan states. "If wait-times exceed 30 minutes, Inspectors or Trouble Shooters will work with Department staff to assess the cause of the issue or bottle neck. Depending on that assessment, additional resources can be deployed to provide technical assistance."

During the March 2016 presidential preference election in Maricopa County, voters faced lines like they'd never seen before. People began tweeting their aggravation while waiting in line that morning for two hours or more. Folks who got in line near the polls' closing time of 7 p.m. could stay in line and have their votes counted, but some didn't get home until midnight.

The screw-up led directly to the subsequent election loss of longtime County Recorder Helen Purcell and the rise of current Recorder Adrian Fontes, who is running for reelection against Republican opponent Stephen Richer. (Update: Local pollster George Khalaf of Data Orbital said on Tuesday he hasn't seen any polls for county races, including the one for Recorder, but he thinks that race will be close. "It will come down to turnout," he said, adding that county Republicans have the advantage in numbers.)

John Mackey, a voting-rights activist and the Tucson-based director of AUDIT Election USA, said Arizona in general "is going to do great," and that things should go smoothly in Maricopa County, which he has sued previously, including once for misconduct after the county's March 2016 debacle. (His suit, which demanded a "redo" of the election, was thrown out.) Mackey said he recently spent a week observing Maricopa County Elections in action and called the department "one of the best in the country."

Asked if a problem like 2016 could arise this year, Mackey said, "I don't think so. I'm more worried about mail-in ballots in other states."

But George Khalaf, president of the right-leaning polling firm Data Orbital, said "the word 'epic' is appropriate" when thinking about the queues he expects at county voting centers. "There are a lot of people left to vote," he said.

An analysis of voting centers and likely voters by his company showed that some outlying areas in the county have far more voters per voting center than central areas.

Even with more polling centers and access to wait-time information than in 2016, people will naturally gravitate toward some locations more than others. In the bungled March 2016, election, for example, the Fountain Hills Community Center serviced 1,207 people, while only 20 voted all day at the Fort McDowell Indian Community Recreation Center's assigned polling spot.

Khalaf warned in an October 23 news release that "large segments of our voting population don't appear to have adequate access to voting centers in Maricopa County," and that "if corrective action isn't taken, we could witness hours of long lines at some of the most populated locations and very little foot traffic at others."

On Monday, Khalaf said many more ballots had been cast since October 23, but while the impact on voting centers may not be as great as he predicted, the pattern should be the same. Khalaf said that pattern could affect Republicans more negatively than Democrats.

While the wait-time estimates should help, "it's not realistic to expect someone in Gilbert to drive to somewhere in Phoenix," he said.

Still, Khalaf said he doesn't expect anything as "intense" as the March 2016 election.
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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.
Contact: Ray Stern