New Commission Aims to Reform Election Procedures in Light of March 22 Mess

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A coalition of voting-rights advocates will form a commission to examine everything from how polling locations are chosen to how well citizens are educated on the voting process in Maricopa County.

The effort comes in response to the long lines at many polling locations throughout the county during Arizona's presidential-preference election on March 22. The nascent commission was announced during a town-hall meeting on voting rights held Monday in Phoenix, hosted by the Arizona chapter of Mi Familia Vota, the Arizona Advocacy Network, One Arizona, and ProgressNow Arizona.

"There are many different people to blame for the problems we saw," Samantha Pstross, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, said at the meeting. "But we believe that if there's at least some oversight, then it will drastically reduce voter suppression in Arizona."

Pstross said she and other advocates intend to meet this week with Maricopa County recorder Helen Purcell, who took responsibility for reducing the amount of polling locations from about 200 during the 2012 presidential-preference election to just 60 this year.

Some residents who waited hours in line to vote want Purcell to resign. They're also upset with Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan for not questioning Purcell's decision to reduce the number of polling places.

Pstross said she understands voters' frustrations but insisted that Purcell and Reagan aren't the only ones at fault and that their resignation wouldn't solve the problems. She said  a commission to help reshape Maricopa County's election procedures is a better approach.

The commission would, for example, review early ballots before they're finalized and mailed out, to make sure there aren't any mistakes.

Just last month, the Maricopa County Recorder's Office sent out mail-in ballots that had the wrong Spanish-language title for a ballot proposition. That wasn't the first time a mistake like this happened. Leading up to the 2012 election, the recorder's office listed the wrong date on at least 50 Spanish-language voter-registration cards.

The commission will also aim for more polling sites near public-transportation stations and in lower-income areas, in order to provide "reasonable access to voting," Pstross said.

Attorney Tova Wang, a consultant on election reform and political participation, said she thinks the commission "is a great idea," especially now that the "pre-clearance" provision of the Voting Rights Act is no longer in place.

Arizona is one of the states that had to submit any changes in voting procedures to the Justice Department for pre-clearance under the Voting Rights Act. That included changes to the number and location of polling sites. But the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the provision in 2013.

Wang said another step Arizona could take to improve the voting process would be to automatically register eligible residents to vote when they apply for a driver's license, unless they opt out. States that have passed laws to do this include Vermont, Oregon, California, and West Virginia.

"This is going to not only lead to a great increase in the total number of people who are registered, but also the number of people who are registered accurately," Wang said, adding that election officials often have a hard time deciphering handwritten registration applications.

Other voting-rights advocates who participated in the town hall called for more investment in voter education. They said many voters didn't know they were permitted to go to the polling place of their choice on March 22, nor that they had to register as either a Republican or a Democrat in order to participate.

Raquel Teran, director of the Arizona chapter of Mi Familia Vota, said her group engages in voter education but that, owing to limited resources, there's only so much it can do.

"We do it because it's a necessity in our community," Teran said. "But the state and the counties need to be the ones who are investing money into the communities to educate the different constituents, not only Latinos, but everybody."

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