Voters Enraged Over Botched Election Pack Arizona Capitol Hearing; Officials Take Blame

The fallout of last week's bungled Presidential Preference Election in Arizona continued this week as officials and angry voters packed a hearing at the Arizona Capitol.

Many of the voters were among those who spent hours in line last Tuesday waiting to vote. Yesterday, they spent hours giving election officials a piece of their mind.

The boisterous crowd at the state House of Representatives had to be told repeatedly by Elections Committee Chair Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R-Scottsdale) to pipe down. Some crowd members stood up with their backs to the proceedings in protest; one held a hastily scribbled sign reading, "Voting Suppression!"

People applauded Ugenti-Rita when she demanded that Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell explain personally how the problem occurred. At point, Purcell bleated, "I made a giant mistake!"

"Resign!" someone from the audience called.

"Incompetent!" another yelled.

The morning's election aftermath began yesterday with a press conference by Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan, who endured a bombardment of questions from reporters about why some people waited hours to vote last Tuesday.

Neither Reagan, the top election official in the state, nor the taxpayer-funded lawyers and experts at her disposal, ever once stopped to question the county's plan to have only 60 polling locations, she admitted. No words of advice were ever passed to the county from her office. No one realized a problem was looming until it happened.

Reagan said it might have been possible, once the long lines became a problem last Tuesday, to split voters into two lines — one for regular voters and another for people who were casting a provisional ballot. But the Secretary of State's Office didn't suggest that last Tuesday.

"We could have done better," she said.

One of the state's polling-place locators wasn't working right on election night, Reagan said. Anyone who used lower-case letters while inputting their driver's license number to obtain registration information was not recognized by the system, she said.

Reagan's office also discovered a need for a hotline to the various county election departments. After receiving 2,000 calls from ticked-off voters on Tuesday, officials at Reagan's office who needed to talk to Maricopa County election officials had to call the county's public numbers — and be put on hold for a while, like everyone else who tried to call county elections that day.

She said she supports allowing independent voters to vote in future Presidential Preference Elections and supports a plan by Attorney General Mark Brnovich for a new law that would prohibit the results of an election from being released until everyone has voted.

Under a bombardment of questions from reporters, Reagan sometimes struggled to respond. Even if her office had questioned the county's reduction of polling places to just 60, she said, she had no authority to make the county change its plan. When Channel 12 News reporter Brahm Resnik read her an excerpt from a state law that says she does, in fact, have that authority, Reagan seemed stunned. But the point was moot, because Reagan never questioned having only 60 locations.

"I certainly wish that we had said [to county officials], 'Maybe you should have considered 90. Maybe you should have considered 100,'" she said. "I wish that we had questioned it."

One reason she didn't, she said, is because Purcell and Maricopa County have a track record of "fantastic work."

"We put our trust in the county," she said, adding that the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors had signed off on the county's plan. "I take responsibility for the fact that election officials did not pull off the election that voters deserve."

Reagan and many of the reporters then walked from the Election Services department on the seventh floor of the Capitol building to the House hearing room, where Reagan and Purcell received a tough, audience-fueled grilling from the House Elections Committee.

As Purcell explained, the main reason for the long lines was that just 60 polling locations were open in the entire county, which is about as big as the state of New Hampshire. But it's not just that the locations were reduced by two-thirds, from 211 in the 2012 preference election to 60 last week: There were 403 polling locations for the election in 2008.

And this election, with both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, was more like the 2008 one.

With the help of Jennifer Marson, executive director of the Arizona Association of Counties, Purcell went over numbers that helped guide the county's election-day decision.

Based on the number of mailed-in ballots and independents who weren't eligible to vote in last Tuesday's election, the county figured that 71,300 would come out. That comes to 1,188 people per polling place, and officials even rounded up to 1,500, thinking there would be room to spare. Thirteen to 15 volunteers were stationed at each polling location, plus another four or five to help check in voters. All told, that was double the number of workers per station than in 2012 per station, she said.

The officials even took parking options at each location into consideration.

"By and large, it looked like it should have worked, but — darn it — it absolutely didn't," Marson said to loud groans from the audience.

The county published information about the election and 60 voting centers on its website and on Facebook. But upon questioning from lawmakers, Purcell acknowledged to committee members and the public that officials "held back" details about how the election would work because they didn't want to confuse voters in Tempe, who went to the polls on March 8 for a special election. Asked if 13 days was an "adequate amount of time" to inform voters about an election, Purcell answered, "Obviously, it isn't."

The county reduced the polling locations to save money, as has been reported. But how that affected the election was not made clear in the hearing. No other county experienced the problems that Maricopa did, yet they all received the same per-voter funding.

Purcell explained that her office would receive reimbursement from the state for the costs it incurred in the election, including for voters who were in line but weren't eligible to vote, a fact that drew incredulous cries from some in the audience.

Purcell also conceded that the geographic spread of the 60 locations was poor, saying it appeared there were "gaping holes" in the location map.

Representative Heather Carter (R-Cave Creek) pointed to a map that included her district, noting "a giant black spot right here" where there were no polling stations. "The heart of population centers were not well served."

As New Times pointed out in an article last week based on a report obtained from the county, Gila Bend had three polling stations that pulled in 140 voters, while Gilbert — in comparison — also had three polling stations, but took in 9,013 voters. 

Purcell said geographic boundaries would be better utilized in the future — and of course, more polling stations will be implemented.

Reagan also was called to answer questions. Then the hearing was opened to public comments, and voters described their experiences and ideas for possible changes. (See YouTube video below).

"I stood there and waited, I was tired, and I was hungry," voter Charles Carpenter told the panel. "But I stayed in line and cast my vote."

Some voters said they believe "suppression" occurred. Others took the opportunity to dress down the election officials personally.

"How does it feel to be laughed at, Ms. Purcell," said Andrew Cameron, turning to speak directly to her. "You were laughing at us on Tuesday, and you are laughing at us now behind that cold gaze you're staring me down with."

Then, Cameron's voice rose in fury: "I registered to vote as a Republican. I was denied my right to vote. They gave me a fraudulent identification as 'party not declared.' I have not changed my address in 10 years. I registered to vote on time. I was robbed of my vote. This is a serious crime. This is as serious as rape, as serious as murder!"

Several protesters stood outside on the Capitol lawn, holding signs. One man was cuffed and arrested  after he allegedly became unruly and refused to leave.

Correction: The "darn it" quote above was said by Jennifer Marson, not Helen Purcell.
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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