Politics

County Supervisor: ‘Unanswered Questions’ In Why Arizona’s Election Went So Wrong

CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt York

Voters wait in line to cast their ballot in Arizona's presidential primary election, Tuesday, March 22, 2016, in Gilbert, Ariz.

In a primary election marked by confusion, inaccessibility, and blatant voter suppression, Tuesday night’s fiasco in Maricopa County, Arizona marked a new low.

Thanks to a decision by county election officials to slash the number of polling places from 200 to 60, some voters waited up to five hours to cast a ballot. Some polling places ran out of ballots. Reports surfaced of voters giving up and leaving without voting, and even fainting after waiting for hours in the Arizona heat. Thousands of provisional ballots still haven’t been counted.

The Arizona Republic found that most counties in the state provided, on average, a polling place for every 2,500 eligible voters per polling site. In Maricopa County, which has a large Latino and Native American population, it was one site per every 21,000 voters.

After first laying blame on the county’s voters for showing up in droves on election day, Maricopa County election administrator Helen Purcell took responsibility, arguing that her department had incorrectly assumed almost all residents would vote by mail and was trying to be “cost-effective.”

Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Gallardo does not accept this explanation.

“Money should never be the determining factor if someone should vote or not,” he told ThinkProgress. “If that really was the issue, I’d be shocked, because no one ever came to the county asking for additional resources. In fact, I was informed by the elections administrators at a public meeting in February that they could handle the costs of this election just fine.”

Gallardo emphasized that everything the county spends on running an elections is reimbursed by the state, and that the state would have paid the full cost had the county kept all 200 polling places open for residents. “So I don’t want our county to use money as an excuse,” he said. “There are a lot of unanswered questions, and election officials owe Maricopa County an explanation.”

Federal protections stripped away

Gallardo and other state and federal officials are now looking into whether the poll closures suppressed the votes of people of color — either intentionally or inadvertently. He says the fiasco demonstrates the need for restoring federal oversight of the state’s elections, which was lost when the Supreme Court voted to gut the Voting Rights Act in 2013.

“I want to make sure minority communities were not disenfranchised, were not targeted,” he told ThinkProgress, explaining that he and his colleagues are currently conducting a study using the closed polling locations and census data. “If you look at the long lines we had, they were in both poor, predominantly minority areas and more affluent neighborhoods. However, that does not erase the fact that minorities and low income families may had to have drive a lot further, and had less overall access to voting centers.”

This week, the mayor of Phoenix called for the Justice Department to investigate these same questions, while the state’s Republican Governor Doug Ducey has blasted the handling of the election and called for reforms to streamline the process in the future.

But some of Arizona’s representatives in Congress say all the chaos could have been prevented had the Supreme Court not struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act. The provision, struck down in 2013 by the Court’s conservative majority, provided federal oversight for Arizona and a handful of other states that have a history of racial voter suppression. Because the Republican-controlled Congress has so far refused to reauthorize the full Voting Rights Act, Arizona was able to shut down polling places, implement a strict voter ID law, and make other changes without first getting approval from the Justice Department.

“All these Republicans in Arizona are suddenly saying we need to do something. But if they really cared they would encourage their colleagues in Congress to allow the Voting Rights Act to the floor for a vote,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), a cosponsor of the Act. “Arizona has a long history of voter suppression, and as Latino voter power has increased here, efforts at voter suppression have coincidentally increased as well. We need the Voting Rights Act to protect us against these types of decisions.”

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) agreed, adding that even though the Justice Department has lost the power to prevent Arizona from changing its election laws, it can investigate whether Tuesday’s errors were part of an effort to curb minority voting strength.

“The federal government doesn’t have pre-clearance but it can expose the facts,” he told ThinkProgress. “This is not paranoia, but a suspicion based on the experience of seeing leaders making voting more difficult in places like Arizona. I think [voter suppression] is certainly a possibility, especially in Arpaio-dominated Maricopa County.”

Grijalva is referring to Maricopa County’s notorious sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has waged a decades-long crusade against undocumented people in Arizona. In 2013, federal courts found that Arpaio, who endorsed Donald Trump this year, engaged in unlawful racial profiling of Latinos in his district.

Now, voting rights groups are investigating whether race-based voter suppression occurred on Tuesday, and may file a lawsuit under the remaining provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

Beyond long lines

The election day chaos in Arizona went beyond long wait times. Registered Independents were barred from voting in the state’s closed primary, but they showed up by the thousands anyway, exacerbating the already lengthy lines. Many voters claimed they had registered as Democrats and their registration had been altered without their consent.

Gallardo told ThinkProgress that policies the state has implemented over the past few years created the “perfect storm.”

“We have a 29 day cut-off for voter registration. With today’s technology we should get rid of that and have same day registration,” he said. “If we had that, the independent voters could have re-registered, voted, and moved on. Instead they waited all that time and had to fill out provisional ballots. We also have poor policies coming from the legislature like requiring people to have ID. Let’s get rid of these barriers and make voting more easier and accessible.”

Gallardo vowed take a hard look at decisions made by Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell, and determine whether she or any other officials need to be held accountable. Already, a Latino lawyer from Phoenix has launched a campaign to unseat Purcell this November.

“This same recorder, she has been pushing legislation at the statehouse to make it a felony to help people fill out their ballots,” Gallardo said. “So what is someone going to do if they’re confused? They go to the polls and ask for help there, which makes lines even longer. I don’t see how they came up with the idea that in such a heated election with such high turnout in other states that they should cut the number of polling places. It really makes me question their sincerity.”

On Monday, Arizona lawmakers will hold a hearing to grill Purcell and other officials about the decisions that contributed to the primary election chaos.

But some, including Grijalva, worry that the damage has already been done.

“We turned out to so many first time voters, particularly the young, and when their voting experience is one of turmoil, hardship and long waiting times, that has an impact on whether they will want to vote in the future,” he said.