PHOENIX, ARIZONA — On Arizona’s primary day this April, voters in Maricopa County waited five hours in the hot sun to cast a ballot, because the county slashed the number of polling places from 200 to 60. Some people gave up and left without voting; some fainted in the desert heat. Polling places ran out of ballots.
After the dust settled, angry voters, candidates, and political parties filed a slew of lawsuits against the state, leading to court settlements and a promise that no voter will have to wait longer than half an hour this fall.
“The primary fiasco was a huge wakeup call,” said Samantha Pstross with the Arizona Advocacy Network.
But elected officials and voting rights advocates fear the situation could be just as bad or worse on Tuesday.
“We are not ready for what I presume will be one of the largest turnouts in Arizona history,” Maricopa County supervisor Steve Gallardo told ThinkProgress. “Everyone is banking on a large number of vote-by-mail ballots. But this is not an ordinary election. We have a record number of new Latino voters. We see lots of excitement out there. We need to be prepared to handle this, but we’re already seeing problems.”
“We are not ready for what I presume will be one of the largest turnouts in Arizona history.”
Gallardo cited troubles that have already plagued the county during early voting, when turnout is usually much lighter than on Election Day itself.
On Friday, the final day of in-person early voting, voters in Tempe waited more than three hours to cast a ballot. Among them was Bob Davis, who arrived around 1:15 p.m. with his four-year-old daughter. Though he was told it would be a two-hour wait, he didn’t cast a ballot until nearly 5 p.m.
“I watched like 20 people leave the line who couldn’t wait,” he told ThinkProgress. “I knew the chance of them coming back and trying again was negligible. I felt really upset.”
Davis noted that there is a ballot measure before Arizona voters this year that would raise the minimum wage from just over 8 dollars an hour to 12 by the year 2020. He said he worries those the measure would impact most will not be able to have a say in its passage.
“If you make only 8.05 an hour, your ability to stand in line for four hours is minimal,” he said. “This is actual voter suppression.”
In Glendale, another Phoenix suburb, an understaffed site with insufficient equipment forced voters to wait more than two hours earlier this week.
“It’s discouraging,” Gallardo said. “No one should have to stand in long lines. It becomes a voting barrier. Some folks don’t have the opportunity to wait. Some are elderly and physically can’t stand that long, others only have a short lunch break from work when they can vote. So if you let long lines occur, you are disenfranchising voters.”
Maricopa County had 724 polling places for the 2012 general election. This year, they will have the exact same number, despite adding more than 90,000 more voters to the rolls. Many of those precincts’ polling places are located in the same building, meaning there will be only 640 separate locations.
“What is scary is what could happen on Election Day,” said Pstross. “If there are long lines, people will be disenfranchised left and right.”
Ever-changing laws fuel voter confusion
Arizona smashed its Latino voter registration record in the final weeks of the 2016 election, adding 150,000 new voters to the rolls. The state also led the nation in Latino early voting. Latino residents cast an unprecedented 13 percent of the votes, up from just 8 percent in 2008. Organizers credit Donald Trump for some of this participation spike, noting that his disparagement of immigrants and promises of mass deportations have mobilized Latinos who previously avoided electoral politics.
But as community advocacy groups like Bazta Arpaio, the Arizona Advocacy Network, LUCHA, and others hit the streets of Phoenix in the campaign’s final days, some fear an avalanche of last-minute court cases and legal changes could confuse and disenfranchise the voters they have worked so hard to engage.
This year alone, Arizona mailed out incorrect information about where to vote and mistranslated one of the ballot propositions on thousands of Spanish-language ballots. The state also allowed the final day of voter registration to fall on a federal holiday, leaving thousands of voters unable to register in time.
Then, on Friday night, a federal appeals court temporarily enjoined Arizona’s new law that made it a felony for anyone other than a relative or caretaker to pick up and mail in a voter’s absentee ballot. On Saturday morning, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision and gave Arizona its blessing to enforce the ballot collection ban.
The back-and-forth left organizers scrambling.
Ben Laughlin, an organizer with the “Bazta Arpaio” campaign to unseat the controversial county sheriff Joe Arpaio, got the news of the ruling just before dispatching a small army of canvassers to knock on doors across the city.
“It causes a lot of confusion,” Laughlin told ThinkProgress. “For months we haven’t been collecting ballots because of the ban. Yesterday, we started collecting ballots. Now we’re not. It was a sweet 24 hour window.”
Bazta Arpaio blasted out this message on Friday night: “This weekend, when a volunteer comes to your door, you can have them turn in your ballot with confidence.” Less than a day later, the group had to abandon those plans.
Across the city, Asya Pikovsky with the Center for Popular Democracy scrambled to inform dozens of volunteers about the legal development.
“We got on the phone the second the decision came out and told every single person,” she told ThinkProgress on Saturday. “Our canvassers are following the decision to the letter.”
But other advocates expressed fears that some people could accidentally violate the newly-restored law if they did not get the news in time.
“No one should be considered a felon for helping someone else vote — especially someone who would have no other way to get to the polls,” Pstross said.
She fears even those following the law could face unlawful harassment from poll watchers, who have been instructed to follow and photograph those turning in multiple ballots.
“We’re worried that, say, someone who works at a retirement home could show up with 50 to 100 ballots,” she said. “They’re a legitimate caretaker, but even if they’re totally within the law, a crazy person could challenge and intimidate them.”
Sheriffs and vigilantes
Concerns about intimidation by poll-watchers were elevated Saturday, when a federal court declined to put a halt to plans by Trump’s campaign, the Arizona GOP, and a group run by Trump ally Roger Stone to patrol minority-heavy precincts, film those who they suspect of voter fraud, and question people exiting the polls about which candidate they supported.
“It is Plaintiff’s burden to illustrate that these activities are likely to intimidate, threaten, or coerce voters,” the court ruled. “The evidence…has failed to do so.”
But officials and voting rights advocates in Arizona are not just worried about intimidation from such volunteers — They are also sounding the alarm about the potential presence of the county sheriffs at the polls on Election Day.
The Maricopa County Recorder’s office, which administers the election, plans to call in sheriffs if there are any disputes at the polls, even though the head of the department is currently on trial for criminal contempt and racial profiling. Sheriffs have already been summoned to early voting sites, including one incident this week in which voters were upset about turned away at 4:30 p.m. because the polls were supposed to be open until 5 p.m.
“This should be an exciting time for voters — not a time of anxiety or fear.”
Voting rights advocates and elected officials said that having the same sheriffs who conducted immigration raids patrol the polls will intimidate Latino voters. Some groups have called on the Justice Department to send monitors to oversee the sheriffs’ activities, while others are demanding the County Recorder use a different law enforcement agency on Election Day.
“We have a sheriff that has divided and polarized this county and created distrust between the community and the sheriff’s office,” Gallardo said. “It’s time to distance ourselves from the sheriffs’ office and use other agencies like Phoenix Police that actually have credibility with the public. The sheriffs should not be involved in this election.”
“This should be an exciting time for voters — not a time of anxiety or fear,” added Alex Gomez, Executive Director of the Arizona Center for Empowerment. “On Election Day, the story should be about Arizonans proudly casting their ballots — not voters scared off from the polls.”