Originally Published: April 5, 2016 6 a.m.
Federal attorneys are investigating how Arizona's largest county conducted the presidential primary even as the state's top election official insisted Monday she could not have done anything different ahead of the March 22 vote.
Chris Herren, chief of the voting section of the Department of Justice, told Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell in a letter Friday that his agency is trying to determine if there were violations of the federal Voting Rights Act, which prohibits states from making changes in election procedures that discriminate against minorities.
None of that affects the state's 14 other counties. But Secretary of State Michele Reagan, in formally announcing the results of the primary on Monday, said she was powerless to deal with the problems that resulted statewide. That includes not just long voting lines at some polling places but that thousands of voters claim they were re-registered as political independents without their consent.
Reagan sidestepped the larger question of whether she should have questioned Maricopa County ahead of election day on whether they were violating the Voting Rights Act by setting up only 60 polling places.
A 2013 Supreme Court ruling eliminated the requirement of the Voting Rights Act that Arizona and a handful of other states with a history of discrimination had to get "preclearance” from the Department of Justice before changing election laws and procedures. That includes changing the number and location of polling places.
The underlying federal law, however, remains in place. But Reagan said she has no official authority to force counties to change their procedures.
Still, Reagan said that perhaps it is her role to at least speak up publicly: "We, in the future, may be looking at those options.”
In the letter to Purcell, Herren wants to know how she determined to have just 60 polling places and where they would go. Potentially more significant, he wants to know whether the county ever looked at how its decision would affect minority groups.
In 2012, when only Republicans had a contested race, there were more than 200 polling places. And in 2008, when both parties had presidential primaries, there were more than 400 polling places.