Originally Published: March 29, 2016 6 a.m.
PHOENIX - The top election officials for both the state and Maricopa County admitted Monday, March 28, to making mistakes that led to hours-long lines at polling places for last week’s presidential primary.
But both insisted there were reasons for the decisions they made.
Secretary of State Michele Reagan acknowledged she knew that Maricopa County had set up only 60 polling locations. That compares with about 200 in 2012, when there was only a Republican primary, and more than 400 in 2008 when both major parties had contested primaries.
“We put our faith in counties,” she said. And Reagan said she was “excited” that Maricopa as well as other counties had set up “polling centers” where any registered voter could cast a ballot, rather than having to show up at his or her own designated location.
But Reagan said she shares at least some of the blame.
“I wish I had questioned that 60 were not enough,” she said. “For that I take responsibility.”
Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell, whose office set up the election, was more direct when questioned by lawmakers.
“I made a giant mistake,” she confessed.
“That’s an understatement,” shot back Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, who chairs the House Elections Committee. And several of those testifying at a hearing demanded Purcell resign.
But Purcell said there was reason to believe 60 locations would be enough.
There were 1.2 million residents eligible to participate in the primary. But Purcell said 890,000 were on a permanent early voting list, meaning they had gotten ballots in the mail and would not be expected to turn out on election day.
And given the 2008 turnout of 23 percent, Purcell figured that would mean 71,300 actually going to the polls.
As it turned out, the actual number showing up at polls was 83,489, and there were lines all day long and some voters did not get to cast ballots until after midnight despite arriving before the official poll-closing time of 7 p.m.
Jen Marson, lobbyist for the Arizona Association of Counties, put some of the blame on what she said is the lack of state funding.
Marson pointed out that lawmakers agreed in 2012 to cover the full cost of the primary. But last year, in a budget-saving moving, lawmakers trimmed funding to $1.25 per registered voter. And legislation to restore funding - tied to eliminating future presidential primaries - has yet to get final approval.
That did not impress Rep. Jeff Weninger, R-Chandler. He pointed out that $1.25 figure is the same amount lawmakers gave the counties back in 2008.
Ugenti agreed, saying that there really was no funding cuts.
“Counties don’t see it that way,” Marson said.
And Rep. Ken Clark, D-Phoenix, pointed out that legislation Reagan proposed to restore funding was linked to eliminating future presidential primaries.
Tied up in all of this is the question of whether the shortage of polling places, coupled with where they were and were not located, violated the federal Voting Rights Act.
That law specifically prohibits states from doing anything that discriminates against minorities or dilutes or impairs their ability to vote.
Based on its prior history of discrimination, Arizona was one of nine states which had to submit any changes in voting laws to the U.S. Department of Justice for “preclearance.” That included changing the location and number of polling places.
In 2013, however, the U.S. Supreme Court voided that preclearance requirement.
Clark suggested to Purcell that her decision to set up just 60 polling places never would have met with Department of Justice approval.
Purcell, in acknowledging the rest of the anti-discrimination provisions of the Voting Rights Act remain, conceded she never considered whether the sharp drop in places to vote might have violated the law.
Several of the speakers said there were many people who did not get to cast a ballot, having decided the lines were too long. And there were other problems, not all of which were limited to Maricopa County.
Danny Robinson told lawmakers how his daughter stood in line for hours at the polls in Tucson but was told she could not vote because county officials listed her as a political independent.
“She’s always been registered as a Democrat, she’s always voted as a Democrat,” he said. “Suddenly she’s been changed.”
He said that disenfranchised his daughter.
“I want justice for my daughter,” Robinson said. “I want a revote.”
“We will explore everything,” said Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler. But Mesnard threw cold water on that, saying there are too many hurdles, including disenfranchising those who did manage to vote.
Reagan’s comments that she was interested in improving the process for voters drew a skeptical, if not outright hostile, response from Rep. Jonathan Larkin, D-Glendale.
He pointed out her office is sponsoring SB 1516, an extensive rewrite of state election laws. Larking called that “basically a dark money bill” which will make it easier for organizations that don’t disclose donors to spend money on elections.
That drew a sharp response from Mesnard who said that was “injecting politics” into the hearing. And he said that question has nothing to do with the questions about the problems with the primary.
Larkin would not back down.
“This is a voter suppression matter,” he said. “How can the voters trust that the secretary of state’s office is acting in their best interest when we are pushing such policies like SB 1516.”
During the hearing, there also were complaints from some people who pointed out that results were being released by counties and Reagan’s office even as people were still standing in line. Reagan said that was in accordance with state law.
“But if the law was to change, we would certainly follow it,” she said.
Attorney General Mark Brnovich made exactly that suggestion last week.
The hearing ended before everyone had a chance to testify. They then went to the House gallery where they protested loudly until many were removed by the state Department of Public Safety.