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Bennett: Election system working but changes necessary

Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett responds to criticism over the way the state has handled election protocols this year at a Nov. 20 press conference. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett responds to criticism over the way the state has handled election protocols this year at a Nov. 20 press conference. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett today pledged to pursue changes to the state’s election system to avoid the drawn out vote counting and increase in provisional ballots seen in this year’s election.

Critics have decried the now two-week delay in final vote tabulations and the greater number of provisional ballots, alleging everything from incompetence to malfeasance.

At a press conference today, Bennett said that he finds his critics’ claims ironic. He said even though it’s taking longer than desired to count every ballot and a greater number of provisional ballots has contributed to the delay, these processes are intended to help ensure that the maximum number of voters can participate in Arizona’s elections.

“Speed is not our first priority,” Bennett said.

Instead, an accurate count of the state’s votes is what he cares about most.

Bennett countered some of the criticism his office and county election officials have received against over the past two weeks, citing some of the reasons behind the tabulation delay.

First, more of Arizona’s early voters are holding onto their mail-in ballot until Election Day. Bennett said county election officials have reported twice as many voters who received their ballot in the mail but dropped it at a polling location on Election Day than in 2008.

Those “late earlies,” as Bennett said his office refers to them, are collected on Election Day, then counted later.

The trend of holding onto early ballots contradicts an intent of the early voting system, which was designed, at least in part, to allow election officials to receive and tally ballots prior to the election.

Bennett also noted that the portion of provisional voters that were on the permanent early voter list, but who either lost, damaged or did not receive their ballot in the mail, doubled between 2008 and 2012.

As for solutions, Bennett was cautious not to get too far ahead of himself, saying that he wants to continue discussing ways to address these problems with county election officials and lawmakers.

One possibility would be a transition to a new type of polling location that has already been adopted in two of Arizona’s 16 counties. Bennett calls them “county voting centers,” and they allow poll workers to process early and provisional ballots on-site, where traditional polling locations cannot.

The tradeoff is that these voting centers are more costly and would likely mean reducing the number of traditional polling locations.

Assistant Secretary of State Jim Drake said the two counties that have adopted the system, Yavapai and Yuma, have reduced the number of traditional polling locations.

Drake said the reductions were made with careful consideration given to where the greatest volume of voters is and where a voting center would be most efficient.

Bennett admitted that the new voting center system could mean some voters would need to travel farther to cast their ballot.

Bennett emphasized that he wants changes made in time for the 2014 election, which means that some sort of legislation will need to be passed in the upcoming legislative session.

Sen. Michele Reagan, who will chair a newly created Senate Elections Committee this year, said she looks forward to working with Bennett and anyone else who wants to address problems that arose in this year’s election. But she also said she wants to wait until after the final vote tally is complete before considering reforms.

“I think it’s very important to wait until the canvass is done. Then we can look at where the problem areas were,” Reagan said.

Elections and their machinations are also delicate and vital to democracy, Reagan said, and any alteration to the system must be carefully thought through.

“You don’t want to go blow up an entire election system, if there are really only a few tweaks that need to be made,” she said. “We need to be cautious and not reactive.”

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