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Clamoring for a fix, politicians take aim at election reform

Clamoring for a fix, politicians take aim at election reformIn the wake of Arizona’s 2012 general election, which was marred by large numbers of uncounted ballots holding up the decision in one congressional district race for 11 days, Secretary of State Ken Bennett said the election system isn’t broken. But he still wants to fix it.

Bennett pledged to pursue changes to the state’s election system to avoid the drawn out vote counting and the increase in provisional ballots seen in this year’s election. For now, his plans on how exactly to tune-up the system are still in the works.

Critics have decried the more than two-week delay in final vote tabulations and the greater number of provisional ballots, alleging everything from incompetence to malfeasance. Protesters rallied at the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office for more than a week, chanting and carrying signs with slogans like “count my vote” and “my rights are not provisional.”

They are demanding an account of what caused the problems, where the provisional ballots were most numerous and how election officials plan to improve the system.

A provisional ballot can be required for a number of reasons. If a voter goes to the wrong polling location, if the address on a voter’s ID doesn’t match the county’s records, if a signature doesn’t match what’s on record or if a voter on the early voter list, for whatever reason, chooses to go to a polling location instead of using their mail-in ballot, he or she will be asked to use a provisional ballot.

“We have lots of volunteers who have given their time to go into the community, to register voters and to tell people to go vote,” said Petra Falcon, chairwoman of the Hispanic activist group Promise Arizona. “Volunteers and voters deserve the right to know that the votes will be counted.”

This month marked another presidential-year election in which the number of provisional ballots increased in Arizona. In 2004, 4.9 percent of all ballots cast were provisional. By 2008, that number was 6.5 percent. This year, provisional ballots accounted for 7.4 percent of all ballots cast.

At a Nov. 20 press conference, Bennett said he finds his critics’  claims ironic.  True, it’s taking longer than desired to count every ballot, and an increase in provisional ballots contributes to the delay. But the delays result from procedures designed to help ensure that the maximum number of voters can participate.

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

Rather, he said, he cares most about an accurate count of the state’s votes.

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

First, more early voters are holding on to their mail-in ballot until Election Day. County election officials have reported that twice as many voters dropped off their early ballot at a polling location on Election Day compared to 2008.  Those “late earlies,” as Bennett said his office has come to refer to them, are collected on Election Day, and then counted later.

The trend of holding on to early ballots contradicts the intent behind the early voting system, designed in part to allow election workers to receive and tally ballots prior to the election.

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

He said roughly 81 percent of all the provisional ballots will be validated and counted in the end, an increase from previous years.

But questions remain.

Falcon, of Promise Arizona, and Brendan Walsh of Unite Here!, a union group that helped organize voter registration drives, say they’re still waiting for details about whose provisional ballots were rejected and locations with the greatest concentration of provisional ballots.

Long lines at ASU

Besides the increase in “late earlies,” other problems led to people casting provisional ballots.

In Tempe, activists and poll watchers say scores of voters were forced to cast such ballots when federal forms used to sign up new voters were not properly filed by the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office. The issue mainly affected Arizona State University students who registered to vote with the Arizona Students’ Association, which used the federal forms in their voter registration efforts.

Lines at one precinct serving the ASU dorms were more than an hour long. Poll workers there said the vast majority of the voters had to vote with provisional ballots.

Voters walked in clutching pieces of mail, including a few with “recorder’s certificates” to prove their residency. The Recorder’s Office said it mailed 1,344 of those yellow certificates to voters across the county who filled out the federal forms.

Yvonne Reed, spokeswoman for Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell, said the likely reason many students who registered with the federal form didn’t get on the voter rolls was that they sent the forms to the Recorder’s Office at the last minute. As a result, the office placed them on a list of people not yet in the system.

“A lot of these people were on the suspense list and that’s why we issued the recorder’s certificate so that they would have something to get in there and be able to vote,” Reed said.

Pima County also had issues with provisional ballots. Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez issued a press release three days after the election stating that an undetermined number of voters who arrived at their correct polling places were not listed on the poll roster and had to cast provisional ballots.

“My staff will get to the bottom of the roster situation to make certain that there are no printing issues in the future, no matter how small of an impact they have on the voting process,” the statement said.

County voting centers

At Bennett’s press conference, he was cautious not to get too far ahead of himself, saying he wants to continue discussing ways to address the problems with county election officials and lawmakers.

One possible solution would be to use a new type of polling location already adopted in two of Arizona’s 16 counties. Bennett calls them “county voting centers,” and they allow poll workers to begin processing early and provisional ballots on-site. 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. He said the reductions took into consideration the locations with the greatest number voters and where a voting center would be most efficient.

Bennett acknowledged that the new voting center system could mean some voters would need to travel farther to cast their ballot. He said he had not yet met with county recorders or elections officials to discuss the planned changes.

He emphasized that he wants changes made in time for the 2014 election, which means legislation will be needed in the upcoming session.

A need for more money

State lawmakers agree with Bennett that something has to be done to minimize the number of provisional ballots cast and speed the counting of leftover ballots in the days following the election.

The fixes would have to come with additional money from the Legislature. House Speaker Andy Tobin said that is something the body would probably support.

“We need to count these ballots sooner, and if members believe that it’s that important and it’s a priority — and there’s a lot of priorities out there — I’m wide open to discussing an appropriation. 

We’ll see how much (Bennett) is looking for… I think there’s avenues to look for dollars.” Tobin said.

Bennett said he didn’t know how much his proposed changes would cost. 

He said he envisions a matching-funds approach where counties and the state each put in a few dollars per vote toward upgrading the system. 

Much of the system needs to be updated anyway, Bennett said, and some upgrades could fit in with the proposed changes.

Sponsoring reforms

Rep. Michelle Ugenti, who chairs the House Government Committee, where many election bills are assigned, said the state shouldn’t be waiting nearly two weeks to determine the outcome of elections. If the reforms streamline the process and still maintain the integrity of the election system, she said she would probably sponsor reform legislation.

“I’m very much interested in any reforms that Mr. Bennett may recommend. I think that there’s an opportunity to make the system better and I don’t think anyone would hesitate to do that,” she said.

But Ugenti also sits on the House Appropriations Committee and said it might be difficult to get money out of the Legislature, even for a good cause.

“Anything that requires extra money needs to be vetted very carefully, and I’ve not had a conversation with my colleagues about where the willpower is on that,” she said.

Sen. Michele Reagan, who will chair a newly created Senate Elections Committee, said she looks forward to working with Bennett and anyone else who wants to address the problems. But she 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,” 

Reagan said. “Then we can look at where the problem areas were.”

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

“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.”

House Minority Leader Chad Campbell has taken the issue one step further, putting together formal language proposing an ad hoc joint legislative committee to review Arizona’s elections.

Campbell’s outline would create a bipartisan committee of House and Senate members and election officials from the Secretary of State’s Office and the state’s two most populous counties, Maricopa and Pima. 

The committee would investigate and report on registration and election protocols, then recommend legislation.

“Let’s actually sit down and do our due diligence, look at the data, not play politics or the blame game and come up with some real solutions,” Campbell said. “We’ve investigated a lot more frivolous and less important issues than this.”

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