Arizona must seriously examine its election system to avoid becoming the next Florida, circa 2000. With this in mind, Secretary of State Ken Bennett rightly recommended overhauling Arizona’s elections system and working to reduce the number of provisional ballots.
However, he cannot fix this problem alone, without a thorough review conducted by a bipartisan study committee, such as the one House Minority Leader Chad Campbell recommended.
A thorough study is the only way to completely understand and reduce the abnormally high number of provisional ballots cast in Arizona — which is now unfortunately viewed as the norm.
The consequences of not completely solving the problem are potentially dire.
Imagine if, for example, the Ron Barber-Martha McSally race in Tucson had determined the balance of power in Congress and two weeks of anxious uncertainty had plagued the nation.
Arizona needs a study committee not because 2012 was an unusual year for elections, but because it was typical. As Bennett explained, the state taking two full weeks to count this year’s votes was actually one day better than in 2008. This elongated ballot-tallying process, as well as long lines at polling places, reduce voter confidence in the integrity of elections and discourage voter participation.
Provisional ballots are responsible for both problems.
Not only do provisional ballots gum up the elections administration system, 20 percent to 25 percent are rejected every year.
Reforming our elections system requires finding the root cause of excessive numbers of provisional ballots, including the 20 percent increase this year.
To resolve that issue, the study committee should ask questions including: Why did so many voters who received mail-in ballots attempt to vote in person? What role did misinformation — whether from a campaign, an activist group, the media, or elections officials — play in voters casting ballots in the wrong precinct? Were poll workers adequately trained to handle questions about our state’s complex voter identification laws?
The study committee should also investigate proposed innovations to our system such as voting centers. Although voting centers would eliminate the most common reason provisional ballots are rejected — that is, ballots being cast in the wrong precinct — they provide their own challenges.
For example, this year we witnessed dramatic failures of the Yuma County voting centers, particularly in Somerton and San Luis. Before other counties move to this system, the problems from 2012 need to be fully vetted.
Indeed, the study committee should consider solutions as mundane as hiring more polling place workers to decrease the amount of time voters spend waiting in line and as radical as converting to an all mail-in voting system.
The residents of Arizona, not to mention the hard-working professionals in our elections divisions, deserve to have a system that runs efficiently and builds voter confidence. Only a thorough study of our democracy’s most important issue will help us understand the challenges enough to devise sound solutions.
— Jim Barton, election law attorney with Torres Law Group.