Some Arizona voters find ‘convenience voting’ adds to their confusion

Hank Stephenson//December 17, 2012

Some Arizona voters find ‘convenience voting’ adds to their confusion

Hank Stephenson//December 17, 2012

Some Arizona voters find  ‘convenience voting’ adds to their confusionWhen Jim Giles went to his Biltmore area polling place on Nov. 6, as he has done every election year for the past three decades, he got an unwelcome surprise.

Poll workers there told Giles he had recently been added to the Permanent Early Voter List, although he said he doesn’t remember signing up for the list and never received a ballot in the mail.

He went to the polls with his son, Jimmy Giles, and although only one of them was on the list, poll workers there couldn’t figure out which one of them was on it. So they both had to cast provisional ballots.

The younger Giles also said he didn’t remember ever signing up for the list, and never received an early ballot.

“She saw our names were the same and said, ‘You’ve already got your ballot, we don’t know if you’ve already sent it in or not — you’re going to have to vote provisional,’” the elder Giles said.

“Convenience voting” methods such as the Permanent Early Voting List were created to make voting simpler and more convenient for Arizonans.

But in November, many found the system more confusing than ever. Some registered for the early voting list without realizing they had signed up to receive an early ballot or that it meant they couldn’t cast a normal ballot at the polls on Election Day. As a result, frustrated voters often received provisional ballots that were counted days, if not weeks, after the election.

Election officials such as Johnathan Roes, the elections director for Navajo County and president of the Election Officials of Arizona, say early voting is efficient and effective if it is done right, but for thousands of voters on Election Day, the host of new options of how to cast a ballot made voting more complicated.

“I guess it’s a double-edged sword,” Roes said. “On one hand, people have taken advantage of some of those programs, and for some it has really worked well… But on the flip side of that coin, it seems like sometimes it has made it more confusing for the voters because there are so many different ways to vote now.”

This year, more people than ever were on the early voting list, and more voters than ever had to cast provisional ballots, which take longer to verify and are more likely to be thrown out.

These problems leave some election officials and voters wondering if convenience voting really is convenient, and whether the multitude of ways to vote has made the process easier for the average voter.

Roes said the many options of how to vote has actually made the process more complicated for some people, including him.

“On the one hand we have seen our turnout increase, but it does make more work on the back end with those provisional ballots,” he said.

Some of those problems could be solved by committing to one form of voting or another, Roes said, and he has been advocating for moving to an all-mail voting system.

Going to an all-mail voting system, as Oregon and Washington state have, would eliminate some of the variables that can make elections officials jobs’ harder, Roes said. But he noted that there are several hurdles to switching to an all-mail election system, and it doesn’t seem likely to happen in the near future.

First, voters already rejected a 2006 ballot proposition that would have done exactly that. Also, many lawmakers and the secretary of state have been critical of an all-mail voting plan. Finally, even if there was the political will to switch to that type of system, the U.S. Department of Justice would have to approve it.

In the meantime, Roes and others expect the Legislature to take up election reform issues next session, and he’s hoping that they institute measures to make sure those who are on the early ballot list actually want to be there.

While the list has led to a record number of provisional ballots, in- person early voting, and emergency ballot voting has helped some people who otherwise might not have been able to vote.

After 20 years of residing in the U.S., Maria Maqueada, who is originally from Mexico, became an U.S. citizen in May. Like many, she was eager to cast her first ballot.

She filled out the voter registration form she received when she became a citizen and sent it to election officials. Soon after, she got a notice from the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office that she needed to show proof of citizenship. So she complied.

She photocopied her U.S. passport and sent the copy to the election office. But she still did not receive any confirmation that she was eligible to vote. When she checked, she found out she wasn’t on the voter list.

Not giving up, Maqueada asked for help and finally got hold of Raquel Teran, then a candidate for the state Senate and a field coordinator for Citizens for a Better Arizona. Teran helped Maqueada and finally, on Nov. 5, a day before Election Day, she obtained an emergency ballot and voted in person at a county office.

Yuma County Recorder Robyn Pouquette said the different types of convenience voting have helped protect the rights of people who otherwise might slip through the cracks, such as Maqueada. Many of Pouquette’s constituents like convenience voting, and so does she — most of the time.

“I think it’s more efficient, but that’s if it’s done right,” she said.

Pouquette, who was recently elected president of the Arizona Association of County Recorders, said there was a consensus at the recent statewide meeting of election officials that early voting and other methods of convenience voting aren’t going away. But some procedures need to be updated to ensure people understand what they’re signing up for and that they actually want to be on the list.

“The PEVL (Permanent Early Voting List) problem is really created at the point when people go to the polls on Election Day and are then waiting in a provisional (ballot) line,” she said. “The time involved in provisionals, we’re talking five to 15 minutes on average to process a provisional ballot. And a lot of people who are voting provisional ballots are on the PEVL.”

She said the county recorders agreed that the system needs to be as fool-proof as possible.

A big part of that is informing voters about the list and making sure people understand how to use their early ballot. When voters drop off their early ballot on Election Day, it creates a “mad rush” to count all the early ballots after the election, instead of counting them as they arrive throughout the election season.

She said there are other things the county recorders can do to make sure voting is as convenient as possible, such as starting a public education campaign to explain the most common reasons people have problems at the polls.

“We really have to get back to the basics and get back to making things clearer,” she said.

The state first started offering “absentee” early voting in the 1980 election, but at the time voters needed to have a reason to vote early — such as being out of town, being blind or physically disabled, or being over the age of 65.

In 1997, lawmakers did away with the absentee voting system and changed the requirements so that anyone could request an early ballot for an upcoming election. The change also allowed candidates and political committees to distribute requests for early ballots.

Lawmakers approved the Permanent Early Voting List in 2007. It allows anyone who wants to receive an early ballot to fill out a single form or check a box on their voter registration form to receive ballots in the mail in perpetuity.

Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez was a big proponent of the list.

She came up with the idea because constituents called her to complain that every year they had to sign up again to receive an early ballot.

But now she said the list has gotten a little out of hand, and more than 15,000 people in Pima County who are on it went to the polls on Election Day to cast their ballot. That problem accounted for more than half the provisional ballots in the county. Many of those voters did not realize that once they were on the list, they could no longer go to the polls and cast a normal ballot, she said.

On her website, Rodriguez offers a list of frequently asked questions about early voting and the Permanent Early Voter List. In total, there are 50 questions, which fill nearly 10 printed pages of highly complicated questions and answers.

Rodriguez agrees that the system has created some confusion about how to vote, and she has recommended changing the language on voter registration forms to offer, in the simplest terms possible, the option to vote by mail or to go to the polls.

But still, she said that the vast majority of early voters understood the system.

“I had 255,000 voters by mail who got it right,” she said. “And any changes we make, we don’t want to penalize them.”

— Luige del Puerto contributed to this article.