Amid a raucous crowd’s calls for Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell’s resignation and demands for a “revote,” lawmakers delved into the problems that turned last week’s presidential preference election into a fiasco featuring hours-long lines and chronic voter registration problems.
At a special meeting of the House Elections Committee, lawmakers grilled Purcell over why Maricopa County had only 60 polling places, a reduction from about 200 in 2012 and about 400 in 2008.
More than 200 people attended the hearing and testify about the problems they faced in the presidential primary. So many citizens showed up that the House removed the partitions with two neighboring hearing rooms to accommodate the crowd.
Nonetheless, every seat was filled for much of the hearing, with others lingering along the walls or waiting outside in the hallway. Many complained of long lines that left some waiting for five hours. Others testified that they weren’t able to vote because they had somehow been re-registered as independents, who can’t vote in presidential primaries in Arizona.
During her hour-long testimony, Purcell took the blame for the lack of polling places, and explained why she believed 60 would be adequate. Based on the total number of voters who were eligible to cast ballots in the presidential primary, projected voter turnout and an expected increase in voting by mail, Purcell said Maricopa County expected about 71,000 people to vote in person, which would have been an average of nearly 1,200 per polling place.
In reality, more than 83,000 people showed up in person to vote at the polls, said Jenn Marson, executive director of the Arizona Association of Counties, who stood with Purcell during her testimony.
Purcell said the miscalculation was a “giant mistake” on her part.
“As I have said before, I apologize profusely,” Purcell said to jeers from the crowd. “We made some horrendous mistakes.”
Before the committee hearing, Secretary of State Michele Reagan held a press conference in which she acknowledged that she too deserved some of the blame. While Reagan emphasized that she has no authority over the counties, she said her office should have foreseen that the Maricopa County would have problems due to a shortage of polling places.
“I wish I had questioned that 60 were not enough. For that, I take responsibility,” Reagan said. “I wish that we had flagged this and said something, and for that we are taking responsibility. I am taking responsibility for that.”
Reagan said there were other problems on election night that her office is addressing, including problems with a vendor-run website and the need for the Secretary of State’s Office to have a direct line of communication with county election offices during election days, which she said she is working to rectify.
Purcell’s contrition wasn’t enough for many in the crowd at the House Elections Committee, some of whom demanded a new day of voting to make up for those who were turned away or discouraged by the long wait. Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, threw cold water on the revote proposals, saying it wasn’t feasible.
While Purcell apologized and took the blame for the voting problems, she also said a lack of funding from the state played a role in Maricopa County’s decisions.
“We looked at the amount of money that we felt was going to be available for this election, and as of the time we started planning, there was not sufficient monies to pay us for a full-blown election. So we were trying to downsize.”
Purcell said the county had been hopeful that the state would follow through on a pledge for more funding. Last year, the Legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey cut the reimbursement rate to the counties, which had been set at 100 percent of the cost of the election, to the previous rate of $1.25 per registered voter, which resulted in a cut of about $6 million in reimbursement. As a result, the counties received only about $4 million to conduct the presidential preference election. Legislation that would restore the $6 million has not yet passed.
But Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, who chairs the House Elections Committee, quickly pointed out that the counties had always been reimbursed at the $1.25 rate, which wasn’t increased until after the 2012 presidential primary. She said the counties managed do function with the old reimbursement rate for several previous elections.
“You’re telling me know you’re not able to do that in 2016 when you’ve been operating with that reimbursement rate for several presidential preference elections?” asked Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale.
Marson and Purcell said the $1.25 rate wasn’t necessarily enough to cover the full costs of the presidential primaries in prior years.
“Counties were eating a lot of the cost of the election,” Marson said.
The committee’s Democrats said a major contributing factor to the presidential primary snafu was the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling that gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act requiring a number of states and smaller jurisdictions, including Arizona, to get approval from the U.S. Department of Justice for all changes to election and voting laws.
Rep. Ken Clark, D-Phoenix, questioned whether the Department of Justice would have ever approved Maricopa County’s plan for only 60 polling places, and asked Purcell whether she believed the federal government would have given its blessing. Purcell said she hadn’t thought about the issue.
“Due to an unfortunately ruled Supreme Court case, we’re not under Department of Justice preclearance, and I think we see what happens when we’re not,” Clark said.
Reps. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, and Jonathan Larkin, D-Phoenix, took issue with a lack of polling places in their districts, with Larkin questioning the dearth of voting centers in predominantly Latino areas. Several lawmakers related stories about constituents who showed up at the polls believing they were registered under one of the two major parties, only to find that they had been registered as independents, who aren’t eligible to vote in presidential preference elections. Reagan told the committee that the same thing happened to one of her employees in the Secretary of State’s Office.
Rep. Jeff Weninger, R-Chandler, said the Legislature needs to work with election officials and the Motor Vehicle Department to ensure that such problems don’t occur again.
Some lawmakers also questioned why the state and counties released election results while people were still in line at the polling places. News organizations called the elections for Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump hours before some voters cast ballots.
Reagan said counties began posting their results an hour after the polls closed, as allowed by statute, which led the Secretary of State’s Office to post the results on its website as well. Weninger said he’s in favor of changing the law to allow results to be withheld for longer. Attorney General Mark Brnovich has made a similar proposal.
Several speakers during the hearing 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 a poll 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.”
Reagan’s comments that she was interested in improving the process for voters drew a skeptical, if not outright hostile, response from Larkin. He pointed out her office is sponsoring SB1516, an extensive rewrite of state election laws. Larkin 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 SB1516?”
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.
Includes information from Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services