When Roberta Henning left her home in Glendale to vote on March 22, she never thought it would consume her entire day and she would fail – for the first time ever – to cast a ballot.
The ordeal of the 55-year-old office manager started shortly before 10 a.m. and took her to four polling places. She spent more than six hours in an infuriating and ultimately fruitless search spanning two cities for a place to exercise her right to vote in the presidential preference primary.
By late afternoon, she had finally found a parking spot at Happy Valley Baptist Church, the fourth polling center she had tried. By then, a half-a-mile line was snaking its way to the door. But it was barely moving, and after being told on the phone by election officers that there’s no guarantee the doors wouldn’t close by 7 p.m., she gave up.
“It’s my first time to miss a vote,” Henning told the Arizona Capitol Times. “I’m mad.”
It is unclear how many voters failed to cast a ballot in this year’s presidential primary because they were either discouraged by the long lines or had to leave after waiting in line.
What’s clear is that Henning shared the frustration of tens of thousands of people who took part in what was perhaps the worst election experience in Maricopa County’s recent history.
The horror stories at the polling centers mostly resulted from poor planning on the part of Maricopa County’s election officials, who have since apologized for the debacle, and to a lesser extent from independents’ ignorance of the Arizona law, which precludes them from voting in a presidential primary.
Election data tells the story
According to the county’s official canvass, 24,639 people cast provisional ballots, of which only 4,631 were valid and counted. Of the remaining invalid provisional ballots, 18,322 were rejected because they were cast by independents.
Indeed, 23 percent of votes cast on Election Day were provisional ballots. Officials estimated that since it took at least five minutes to process each of them, poll workers spent an additional 2,000 hours on ballots, many of which would have to be rejected anyway.
But election data provided by the county also confirmed how badly the officials miscalculated their preparations.
Their biggest mistake was to reduce the number of polling centers to only 60 from more than 200. The other big error was assuming that roughly 1,500 voters would show up at each polling center.
County election officials had estimated that turnout at the polls (meaning the people who would vote on Election Day, not counting early ballots) would be 23 percent. They based that number on the turnout in 2008. They calculated that 71,300 voters would show up at the polls on March 22, which they believed would translate to roughly 1,200 voters per polling place if they consolidated centers to 60. They rounded it up to 1,500 voters per center, and also increased the number of workers per site to 13-15 from 5-7 in 2008.
The problem that those decisions created quickly became apparent in the morning of March 22, when long lines began forming and turned to worse as the day progressed. All told, roughly 83,500 people had voted at the polls, more than 24,000 received provisional ballots, and 18,000 independents showed up, even though they’re legally barred from casting a ballot in the presidential primary.
During a hearing at the Capitol, both Rep. Jonathan Larkin, a Democrat from Glendale, and Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, a Scottsdale Republican who chairs the House Election Committee, pressed Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell if she and others had made allowances for the fact that people are energized by candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and that turnout might, in fact, be high.
“Was that even a thought when you were deciding to set up 60 polling locations?” Larkin asked.
Purcell indicated that this wasn’t part of the consideration. “We’d set up the polling places way in advance of an election, as we have to do to set up our system,” she replied. “As I have said before, I apologize profusely for those polling places being inadequate.”
As it turned out, 41 of the 60 centers had to accommodate more than 1,500 voters. Four centers saw more than 3,000 voters.
Countywide, the average wait time was 2 hours and 18 minutes if a voter got in line at 6:59 p.m., based on an analysis of the data provided by Maricopa County.
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Some fared far worse than others. The North Hills Church in Phoenix finally closed at 12:58 a.m. If a voter had been in line there by 6:59 p.m. the day before, he or she would have waited almost six hours to cast a ballot.
By contrast, that voter could have driven from the Capitol about 50 minutes northwest to Wittmann, which had virtually no wait at the end of the night, voted, and returned to Phoenix before voters at the North Hills Church received a ballot. They would have had hours to spare.
Five centers, which each had an average of roughly 2,300 voters, closed after midnight. All five had to accommodate a high number of provisional ballots. At the Salvation Army Phoenix Citadel Corp in central Phoenix, which closed at 12:31 am, 30 percent of the votes were provisional ballots.
The data also show a loose correlation between closing times and the number of voters per polling place.
The fewer the voters, the earlier the closing times were, although the two centers with the highest numbers of voters closed at the relatively earlier times of 8:26 pm and 9:27 pm, respectively.
The busiest polling center, SE Regional Library in Gilbert, closed at 8:26 p.m. That center accommodated 3,743 voters.
But what’s notable is that nearly all of the polling centers that accommodated fewer than 1,000 voters had wrapped up before 8 pm. The outlier was Deer Valley Worship Center, which closed at 10:47 pm while only seeing 970 voters.
Meanwhile, six centers had fewer than 500 voters each. One, Kaka Village (located on the reservation near Gila Bend), only attracted 21 people.
Indeed, if Henning left Happy Valley Baptist Church at 5 p.m. and drove to the Wickenburg Community Center, she would have arrived in less than hour and waited in line for only 17 minutes.
That community center only accommodated 579 voters.
Click on each dot to see information on wait times, numbers of voters and number of provisional ballots.