After two election cycles marred by long lines and unfounded accusations of partisan bias, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors approved changes on June 26 to the way the county hosts elections.
Chief among the changes is the creation of a new director of Election Day and emergency voting procedures, who reports directly to the county’s five elected supervisors.
The vote throws the Board of Supervisors, with its four Republicans and one Democrat, back into the mix when it comes to election operations, a role that for decades the board had delegated to the county recorder, now Democrat Adrian Fontes.
Fontes said he had plenty of input on the changes, prompted by meetings with Republican Supervisor Bill Gates, Democratic Supervisor Steve Gallardo, and a working group formed in January 2019 to study the county’s election infrastructure.
That working group identified staffing and technology as two key areas of need, but they also recommended the new director to better reflect the supervisors’ role in administering elections. The board voted to hire Scott Jarrett, a manager with Maricopa County’s internal audit department, for the new position.
While Jarrett will report to the board, he’ll also be responsible for coordinating with Elections Director Ray Valenzuela of the county Elections Department. The dual roles will help better coordinate election operations, board spokesman Fields Mosley wrote in an email, “because early voting, Election Day, emergency voting, voter registration and tabulation are all connected via technology and personnel.”
The supervisors’ vote comes on the heels of a legislative session in which Republican lawmakers adopted changes to election law that make county supervisors across Arizona responsible for setting the location and hours that emergency voting centers may operate the weekend before Election Day. That law was passed following uproar from state Republican Party leaders over the decision by Fontes to open five emergency voting centers throughout the county prior to the 2018 General Election.
Multiple supervisors noted June 26 that the changes they approved were in the works well before the 2018 election was even held, let alone new laws were passed.
“This effort from the beginning has not been about pointing fingers or placing blame,” Gates said. “It is so important that people from across the political spectrum believe there is integrity in our elections.”
Fontes said he wants voters to have confidence in the system, and when one partisan elected official runs the show, it’s easy for partisan barbs – Fontes called them myths – to fly.
“It’s easy to create those myths. So this is a confidence builder for the voters,” Fontes said.
Gates also highlighted the history of elections in Maricopa County, which have historically been run by the county recorder since 1955, when the board outsourced its election-operation authority.
The hiring of a new director signals that it’s time for “the Board of Supervisors [to] step up so we get directly involved in the elections alongside the county recorder,” Gates said.
Gallardo, who noted he worked for the county Elections Department back in 1992, was supportive of the changes, which didn’t just include a new director. Supervisors voted to spend roughly $3.2 million for new staffers for the Elections Department – an appropriation that also covers Jarrett’s salary, which can’t exceed roughly $150,000.
The board agreed to spend another $6.1 million on a contract with Dominion Voting Systems, which will provide leased equipment to upgrade the county’s voting tabulation hardware on a three-year contract. That includes precinct-based voting systems, to be used at polling centers on Election Day, and central tabulation systems that will help count early ballots. Supervisors also authorized $1.1 million for IT and infrastructure upgrades at the Elections Department.
There’s no new funding specifically for the Recorder’s Office, but that doesn’t mean Fontes won’t benefit from more than two dozen new employees to be hired by the Elections Department. Fontes said his own staff was covering for some responsibilities within the Elections Department, but new hires should free up their time.
As for the new ballot tabulation machines, Fontes called it “a massive step up in technology, and it will have implications across the board, from the way we can report results to the speed with which we can report results.”
The new tabulation machines will be tested in select jurisdictions this fall in preparation for the presidential preference election in 2020.