"A national disgrace": Arizonans vent about the primary day disaster that created massive lines and turned many voters away

Countless Arizonans visiting their polling sites were met with roadblocks and red tape

Published March 24, 2016 3:04PM (EDT)

Voters wait in line at a polling site in Glendale, Arizona  (Reuters)
Voters wait in line at a polling site in Glendale, Arizona (Reuters)

Tucson resident John Read woke up on Tuesday ready to vote. When Read, 46, went to the Pima County Assessor’s office on March 22, he was told to go to his local polling place. Since Read had changed his address, officials directed him to his new site. When he checked in, the volunteer shuffled through the printed list and didn’t find his name so she placed a call to, Read believes, the Pima County Recorder’s Office. When she returned, the volunteer said something that left Read in shock: “You are registered as an Independent. You are not going to be able to vote today.” Only registered Democrats, Republicans, and Green Party voters were eligible to vote in the Presidential Preference Election.

“I have been registered as a Democrat since I could vote in 1988,” Read said.

Early on election day, Read’s Facebook stream had filled with friends reporting issues with voting. Because of this, he knew to ask for a provisional ballot if he wasn’t listed on the roster — so he could still vote, and election office staff could assess issues that would reconcile his district and his registered affiliation afterwards. But the volunteer told him he could not have a provisional ballot. No explanation was given. ”I left defeated,” he said.

Read was not alone. On March 22, countless Arizonans visiting their polling sites to exercise their legal right to vote were met with roadblocks and red tape.

In Maricopa County, polling locations were reduced 70 percent — from 200 polling places to only 60 — since 2012. This left one polling place for every 21,000 voters. As a result, the Maricopa County voters who managed to stay waited for up to five hours to cast their ballots. Voters registered as Democrats showed up to the polls to find their status changed to Independent, and other voters who had changed their status by the official deadline from Independent to a listed party were told their status had not changed. Many voters received new voter ID cards in the mail on Election Day, with some of the cards containing information that established them in a new district and thus with a new polling place.

Nearly 1 million voters cast their ballots in the Presidential Preference Election, but it is as yet unclear how many voters were turned away or left because of crowded polling places, poor communication, and administrative errors.

When writer and University of Arizona Lecturer Kindall Gray, 33, showed up with her toddler at her local polling station, a volunteer told the longtime Democrat that she was registered as an Independent. “I was sort of flustered,” she said. “She called someone, gave them my info, and then hung up and said I wouldn’t be able to vote today.” Gray did not request a provisional ballot and was not offered one.

According to the Arizona Secretary of State Office’s spokesman Matt Roberts, independent voters needed to change their affiliation to Republican, Democrat or Green Party by Feb. 22 to vote in the Presidential Preference Election. He said that if voters had missed this deadline, they wouldn't be able to cast a ballot. When asked why voters who were registered Democrats who had not altered party affiliation would have been in the system as Independent, he said, “No clue.”

Roberts said the Secretary of State Office had fielded numerous reports of voters who were refused provisional ballots, but he also specified that polling places are under the jurisdiction of county recording offices. Roberts said Secretary of State Michele Reagan would be doing an “exhaustive review to make changes so that won’t happen again.” He said, “If [voters’] registration showed they were not a member of the Republican, Democrat, or Green Party, they should have been given a provisional ballot and receipt.” Then provisional ballots are reviewed and checked with party affiliation after election day.

Megan Amber Cox, 32, is a registered Democrat who has owned the same home for eight years. Because her polling place changes often, she checked online on the morning of election day. The polling place wasn’t crowded at all when she arrived: about six or seven voters, including herself, and seven volunteers. Of the voters, only one woman was on the roster and able to vote right away. The rest of them, including Cox, were given provisional ballots because none of their names were listed. Cox joked with the volunteer staff: “There isn’t anything going on, is there?” The volunteer, who she described as a conservative older man said: “Well, anything is possible.” Cox said, “Everybody seemed to be pretty surprised. It didn’t seem to make sense to anybody. Especially because there were no lines.  I might have understood confusion and mismanagement if there was a huge overwhelming turnout.”

Some voters, like Bryatt Stott, 31, reported not being notified of changes in their polling location prior to Tuesday's primaries. When Stott went to his usual polling place, a paper sign on the door told him the polling place had moved but didn’t mention where it had moved to. He called the Bernie Sanders campaign to find his new polling place.

Roberts said that voters are responsible for knowing their polling place and the secretary of state’s office had been publicizing information for four months before the election so voters could find the necessary information for election day. He added that typically cards are sent in the mail to notify voters of changes to their polling location.

In addition to issues with provisional ballots, many voters faced epic wait times. René Reilly Rinaldi, 63, and her husband Chuck, 67, are a retired university administrator and high school teacher respectively; they moved to Arizona from Connecticut after retiring. The two visited the polls mid-afternoon “to avoid the before-and-after work crowds.” After not being able to enter the parking lot at one location in Mesa (“the cars were backed up at least a half-mile on the street”), they went to another location (Note: In Maricopa County voters were permitted to go to any one of 60 polling places). An hour into their wait, Rinaldi counted the voters standing in line in front of them: 135. Once inside the building, casting a vote took five minutes but the entire process took them two hours. Various local and national media outlets reported waits of up to five. The last ballot wasn’t cast in Phoenix until after midnight, by a voter who had been waiting in line since 7 p.m.

A Fox news reporter asked Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell who was to blame for the long lines. “Well, the voters for getting in line,” she said. “Maybe us for not having enough polling places.” She noted that voters did have the option to vote early. When she was asked in a different interview on March 23 why she and others had not anticipated needing more polling locations, she said “[the recorder’s office was] just trying to do something different for this election, hoping that it would work” and were “just not anticipating the energy, if you will, of this election.”

In addition to the number of polling places in the county being cut to 60 from 200, some voters questioned why there were few or no voting locations in communities with high Latino/Latina populations. According to the Census Bureau, 40.8 percent of Phoenix’s 1.5 million residents are Latino.

Many voters, including myself, cast early ballots for the Arizona Presidential Preference Election. With the disruption and difficulty during election day, many early voters became concerned that their ballots had not been counted. Questions on how to determine the validity of their votes were not easily answered by queries to the Pima County Recorder’s Office or the Secretary of State’s Office.

The Pima County Recorder’s Office website says: “All valid early ballots that are returned prior to the deadline are processed and counted. In fact, in Pima County and many other counties in Arizona, the majority of votes cast in all elections are by early voters. Early ballots that are returned in advance of Election Day are processed and counted prior to Election Day.”

While early ballot information for Maricopa County voters showed up on the secretary of state's site as “received and counted,” early ballot information for Pima County voters read as “Accepted” with the note of: “no information available.” When I spoke with Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez, she said that because the ballots are tabulated in the county, the most detailed information for early ballot voters is available on the recorder website. The website records receipt, signature verification, and when ballots are turned over to be counted. It doesn’t verify whether a vote has been counted and recorded.

Early voter Madelyn Tucker Pawlowski, a 26-year-old graduate student at the University of Arizona, was surprised when she arrived home and found a new voter ID card in her mailbox on election day. She said, “Though this card looks identical to my older voting card, I was confused at why I received another card at all.”

The same was true for Jeniffer Zimmerman, a 45-year-old registered Democrat, who stopped home after work before voting. When she checked her mail, she found her new voter registration card. “I thought it was weird,” she said. “The place where I was to vote was in a different location than before, which I would not have known had I not gone online to check.”

Zimmerman and Pawlowski joined many Arizona voters, including myself, who received new voter ID cards in our mailboxes on the day of the election. For some voters, party affiliation or districting information changed while, for others, all information remained the same.

When Zimmerman arrived at her new polling place, she was told her name wasn’t listed. And when she showed them her new registration card, her party was not listed as DEM for Democrat but rather NPD or No Party Identified. The volunteer told her because she wasn’t listed with a party, Zimmerman would have to file a provisional ballot. And then the volunteer told Zimmerman they had been having this problem all day: so many voters were not on the list and needed to vote provisionally.

A representative of the Pima County Recorder’s Office, who refused to be identified, said that the timing of sending Voter ID cards had no relationship to the election and that the calendars for the Recorder’s Office and Election Office are coordinated separately. She said she had been told the Voter ID cards would be sent at the end of the month.

Pawlowski says, “What is most concerning to me is why I received a card on election day. Had this been a solitary incidence, I would not have shown much concern… It seems strange that anyone who registered prior to the deadline would receive a voter card on election day. If I had not voted by mail or received a card earlier, I would not have been able to vote, seeing as how I could not get home to check my mail until 7 p.m. when polls closed. I am just one of many people confused by this election and left with a feeling of distrust and disappointment.”

This distrust and disappointment was echoed by citizens and elected officials on the day following the presidential primary election.

As of Thursday morning, more than 92,000 people had signed a petition to the White House to “Investigate the Voter Fraud and Voter Suppression in Arizona 3/22/16.” A total of 100,000 votes are needed for the White House to consider the petition.

Rep. Raul Grijalva called on voters to document their difficulties and attributed problems to the repeal of the Voting Rights Act: “The impacts of undoing the Voting Rights Act have been dramatically revealed in Arizona, and the result is disenfranchisement plain and clear. Gutting polling locations to save a buck has dismantled a fair election process.”

Bernie Sanders sent an email to supporters calling difficulties during primary voting “a national disgrace,” adding that he had received an email from a woman who had to wait five hours to vote. He wrote, “We don’t know how many thousands of people didn’t get to cast their ballots yesterday in Arizona because they couldn’t afford to wait that long….Voting should not be this difficult.”

Although there were still thousands of people waiting to vote on March 22, the Associated Press called Arizona for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton just before 8:30 p.m. local time.

Though the media has already declared winners in the election, the results are not official until the counts are complete.

We canvas the election, and that is the official result. Friends in media call the elections. Our canvas is April 4 and until that is complete, there is nothing official, " said Roberts, spokesman for Arizona secretary of state.

By Lisa M. O'Neill

Lisa M. O'Neill is a writer based in Tucson, Arizona whose work explores pop culture, politics, gender, class, race, and mass incarceration. You can find her at lisamoneill.com or at @thislisaoneill on Twitter

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Arizona Primary Elections 2016 Maricopa County Pima County Voter Supression