Phoenix mayor calls for Justice Department probe of Maricopa County election debacle

The outrage over the presidential preference election in Maricopa County rose to a roar Wednesday as Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton called for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate long lines in polling places and other public officials condemned Tuesday’s election as a “complete failure.”

In a letter to the U.S. Attorney General, Stanton said voters in Maricopa County were disenfranchised and denied “one of their most sacred rights.” Minority communities were particularly affected by a reduction in polling locations, he said.

“Many more simply could not afford to wait that long, and went home. This is unacceptable anywhere in the United States, and I am angry that County elections officials allowed it to happen in my city,” Stanton wrote.

County Recorder Helen Purcell told the county Board of Supervisors on Wednesday she took “full responsibility” for reducing polling places from 200 four years ago to 60 polling places on Tuesday, leading to long lines of angry voters. Some were still in line at midnight, hours after Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had been declared winners of the Republican and Democratic races in the election.

Purcell had told supervisors a month earlier that reducing the polling places but allowing eligible voters to go to any polling place would save money. She predicted 95 percent would vote by mail; about 86 percent did so, Purcell said Wednesday.

Purcell said the election was a “perfect storm” because of voter excitement over candidates campaigning in the area. Purcell continued to blame the “money issue” for the lack of polling places.

“We’re still not sure whether the state is going to fully reimburse us for the expense of the election,” she said.

However, County Supervisor Steve Gallardo, who had raised concerns about the low number of polling places when Purcell brought it up before the supervisors last month, said Wednesday Purcell did not ask for more funds.

“Not once did the County Recorder’s or elections department came to the County Board of Supervisors asking for additional dollars,” Gallardo said. “Not once did they say ‘we don’t have enough money to conduct this election.”

County supervisors Steve Chucri and Clint Hickman said Wednesday they would have approved more money if Purcell had asked. In February, Hickman commended Purcell and Elections Director Karen Osborne for being frugal.

Gallardo, who was the only supervisor who publicly raised concerns at the time about the reduction in polling places, said the county Recorder’s Office failed on Tuesday.

“We have a lot of faith in our elected officials,” Gallardo said. “They owe an explanation to every voter in the state of Arizona about what happened and how we’re going to change it.”

Other elected officials agreed. Gov. Doug Ducey said in a statement that reforms should include allowing independent voters to cast ballots in the Arizona primary.

Voters were frustrated with the long wait on Tuesday.

Phoenix resident Laila Syed, 38, waited more than five hours to cast her vote at a downtown Phoenix polling place.

“This is a total failure of the system,” said Syed. “I don’t think that it is malicious, but it is definitely negligence.”

Janet Norman, a Tempe resident who was voting at the same place, described the voting process this year as “very disorganized” as a poll worker announced that pizza and water would be provided to the people waiting to vote.

Hickman, the supervisor chair, said voters can be sure of one thing: the plan for the next election will be scrutinized.

“I think that we’ve learned a valuable lesson that there still are a lot of people that enjoy voting at polling centers,” Hickman said.

Cronkite News reporter Ty Scholes contributed to this story.