Maricopa County voting issues continue to raise eyebrows of watchdogs

Sixty-two polling places in Maricopa County failed to open on time for the Aug. 28 primary election, which county officials blamed on technology contractors. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law worries that the delays prevented many people from voting. (Photo by Erik Hersman/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – A civil rights watchdog group that tracks elections said it was greatly concerned that 62 Maricopa County polling stations failed to open on time Tuesday, and “very disappointed” that county officials refused to extend voting hours to let people cast ballots.

Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes said the problems, which he blamed on understaffed technology contractors, were fixed and polling places were operational by 11:30 a.m.

By that time, however, voters across the county already had reported to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law hotline that they weren’t able to cast ballots.

“We know that many people, especially those that are working long shifts, may only have an hour or two in the morning to cast a ballot,” said Laura Grace, the committee’s election protection manager. “Or they may not have transportation options to travel from their home precinct to a bonus voting center, and we did have voters that called the hotline and said that wasn’t an option for them.”

Grace said her group was also “very disappointed that the County Board of Supervisors refused to extend voting hours or look for remedies for voters that were impacted.”

But board Chairman Steve Chucri said he was disappointed in Fontes, who had been given “no shortage of resources to run a successful election” after the county drew national attention in 2016 for drastically reducing the number of polls for the presidential preference election, which left voters standing in line for hours.

Chucri said he first learned of Tuesday’s problems that afternoon when he was shown a tweet from Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan saying the county should “seriously consider” asking for court approval to extend voting hours. Chucri said Fontes called his office “almost simultaneously” with the same request.

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“The secretary of state and the county recorder bringing this to our desk more than halfway through a voting day, expecting us, as a board, to intervene, was not leadership in my opinion,” Chucri said. “And it was not professional, especially the way it was tweeted out.”

Fontes blamed the failure on insufficiently staffed county contractors hired to prepare the voting equipment. He said he only found out about the issue Monday, asking election workers to step in and complete the setup.

“Flat out, we could have done a lot better this morning,” Fontes said in a Facebook video update minutes before Tuesday’s 7 p.m. poll closures. “Look, this is a rough business and we work really hard to make things happen.”

But Chucri said the request to extend voting hours put supervisors in a tough spot.

“When we didn’t know what effect extending it could really have, when no one could account or find in recent history something of that magnitude being done. … In this very sensitive and difficult situation, I chose not to extend the voting hours,” Chucri said.

Grace, however, said problems were not limited to the late openings.

“In some cases, they (voters) were instructed to go to a neighboring station that was open and cast a provisional ballot in that location,” she said. “It’s unclear to us if that should have been guidance that was given, or if that was following policy or not, so we’re concerned that some voters may have been casting ballots that may be challenged or have problems.”

Voting-by-mail is increasingly taking the place of in-person voting in Maricopa County, and most races were settled by substantial margins Tuesday. But Grace said her group remains deeply unsatisfied with the handling of elections in the county, and she urges anyone who encounters issues at the polls in November to call its election protection hotline immediately at 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683).

Grace said her office did not get reports of significant problems in any other Arizona county on election day. And Chucri vowed the supervisors will get involved to make sure Maricopa County does a better job in the future.

“We rise together and we fall together as Maricopa County, and yesterday Maricopa County could have done better,” Chucri said. “We’re going to get auditors who do a great job and we’re going to find out exactly what went wrong to protect against it happening again in the fall. And we are going to effectively insert ourselves in the management process thereof.”