What Took So Long? Explaining Arizona’s Ballot Count Fiasco

Arizona is still counting ballots cast more than two weeks ago--but why did it issue so many provisional ballots to begin with?

By Aura Bogado Nov 21, 2012

By the end of today, Arizona will have finally finished counting all of its ballots from the election that took place more than two weeks ago. More than a quarter of the roughly 2.2 million votes were cast as early or provisional ballots, and the delay in getting them all counted has stirred great controversy in state in which people of color have grown accustomed to dirty tricks. Some watchdogs charged that Latinos were being targeted for disenfranchisement, but as more and more of those ballot were tallied, it became increasingly apparent that all sorts of voters have had to wait for their ballots to be counted. Still, the last two weeks have illustrated that Arizona needs to revamp the way it conducts elections.

As The New York Times reported three days after the election, "several races remained a mystery" in Arizona for far too long. Although some candidates conceded defeat, their activist supporters didn’t always give up on the idea that a full ballot count could turn towards their candidate’s favor. The Senate race between Democrat Richard Carmona and Republican Jeff Flake and the race for Maricopa County Sheriff between Republican Joe Arpaio and Democrat Paul Penzone hung in the balance. The Republican candidates took both of these hard-fought races once counting for them was finally complete, confirming the result that was projected two weeks ago when polls officially closed.

That Latinos would have concerns about the process is to be expected. More than a month ago, the Maricopa County Elections Department misled some voters by printing the wrong election date on cards and book markers issued to Spanish-speaking voters. Just one week later, voters received a letter stating their signatures needed verification. When I called the number these voters were given, there was initially no answer or voicemail setup. Eventually, someone did pick up, but no one on the line spoke Spanish and I was told to call back "mañana".

But when it comes to provisional ballots, it seems they were issued all over Arizona, and not just to Latinos. Arizona Secretary of State spokesperson Matt Roberts was quick to point out when we spoke yesterday that there was nothing unusual about the amount of time it’s taken to count all the ballots. Both Maricopa and Pima counties took two weeks to tally all the votes in 2004 and 2008 as well.

"It’s nothing new, so let’s get over that misconception," he told me. And he’s right. According to the law, Arizona can take its time to make sure all its votes are counted, and it does. But that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence for voters who might feel their ballots didn’t count for weeks after such an important election.

Arizona isn’t the only state that uses provisional ballots–although it does stand out because it takes the state so long to count them. In order to understand what happened in Arizona, it might help to understand what the rest of the country looks like when it comes to provisional ballots.

Under the Help America Vote Act, if a voter is determined to be ineligible to cast a ballot by poll workers, that voter still has the ability to cast a provisional ballot. The only states that don’t use provisional ballots are Idaho, Minnesota, New Hampshire and North Dakota, where there exist no circumstances under which a voter would need to be issued a provisional ballot. Three of those states use same-day registration. The fourth, North Dakota, is the only state in the union that doesn’t have voter registration at all–voters simply show up and vote at the polls. All the remaining states use provisional ballots in some way.

Some states, including those with same-day registration, use provisional ballots sparingly and only as a last option. That’s because they can be tossed out for a variety of reasons–which also vary from state to state. But according to Arizona Secretary of State spokesperson Roberts, there have been some improvements in that regard. While about 29 percent of provisional ballots were tossed out in 2008, only about 19 percent will be tossed out in this year’s election.

Arizona stands out because, aside from regular ballots and provisional ballots, it issues what it calls "conditional provisional" ballots. Those conditional provisionals are issued when a voter doesn’t show sufficient identification. By filling out a conditional provisional ballot, the voter agrees to return within a few days to show proof of identification. Those who didn’t do so by last Wednesday had their ballot tossed out.

Roberts says that conditional provisional ballots are also down this year, with only about 1,000 or so cast in Maricopa County, in comparison to about 2,000 four years ago. No total numbers for conditional provisional ballots are yet available for the state as a whole, however.

The more common reason for which voters were issued provisional ballots was that people who were registered as early voters and lost or misplaced their early ballots were given provisional ballots when they showed up to vote in person. Others were issued provisional ballots if their names didn’t appear on the roster. It’s those missing names that worry advocates the most. Denise Lieberman, a senior attorney in the Advancement Project’s Voter Protection Program, says first-time voters are more likely to be those who did not appear on the roster.

"New Latino voters registered at a significantly higher rate, and that their names didn’t appear on the rolls places them at a bigger risk of not being counted in this election," said Lieberman. If Roberts’ calculations are right, and 19 percent of provisional ballots were eliminated, that’s roughly about 33,000 votes–or 1.5 percent of Arizona’s total ballots.

But the 171,000 provisional ballots issued throughout the state on Election Day wasn’t the only problem. Out of the 631,000 or so votes that were still to be counted at the end of Election Day, more than two in three were early ballots. It’s those early ballots, or "late early ballots," that caused the initial pileup because they were received in the last days leading into the election.

Late early ballots take a long time to count in Arizona. According to Roberts, each and every single signature on the outside of the ballot is compared and verified. Once the signature is approved to match with the one on file, the envelope containing the ballot goes through a second process, where the envelope is opened, unfolded, stacked and fed into the machine that tallies the votes. Still, it’s bracing that it took two weeks to go through 450,000 "late early" ballots–especially considering a similar process takes place on Election Day with many more ballots.

Roberts blames the voters. "If they’re filled out with nail polish and glitter pens, like some of them are, or with red ink that bleeds though, then it takes a lot longer," he explained. Although he didn’t have a percentage or number for how many votes are cast in unreadable inks, Roberts says that ballots that cannot be read by the machine are sent to what’s called a Duplication Board, which is charged with making a copy of the ballot so that it can be read and tabulated by the machine.

Arizona received 1.7 million permanent early ballot requests–which counts for more than half of the state’s 3.1 million registered voters. That’s up about 10 percent from the previous election, and is expected to keep rising in upcoming elections. Arizona’s Secretary of State has announced that he wants to create a new system by which provisional ballots are issued and early ballots are counted in place by 2014’s midterm election.

Arturo Carmona, Executive Director of Presente.org, helped launched a campaign to pressure the secretary of state to count every ballot. Aside from promoting the wrong election date for Spanish speaking voters, he says the backlog is unacceptable. Carmona says Bennett is taking a positive step, but wants a transparent review of what happened this year in order to avoid those problems in the future.

"If he’s serious about fixing the problem, then let’s have a full investigation first," Carmona said.

It’s unlikely Arizona will launch that investigation, and the Department of Justice has not responded to a similar request to investigative voting irregularities. But Bennett has recognized the need to change what happens on Election Day and the the days that follow.