Guest Editorial: Election fail hurt voters

The Arizona Republic
March 24
Guest Editorial

In the morning hours after her office created teeming masses of angry voters, Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell finally took responsibility for the complete collapse of her election system. The one she manages.

“We certainly made bad decisions, and having only 60 polling places, didn’t anticipate there would be that many people,” she said. “We were obviously wrong — that’s my fault.”

It would have been nice if she apologized.

The Arizona presidential preference election actually produced some important results, but virtually no one seemed to care. There was only one story, fed by the enraged reactions of voters who stood as long as five hours in line and beneath a midnight moon trying to cast their ballots.

Purcell was right to affirm the buck stops with her.

But before it does, the buck also demands its reckoning with Maricopa County’s supervisors, who approved her plan to drastically reduce polling places to a mere 60 for one of the largest counties in America — population 4 million.

This wasn't just a fail. It was an epic fail

"This was a national news story and the public is owed an answer," said Supervisor Steve Chucri. "The Maricopa County brand failed."

The brand didn’t just fail. It’s on fire.

It is hard to imagine another misstep that could shake as violently the confidence in county leadership than this one — an election so miserable it repelled voters.

There is so much suspicion in the air that Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton has called for a federal Justice Department investigation.

When this election was being approved in a supervisors meeting last February, Steve Gallardo, a Democratic state senator, was the lone elected official who raised serious questions about the efficacy of using so few polling places in such a large county.

Election officials proposed to reduce the number because they believed enough people would vote by mail, requiring far fewer physical locations than the 200-plus they offered in 2012. Further, they had to cut costs because the Legislature had reduced the funding for counties to run the primary election.

County Elections Director Karen Osborne told supervisors then, “We have had, at your direction, to try and keep the presidential preference as cheap as humans could do it.”

However Elizabeth Bartholomew, communications manager for the Recorder’s Office, created more confusion this week when she told The Republic she couldn't say exactly how much money was saved, contending the cost savings weren't a major reason why the Elections Department made the change to have only 60 polling places.

County officials need to start restoring confidence in the election system and in their leadership. They can begin by apologizing to voters for the gantlet they put them through. Afterward, they can show they are taking direct and determined action to make sure this kind of debacle never happens again.

In the future, there can be no more wild-guess experiments with voting systems. If the county tries something new, as it must to adapt to modern technology and voting behaviors, it should do so in small increments so that miscalculations don’t turn into system-wide failures.

Abundance must be the hallmark of all Maricopa County elections. That means the system is so well equipped it may be underused but never overstressed the way it was this week.

Whether they did this with malice or not, county officials did disenfranchise voters. Many people simply gave up trying to endure the lines and thereby gave up their right to vote for president.

That’s not inconsequential.

It’s a serious breach with the citizens of this county, and it must have consequences.