BISBEE — The 2012 election cycle had a few snafus that slowed things down, so, Cochise County Administrator Mike Ortega and Elections Director Juanita Simmons gathered precinct committee members, observers and poll workers to talk about what happened and what to do to make the process more efficient.
As was pointed out time after time by poll workers, voters who requested early ballots did not mail them back prior to the election, defeating the purpose of the convenience of saving trips to the polls. Instead, many voters dropped early ballots off at polling locations, or brought them with them to fill out at the precincts, or left them at home requiring the use of provisional ballots.
“There is a common theme here,” said Cochise County Democratic Party chairman Rich Broadwell. “Voter education on early ballots is crucial.”
“The reality is that there are folks out there that we cannot reach,” emphasized Ortega. “We’re up against a monumental wall there. How do we reach every voter?”
Sierra Vista City Clerk Jill Adams suggested that there be alternate locations for drop off of early ballots such as City Hall, the county’s satellite offices and such.
One precinct ran out of provisional ballots three times due to confusion of precincts and early ballots and the poll worker said, “It was a nightmare.” That resulted in long lines where some people had to wait for up to 90 minutes to cast their ballots.
Republican Robert Montgomery suggested that the county do away with early ballots completely, eliminating the problem.
Others suggested that the county should go solely to early ballots and do away with polling locations.
A startling fact provided by Ortega was that there were “tubs full” of early ballots that were not delivered and returned. Some of the early mailings that were returned were marked “undeliverable.”
“That’s a monumental waste of money and time,” Ortega said. “The Recorder’s Office tries to maintain accurate information, but it is a huge flaw in the system.”
Though the Recorder’s Office goes through obituaries and get notifications of deaths from the health department so those names are taken off voting rolls, one poll worker said she found four people on the list that she knew were deceased.
In addition, people who move don’t have to pay for a new license to reflect the new address. The Department of Motor Vehicles does not require that it be replaced. When a person uses the driver’s license as a photo identification and the license address varies from the voter registration card, that person is given a provisional ballot, noted Tom Wisniewsky, Democratic precinct committeeman and poll worker. Again, this slows the process of counting.
County Recorder Christine Rhodes said her office does receive registration notices when people sign up on the DMV website, but does not get any address updates. She believed it was a problem that needed to be resolved at the state level.
Another hassle was the elimination of 15 precincts due to low voter turnout and the shift to mail-in early ballots. Many people did not know their precinct locations had changed, though there had been extensive coverage of that decision as well as a printing of the list of new precincts in newspapers across the county.
Republican precinct committee person Michele Emerson-Roberts said, “They didn’t know their precincts had changed and they got very upset. I’m one of the people who was verbally attacked by a man who refused to provide a picture ID. He even had two voter registration cards.”
Ortega said that as poll workers, they are county employees and if at any time they feel threatened, they should call 911 and ask that the person be removed.
Then there are the comedians who think it’s funny to not just fill in an oval beside a name, but add a fictitious name like Mickey Mouse on the write-in line which negates the vote, noted one tabulation observer.
The poll workers suggested using lines that separate those coming to the precincts to vote with all the proper identification to get them in and out faster from those who brought their early ballots in and those who need provisional ballots.
They also suggested providing more than one checklist of voters for each precinct.
Phil Macheau, a Democratic observer, suggested that the political parties do all they can help educate the voting public and not just leave it up to the state or county.
One thing that slowed down counting was the overseas ballots which are electronically sent. Those have to be duplicated onto ballots and then are tabulated, said Murray.
Ortega told the group that Cochise County wasn’t the only county that had troubles in speaking with other county administrators.
“Other counties were inundated with early and provisional ballots, as well,” continued Ortega. “However, we do want to instill confidence for our voters and municipalities and to do that they have to be absolutely confident in our processing of the ballots.”
Ortega talked about the voting “super centers” that Yuma and Yavapai counties have and how successful that change has been. A registered voter can go to any poll location, provide identification and a printer will print out the ballot that person should have. It is a process the county is considering, along with other new technologies, such as on-demand ballots that could be provided at the precincts. Eventually, he sees the system turning to electronic ballots where no paper is involved.
Murray agreed that the super centers was a viable option for faster counting of ballots. Though it would cost money up front to provide the necessary electronics and software, it would reduce costs for poll workers and precincts. It would also save money on the extra ballots the state requires the county to print out – 101 percent of the registered voters.
“Fifty boxes of ballots had to be tossed because they were not needed,” Murray added.
“I was appalled by that waste of money,” added Ortega. “This is a state statute that costs us a lot of money.”
“This will be an on-going dialogue,” continued Ortega. “We’ll have to determine how much money we can invest in new technologies and make a policy decision. The main thing is that we want to keep the purity of the system intact and ensure our voters that everything is being done properly.”
Waiting for the final tally exhausted those who voted as well as candidates as the days dragged on and Ortega pointed out that as a problem of high expectations.
“You could turn on your TV and know the winner of the presidential election, but couldn’t get the winners in the local elections,” said Ortega. “Everybody expects instant results and it just does not happen that way.”
Montgomery noted, “This was a strange election year and there was a lot of voter fatigue. Everything worked out because people worked hard. So what if it took longer.”
Ortega and Murray kept track of the complaints and suggestions from the group for another task force meeting to be held next year. They feel there is time enough to resolve the local issues, work on getting new technologies and maybe even get the state legislature to act to improve the voting process in Arizona.
For More Information …
All election information can be found on the county website at: http://cochise.az.gov/cochise_elections.aspx?id=238 .
Voter registration information from the Recorder’s Office is available online at: http://cochise.az.gov/cochise_recorder.aspx?id=378 .