Who Counts in Arizona?

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Arizona Democrats celebrate as President Barack Obama is declared the winner of the presidential race at Democratic Party gathering, Tuesday, November 6, 2012, in Tucson, Arizona. 

When Arizona's secretary of state announced, one day after the election, that more than 600,000 early and provisional ballots remained uncounted, Viva Samuel Ramirez wasn’t concerned about what the news meant for the state’s close U.S. Senate race or two Congressional races that remained up in the air. (And still do, incredibly enough, one week later.) Ramirez's worry was for the tens of thousands of voters he and others in the One Arizona coalition had registered to vote. Many were Latino, and already suspicious of a state government that passed SB 1070, Arizona’s infamous “papers please” law. The 2012 election was the first time many of them had ever cast a ballot, and Ramirez had hoped it would be the start of a new wave of civic participation in the state. Now he's worried new voters will lose even more confidence in the process.

“What we're trying to do as a group is seed a culture of participation,” says Ramirez, who heads the state chapter of Voto Latino, a non-profit national group focused on registering Latino voters. He says the combination of the number of unprocessed provisional ballots along with other factors like the state's voter-ID law "all create a very uncomfortable idea.”

A week after the election, the state has counted more than two-thirds of its early ballots, but 146,843 still remain. In addition, 177,519 provisional ballots have yet to be processed. All in all, a week after the election, that adds up to 324,362 uncounted votes. In context, the number isn't as notable as you might think. Ohio, for instance, does not touch its provisional ballots until a full ten days after the election, meaning that only on Friday will the state begin to process around 300,000 of its ballots. Arizona's uncounted early ballots can be chalked up to an administrative problem—too few poll workers, too many ballots. But in a state where many in the Latino community already feel targeted, and where Sheriff Joe Arpaio makes headlines for ill-treatment of those arrested, the idea that some votes are under more review than others prompts serious concern.

It's the provisional ballots that have Ramirez and others most concerned. There were about 15 percent more this year than in 2008. These ballots are meant to be a fail-safe, to ensure that no one unfairly loses his or her right to vote. But they’re also a sign something went wrong, either with elections administrators or voters. The poll workers must engage in a time-consuming follow-up to try and make sure the votes count.

The majority of Arizona's provisional ballots came from voters who had requested early ballots and then also tried to cast a vote on Election Day. In that situation, a voter must cast a provisional ballot so that the poll workers can make sure that he or she didn’t vote twice. However, Ramirez and Allessandra Soler, head of the state's ACLU chapter, both say they are concerned that some voters never received their early ballots at all, and therefore had to vote in person. Many voting activists in the state share that suspicion. Others have said voters were simply misinformed or confused about what they needed to do.

In Pima County, the provisional balloting process was more overtly sketchy. Normally, when a voter's name does not appear on the rolls, poll workers can give him or her a provisional ballot, and later check to see if the person is indeed registered. However, the Pima County Recorder (a county position) has already acknowledged that in some areas, voters who registered for the first time on the registration cutoff day were not listed in alphabetical order. That meant poll workers could have easily missed the voter’s name and instead make him or her vote provisionally. Similarly, voters who changed their address on the registration cutoff day appeared on the roster for their old polling places, and so would likely have had to vote provisionally. In both cases, these are voters who should have cast regular ballots on Election Day, were it not for administrative error.

“All the work we had done to get someone registered for the first time,” says Ramirez. “They're looking forward to casting their ballot and then they didn't receive their ballot or their name wasn't on the list.” These provisional votes will still count, assuming to voter is registered properly, but Ramirez is worried that such experiences will leave new voters with less trust for the process.

For communities that already struggle with low participation and general distrust, it’s easy to see why the unprocessed ballots prompt suspicion. The state has already created obstacles to voting: Arizona has a voter-ID law (though it it does allow non-photo forms of ID) and many running voter registration campaigns felt they got little help from state officials. Meanwhile, the state legislature has passed laws like the famous SB 1070 which almost undoubtedly increased racial profiling by targeting those who seemed likely to be undocumented workers. Such measures particularly hurt Latinos, a group that struggles with low turn out numbers. Many assume if Latino voters came out in bigger numbers, the state's politics would begin to shift. While the actual issues with processing ballots may be legitimate, there's little trust for state officials among marginalized communities in the state, and reasonably so.

The Department of Justice sent federal observers to Maricopa County, home to Phoenix and the majority of the state's voting population, on Election Day, as well as to Pima County, where Tucson is located. While some activists have called for an investigation, a department spokesperson told TPM’s Ryan Reilly there’s yet to be a decision.

The Arizona secretary of state’s office appears unconcerned with the perceptions left by the debacle. “We're concerned with accuracy not expediency,“ says Matthew Roberts, the spokesman for the office. Roberts does acknowledge that the office could do a better job giving information to voters who “can’t manage to figure out what the rules are or whether they should bring ID.” When I ask about instances of voters’ names not showing up, Roberts says the provisional ballots were meant for exactly that purpose. “It doesn’t really matter,” he says, whether they cast provisional or regular ballots because in the end, they'll all be tallied. 

The trouble is, a first-time voter who’s forced to vote provisionally—and then finds out it's taking so long to process these votes—might not be so eager to try voting again, even if the vote ultimately counts.

For the ACLU, another issue remains: those provisional ballots that will not be counted at all. In the 2008 election, the number one reason Arizona provisional ballots were rejected was because they were cast in the wrong precinct, according to a report from the state ACLU. In total, one in every ten provisional ballots cast didn’t count that year. The ACLU has argued that such votes should count regardless of where in the county they're cast.

This year, says Soler, even more those ballots could be thrown out. That's because some voters had to cast “conditional” provisional ballots because they lacked the necessary ID—either one form of government-issued photo ID or two non-photo forms of identification. Those voters must show elections officials the proper ID by today or their votes will be tossed out. 

On Tuesday, as if to add fuel to the fire, Republican candidate Martha McSally, whose congressional race against Democratic Representative Ron Barber in the race for Gabby Giffords' seat, remains far too close to call, filed a lawsuit to stop counting some of the provisional ballots. The candidates later hashed out an agreement that disputed ballots will be counted but also keep those ballots separate, so the campaigns can still go back and challenge them later.

The lawsuit sent another disturbing message to those trying to ensure voter participation. “Why would they want to stop ballots from being counted?” Ramirez asks. “Who would do such a thing?”

The political implications of these uncounted ballots are huge. The Senate race between Republican Representative Jeff Flake and former Surgeon General Richard Carmona remains close; most media outlets called the race for Flake last Tuesday, but the number of uncounted ballots is much larger than Flake’s margin of victory. Carmona conceded Tuesday night, but he’s watching the vote tally closely. Meanwhile, in another Congressional race, Democratic candidate Kyrsten Sinema is hoping she’ll maintain her lead over incumbent Republican Vernon Parker. If she does win, she’ll be the first bisexual and nontheist elected to Congress.

It's hard not to think that if Arizona did not have such extreme policies on issues like immigration, there might be more trust in elections officials. The votes aren't as much the issue as the deep chasm between different sectors of the community. Ramirez hopes voting will be a way to empower people and bring everyone to the table. “I believe that the system that we have is sound," he says. "Our goal is to infuse that system with voters. As participation becomes normal, the system itself will then produce the best candidates and best representatives for those communities.”

But that requires that people trust the system. And that seems a long way away.

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