Why county's math added up to long lines to vote
Maricopa County Elections Director Karen Osborne knew as early as January that a wave of independents demanding to vote in the March 22 presidential-preference election could cause problems.
Her experience the last time both major parties held competitive presidential primaries had taught her that.
Recalling the difficulties of 2008, Osborne emailed a fellow election official: "I am certain that no one wants the anger that will be generated from the Independent voters (now the majority in Maricopa county) that cannot participate. Last time there were 50,000 insisting on voting a provisional ballot."
Voters must be registered with a major political party to cast a ballot in Arizona's presidential-preference elections.
Despite that experience, county election officials did not prepare for the same number of independents to show up to vote as eight years ago, according to a review of more than 1,000 planning documents and emails obtained by The Arizona Republic and more than a dozen interviews. The county declined to make Osborne available for an interview.
If officials had made that one decision differently, the county might have avoided the hours-long lines that angered voters and spurred calls for Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell's resignation, hearings at the Arizona Legislature, a Justice Department investigation, two lawsuits and a bill in Congress that seeks national election standards to avoid a repeat of Arizona's fiasco.
Put another way, county election officials underestimated voter turnout by about 18,000 when comparing their highest predictions to the actual turnout of eligible voters, plus independents.
More than 18,000 independents showed up to vote, based on the number of provisional ballots rejected because the voter was not eligible to vote in the election.
The county's miscalculation probably was worse, given many voters left before casting ballots or saw the lines and never tried to vote. But that number is unknown.
There also were many early voters who showed up at the polls that the county's calculations did not specifically take into account. Some stood in line, delaying other voters, even though they could have simply dropped off their ballots at the front. Others asked to vote in person.
County officials have defended their planning. A week after the election, Purcell told The Republic the plan, as designed, should have worked.
"It still makes sense on paper," she said. "It just didn't happen that way."
Other Arizona election officials confirmed to The Republic that the broad outlines of Maricopa County's plan were reasonable.
The county's decision to switch from traditional assigned polling places to voting centers, which any voter can visit, allowed for fewer locations, Phoenix Clerk Cris Meyer said in an email.
"Since voting centers permit utilization of additional technology to greatly expedite the voting process, the number of voting centers required is significantly less than the number of polling places that would be necessary for the same election," she said.
Maricopa County used 60 voting centers, down from 200 traditional polling locations in 2012. The dramatic drop — 70 percent — became a flash point of post-election criticism.
But Yuma and Yavapai counties, the only other counties in Arizona that use voting centers for presidential-preference elections, slashed their locations by similar rates when they started four years ago.
Yuma County cut 42 polling places in 2008 to 10 voting centers in 2012, said Interim Elections Director Mary Martinez. That's a drop of 76 percent.
Yavapai County cut 95 polling places in 2008 to 30 voting centers in 2012, said Elections Director Lynn Constabile. That's a drop of 68 percent.
This year, both counties used fewer voting centers and had no major problems, the officials said.
But one major difference likely led to the disaster: When Maricopa County officials switched to voting centers, they already were serving many more eligible voters per traditional polling place — about five to seven times more — than Yuma and Yavapai counties did.
That meant the average number of eligible Maricopa County voters per voting center shot up to about 23,000. Yuma and Yavapai counties saw an average of only about 8,000 and 3,000 eligible voters per voting center this year, respectively.
And that total doesn't include independents.
Constabile said no election ever runs perfectly. And she marveled at the size of elections Maricopa County officials plan. "We're overwhelmed at the thought of what they do. Just the volume, it's staggering," she said.
Maricopa County used basic calculations that were similar to those Yavapai County would have used, Yavapai Recorder Leslie Hoffman said, though she recommended banking on more independent voters showing up.
But now that the dust has settled, Maricopa County election officials say they have accepted they caused the problems by underestimating.
"The lack of voting centers is what caused the long lines," spokesman Elizabeth Bartholomew said in a written statement. "In retrospect we should have had more voting centers."