In Arizona, Slow Counts of Early Votes Raise Questions, Concerns

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[Image courtesy of dalecarnegiewayaz]

I’ve written a lot over the years about the pressure election officials face to count ballots quickly – pressure that usually comes from candidates and the media, but which is intense enough at times to cost slow-counting officials their jobs.

Now, a new story out of Arizona (the site of a razor-thin race for Congress) suggests that slow counts associated with early voting may be forcing voters themselves to reconsider the practice. AZCentral has more:

Despite Arizona’s progress in lowering the number of provisional ballots cast in the recent general election, results in several legislative and congressional races were again delayed because voters continue to drop off their early ballots at the polls …

The number of provisional ballots cast statewide, however, dropped by more than 60 percent compared with 2012, when Arizona was embarrassed on the national stage as record numbers of provisional and early ballots went uncounted for two weeks after the polls closed, leaving key races hanging in the balance.

Election officials said there were fewer provisional ballots cast this year due to voter-education efforts by the state and Maricopa County, the county’s use of easier-to-notice yellow early ballots, and its new electronic poll books that helped lessen the number of provisional ballots cast in the wrong polling places.

Despite those improvements, delays in counting early votes coupled with the close race in Congressional District 2 between Republican Martha McSally and Democratic U.S. Rep. Ron Barber has left some voters questioning early voting. The CD2 results are being fought in court and will later head to a recount.

The slow count – and growing distrust of the voting process stoked by partisan animosity and fights about election laws – is making voters nervous about how their ballot is handled in reaching a result:

Allison Suriano, a small-business owner living in downtown Phoenix, said seeing pallets of early ballots left to be counted after Election Day doesn’t give her confidence her vote was counted. She said the early ballots almost seem like an afterthought, and she is considering going back to voting at the polls even though she finds it less convenient.

“I almost want to go back to voting in person,” Suriano said. “I physically see the ballot going into the box. With early voting, you don’t know.”

Pollster Earl de Berge, research director for Phoenix’s Behavior Research Center, said the public is skeptical that elections represent the true will of the voters — and that the election results are not manipulated by those in power. Delayed early-ballot counts fall into that line of thinking, he said.

The really difficult part of this concern is that there really isn’t much that election officials can do to speed up early-voting counts:

Though many think voting early makes the results come in faster, the opposite is true.

Most Arizona counties stop counting early ballots between noon and 2 p.m. on the Monday before the election to prepare for Election Day itself. That means any mailed early ballots that arrive at the county after that point are not counted until after Election Day. In addition, any ballots that are hand-delivered to polling places or the county on Election Day also have to wait to be counted.

Those late mail-in ballots need to be processed by the county recorder. That means matching the voter’s signature on the early ballot to a signature on file with the county, and forwarding the early ballot to the elections office to be counted.

Given the fact that voters have embraced early voting, experts say, there’s not much that can be done to change the early-voting system. They contend it’s the way elections are conducted now.

Tempe pollster Michael O’Neil said late-arriving early ballots are the cause of delayed counts, but there is no easy fix.

“That’s human nature, you are never going to change that,” O’Neil said. “It’s more important to get it right than to get it quick.”

That said, Arizona officials seem open to having the state join the growing number of jurisdictions that allow election officials to open and count early ballots before Election Day:

Matt Roberts, spokesman for the Arizona secretary of state, said the only option he has heard as a possibility to count ballots faster is to allow counties to start tallying the votes earlier than the law currently allows.

“People overwhelmingly support early voting,” Roberts said.

This is definitely a trend worth watching; once complaints about vote counts shift from impatience by reporters and campaigns to lack of confidence by voters, the urgency to address the issue grows. Arizona has actually made great strides in improving its elections since 2012 – adding electronic pollbooks, improving ballot materials and reducing unnecessary provisional votes – but if slow counts are telling voters that something’s not right then election officials and policymakers are going to have to overcome those concerns.

Stay tuned.

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