Divided Election Control In Maricopa County, AZ Leads to Conflict, Confusion on Eve of Primary

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As voters prepare to go to the polls tomorrow in a state primary deeply shaken by coronavirus fears, Arizona’s Maricopa County (Phoenix) is seeing confusion and conflict with state officials about emergency mail ballots for voters worried about the pandemic. AZCentral has more:

Maricopa County’s election leaders announced conflicting plans to address coronavirus concerns surrounding Tuesday’s Presidential Preference Election — but a judge quashed one of them.

The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office split authority over elections. The board controls Election Day voting and emergency voting, and the recorder controls voter registration and early voting.

The Board of Supervisors announced that it will cut about 80 polling locations on Election Day due to polling locations and poll workers canceling, and a lack of needed cleaning supplies to stock all locations.

The remaining 151 polling locations will be converted to vote centers, meaning a voter can vote at any location — not just the one nearest to them.

“Folks should come on Election Day if they want to vote,” Supervisor Bill Gates said. “It’s going to be safe and there will be many places to do that.”

Maricopa’s Recorder, who saw many of his election duties given to another official after disagreements with the County Board of Supervisors, tried to mail emergency ballots to voters but was blocked by a court order sought by state officials:

Hours earlier, Recorder Adrian Fontes announced that his office would mail ballots to registered Democrats who have not yet cast ballots in Tuesday’s Democratic Presidential Preference Election.

“We are in [uncharted] territory with the COVID-19. My first concern is to protect the health of the voters and staff who work in the polling places while maintaining the integrity of the election. Anything we can do to minimize human interaction in the polling place is what we must do,” Fontes said in a statement.

Fontes’ plan was for ballots to arrive in mailboxes Monday and Tuesday, and encourage people to fill them out at home and drop them off at bins stationed at the entrance of polling places.

That would have limited contact with poll workers or other individuals. Health experts have recommended this kind of “social distancing.”

The Board of Supervisors said that while it can’t control what Fontes does, it did not agree with his plan and feared it would cause confusion for voters.

It wasn’t clear that Fontes had the the legal basis for his plan – and the state attorney general successfully sought a court order stopping the mailing:

It’s not clear whether Fontes, a Democrat, actually had the legal authority to do what he wanted to do — he admitted that “there is no authority to mail ballots to all voters under the law, but there is no prohibition either.”

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a Republican, disagreed with Fontes, saying the recorder “cannot unilaterally rewrite state election laws.” Brnovich filed a lawsuit against Fontes and sought a temporary restraining order to prevent him from sending out the ballots.

“Fontes is creating chaos in our elections during an already difficult time. In times of crisis, the public looks to our elected officials to follow the law — not make reactionary decisions for political gain,” Brnovich said.

Friday night, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge agreed with Brnovich and granted the restraining order, stopping Fontes from sending out ballots.

Arizona’s Secretary of State agreed with the AG, but noted her willingness to consider legislation to permit the mailings in the future:

The state’s top elections official, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, also told Fontes that he did not have the authority to mail a ballot to voters who have not requested one.

“As you know, I fully agree with you that authority for counties to conduct all-mail elections is good policy, and certainly an appropriate contingency plan in the event of a public health emergency like this. Unfortunately, it is not currently authorized by the law,” she wrote in an email to Fontes provided to The Republic.

Hobbs, a Democrat like Fontes, said she is working with others on legislation that would allow election officials to authorize all-mail elections in emergencies and move certain election-related deadlines.

This is an extraordinarily difficult time for election officials – the county’s election director walked out of a press conference announcing the poll closings, saying “I can’t do this” – but it’s undeniably true that having two officials in two offices, one elected and one appointed, is causing substantial additional difficulties in Maricopa. Here’s hoping that once the primary is over and things return to some semblance of normal, the County can figure out how to speak with one voice on election policy. Stay safe out there, everyone – and stay tuned …

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