PHOENIX (CN) – An Arizona judge blocked the Maricopa County recorder on Friday from mailing ballots to all eligible voters in the county as an effort to minimize human interaction during the state’s presidential primary on Tuesday due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Arizona’s presidential preference primary is scheduled for March 17, despite fears of the spread of coronavirus and actions by Louisiana to postpone its primary to later this year.
Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes announced early Friday that his department would mail out the ballots to all eligible voters that typically vote in person to allow them to practice “social distancing.” He chose to mail the ballots after several polling places were canceled due to coronavirus fears and a shortage of cleaning supplies available in the county.
“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,” Fontes said in a statement. “Anything we can do to minimize human interaction in the polling place is what we must do.”
Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs decried Fontes’ actions in a letter after the announcement.
“My Office’s position is that you do not have legal authority at this stage to mail a ballot to all voters who have not requested one,” Hobbs wrote. “The lack of an express statutory prohibition is irrelevant. If your view were correct, counties apparently have had authority to conduct countywide all-mail elections all this time.”
The news was also not supported by Maricopa County Attorney Mark Brnovich, who filed a temporary restraining order to stop Fontes just hours after the announcement. According to Brnovich, such a mailing would violate a state statute that requires voters to request a mail-in ballot at least 11 days before an election.
“The Maricopa County Recorder cannot unilaterally rewrite state election laws,” Brnovich said in a statement. “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.”
In an emergency meeting of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors before the hearing, Maricopa County Director of Elections Scott Jarrett said the number of polling sites was reduced to adequately “disinfect the high touch surfaces.”
The stress of the day’s developments led Jarrett to stop his address, apologize and say, “I can’t do this.”
The closure of polling sites in Maricopa County during the presidential primaries in 2016 led to some voters waiting three to five hours to place their votes.
After Jarrett walked out, the remaining members of the board tried to reassure voters of their actions and the safety of election sites.
While there were originally 229 polling sites, they have been replaced with 151 “vote centers” available to any voter within the county.
“We are going to pull off a fantastic election on Tuesday,” Chairman Clint Hickman said during the meeting.
“We hope that no confusion arises to the voter,” Hickman said. “Our plan is to hope that we run a great day of election.”
In a press conference before the hearing, Fontes said the dispute was merely a disagreement “with some of the statewide officers about the interpretation of the law.”
According to Fontes, the ballots had not been mailed yet and were sitting in a truck waiting on the judge’s decision.