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Voting-Line Fiasco in Phoenix Brought to DOJ

PHOENIX (CN) - The mayor of Phoenix has asked the Justice Department to investigate long lines during Tuesday's presidential preference election in Maricopa County that forced voters to wait up to five hours before placing a vote.

The wait was caused after Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell, a Republican, decreased the number of polling sites from 200 in 2012 to 60 on Tuesday in an effort to save money. There are 1.2 million eligible voters in Maricopa County, resulting in an average of one polling place for every 21,000 voters.

To put that number in perspective, Pima County, the state's second-most populous county, had 130 polling sites for 300,000 eligible voters.

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton wrote a letter Wednesday to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch asking the Justice Department to launch an investigation into the delays.

"This is unacceptable anywhere in the United States, and I am angry that county elections officials allowed it to happen in my city," Stanton wrote.

"[I]n Phoenix, a majority-minority city, county officials allocated one polling location for every 108,000 residents," Stanton continued. "The ratios were far more favorable in predominately Anglo communities: In Cave Creek/Carefree, there was one polling location for 8,500 residents; in Paradise Valley, one for 13,000 residents; in Fountain Hills, one for 22,500 residents; and in Peoria, one for every 54,000 residents."

"I take full responsibility for what happened yesterday," Purcell said at a meeting of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday. Purcell was first elected as recorder in 1988.

Purcell's admission of responsibility Wednesday was a change in tune from Tuesday night, when she told a Fox 10 reporter that "voters getting in line" were responsible for the long lines.

This is not the first time Purcell, who is running for re-election, has come under fire.

In 2012, her office published about 50 Spanish-language Voter IDs and bookmarks that stated Election Day was Nov. 8, two days after the actual election. At the time she said her office would launch an "aggressive" campaign to make sure Spanish speakers knew the correct election date.

Until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Maricopa County would have been required to seek approval from federal authorities before changing election procedures or district lines because Arizona is one of 16 states with a history of discriminatory practices.

Myrna Perez, director of voting rights and election projects for the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, told Courthouse News it's hard to say if the Voting Rights Act would have stopped Purcell's plan to decrease the number of polling sites.

"I don't think it's as clean as saying the Voting Rights Act wouldn't have let this happen," Perez said. "The fact that it would have made someone sift through it and look at the numbers - that might have changed the outcome because someone might have figured out it wasn't a good idea."

Perez says it's unacceptable for voters to experience such long lines.


"What I know is that the amount of resources - and by resources I mean poll workers and machines - that get distributed to minority communities tend to be less," Perez said. "We also know there is a relationship between fewer resources and longer lines."

According to Perez, there is a lot of confusion with voters and election workers as to what their election rules are.

"We need the Voting Rights Act to be functioning and a strong tool to combat problems," Perez said. "And, generally speaking, we need competent and strong and professional poll workers and election administrators."

Purcell admitted she made "bad decisions" Wednesday during a press conference with Jarrett Maupin, a Phoenix civil rights activist.

"We looked at some history both from 2008 and 2012, we looked at the increase we received in early ballots being used," Purcell said about the decision to decrease the number of polling sites. "We just miscalculated."

Residents of Maricopa County requested about 894,000 early ballots and returned just more than half by Monday.

"You have these freak times when you have huge turnout when in most years you could throw a rock at a polling place and not hit anybody," Maupin said.

"We want to thank all the people who stayed in line," Karen Osborne, director of elections in Maricopa County, said. "We apologize, that was our fault."

Mayor Stanton is one of many who fear the substantial decrease in polling sites was particularly harmful in Latino-majority communities.

Rep. Raul Grijalva asked his constituents to contact him if they had trouble voting Tuesday. Grijalva oversees Arizona's Third Congressional District, a large expansive area that reaches Yuma, Tucson and Glendale.

"Arizona's voting irregularities in the presidential primary were prominent and on display for the whole country to see Tuesday," Grijalva said. "For the health of our democracy and the sake of every Arizonan, we must ensure the right to cast a ballot is secure in our state. That means where there are lines lasting hours on end, ballot shortages, identification issues, erroneous party affiliations or sparse polling locations, we must document these problems and implement policies that ensure they never happen again."

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whom Grijalva has endorsed for president, called the delays "a disgrace."

"Whatever the cost of that problem is people in the United States of America shouldn't have to wait five hours in order to vote," Sanders said during a news conference. "We do not know how many thousands of people who wanted to vote in Arizona did not vote."

Sanders lost Arizona to Hillary Clinton, who walked away with 58 percent of the vote on Tuesday. On the Republican side, Donald Trump handily won with 47 percent.

Arizona state Sen. Martin Quezada, a Democrat, said he saw only one polling site for his legislative district and none in a neighboring district, "both of which are heavily minority and Democratic."

Quezada introduced four bills this session to alleviate voting issues, but none were given a hearing, he said.

One of the bills, Senate Bill 1032, would have required voters wait no longer than 30 minutes and would have instituted systems to ensure this wait time, like a secondary line for those voting provisionally.

The bill would also have required, in advance, a determination "for each precinct the likely voter turnout for that precinct, including the number of persons likely to vote with early ballots, the number of provisional ballots cast by voters in that precinct and the likely effect on wait times for that precinct."

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, called the lines "unacceptable" and said election officials must work to prevent a similar situation from happening in the future.

Ducey wants Arizona to change election laws that currently don't allow Independents to vote in the presidential preference election. Independent voters are allowed to vote in Arizona's Aug. 30 primary election, but they must do so by choosing a partisan ballot.

"A big part of yesterday's problem was registered voters showing up and being told they couldn't vote," Ducey said in a statement. "That's just wrong. If people want to take the time to vote they should be able to, and their vote should be counted."

Arizona Secretary of State Michelle Reagan says she will announce a series of bi-partisan public hearings about the delays next week.

"While each individual county makes their own decisions, I need to make sure yesterday's polling-place upheaval doesn't happen at our next statewide election on May 17," Reagan said in a statement. "Or worse, the presidential general election in November, when thousands more new voters will be casting ballots for the first time."

The Committee on Elections in the Arizona House of Representatives will hold a special meeting Monday at 10 a.m. to discuss the selection and location of polling sites. It has invited Reagan and Purcell to attend.

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