Ballot Hangover

Latinos, Progressives Suspicious About How Arizona Conducted Election

Outraged activists aren’t ruling out legal action over the state’s Election Day mess. By Terry Greene Sterling.

Joshua Lott / Reuters / Landov

Like many first-time Hispanic voters in Arizona, Claudette Arvizu had requested an early ballot when she registered to vote. But the ballot never arrived, she says. When she showed up at her polling place in Phoenix to vote in person on Election Day, she was sent to what she describes as “the long Hispanic line.”

She toughed out the wait and cast a provisional ballot. She remembers forcing her ballot into an overstuffed provisional-ballot box. She says she noticed an Anglo woman’s ballot breezing through a machine. That’s when Arvizu, a 19-year-old student, began to fear that her vote “would not be counted because I am Hispanic.”

She can’t let go of that feeling, and she isn’t alone. Arizona suffers from a severe ballot-counting hangover, and lingering questions just won’t go away.

On Tuesday, Arizona completed a strangely tense 14-day post-election tally of about 671,000 ballots (out of approximately 2.3 million votes cast). The end of the vote tally spurred frustrated Latino leaders, voting-rights advocates, and Democrats into action, and they now vow to get to the bottom of a series of unexplained electoral missteps that embittered and mystified many voters, including an untold number of the 171,000 or so souls who were forced to cast provisional ballots.

Provisional ballots, which must be tediously verified by elections workers, can be problematic—they can be thrown out if they’re deemed invalid. The ballots most commonly were distributed to voters who sought, but didn’t receive or use, early-voting ballots, says Matt Roberts, spokesman for Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett.

Provisional ballots in Arizona tend to favor Democrats, which explains why progressive groups have an intense interest in them. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid jumped into the fray, warning Arizona officials early on to pay attention to every vote.

Like Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, California, and Nevada, Arizona had been targeted by union-backed, get-out-the-vote groups for Latino-voter engagement and registration. For months, workers and volunteers had trudged through Latino neighborhoods in climate-change-like heat to register tens of thousands of new voters. Using catchy slogans like “Adios Arpaio,” some groups sought to engage voters who perhaps might only go to the polls to defeat “Toughest Sheriff in America” Joe Arpaio, famed for his raids of Latino neighborhoods and workplaces.

But things didn’t go exactly as planned in Arizona. Arpaio won handily, thanks in part to an $8 million campaign chest fed largely by out-of-state donors. The Hispanic candidate Richard Carmona lost his Senate bid to Republican Jeff Flake. Mitt Romney easily beat Barack Obama.

Arizona Democrats made some inroads, though, moderating the state by seizing five out of nine congressional seats and breaking the Republican supermajority in the statehouse.

Still, an undetermined number of an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 Latinos who voted reported difficulties at the polls. “We worked so hard to get more folks to participate,” says Francisco Heredia, Arizona director of Mi Familia Vota, “And now voters are frustrated and ask ‘Why all the mistakes?’”

The troubles began shortly before the election. That’s when Helen Purcell, the Republican county recorder of Maricopa County, Arizona’s most populous county, disseminated official—but erroneous—voting information to Spanish-speaking voters. On bookmarks and voter-instruction sheets, Spanish-speaking voters were told Election Day was Nov. 8—instead of Nov. 6. Purcell subsequently corrected the error and retracted the erroneous documents, telling reporters she was confident the mistake had been mitigated.

Next, robocalls from Flake’s Senate campaign directed some Democratic voters to the wrong polling sites, sparking Democrats to ask for a federal investigation. Neither the FBI nor the U.S. Attorney’s Office will confirm or deny that a probe is in the works. Flake has denied wrongdoing.

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And then came the Election Day provisional-ballot nightmare, which contributed to a huge bottleneck of 671,000 uncounted ballots that took officials at least 14 days to count.

The vote count went on, under increasing scrutiny from progressives, who began collecting polling-place horror stories. A few days ago, union activist Brendan Walsh excoriated Secretary of State Bennett for “seriously unsatisfactory administration of the recent election.”

Bennett, who also happened to be the Romney campaign’s Arizona co-chair, and who last made news for repeatedly contacting Hawaii officials over the authenticity of Barack Obama’s birth certificate, recently opined that Arizona’s electoral system worked well but could be improved. His spokesman, Matt Roberts, says Bennett will “visit county officials to see what needs to improve” and how to “speed up the process.”

Democrats and voter-rights advocates will soon determine their next steps too, says Frank Camacho, a spokesman for the Arizona Democratic Party. “We won’t let this die,” he says.

No one’s ruling out legal action at this point, says Walsh, the union activist, although “God knows, we prefer not to litigate.” Activists are seeking a transparent investigation of provisional ballots to see if “they are concentrated in low-income neighborhoods,” he says, adding: “This isn’t a Republican-Democrat thing as much as it is a class-race thing.”

One evening, Claudette Arvizu joined several hundred people demonstrating in front of Purcell’s office in Phoenix. As the sun set, they lit candles, sang songs, said prayers, listened to horrible-voting-experience testimonials, and carried placards that read: “Count all the Votes!” and “My rights are not provisional!”

For a brief moment, Arvizu seemed near tears. “This was my first vote,” she said. “It shouldn’t have turned out this way.”