By Brandon Quester, Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting
PHOENIX – Tens of thousands of ballots cast in Arizona’s 2012 election were rejected by elections officials, indicating continued communication and voter education problems in the state, according to an AZCIR analysis of rejected ballots and interviews with elections experts and legislators.
Nearly 46,000 of the more than 2.3 million ballots cast in Arizona’s 2012 election – or about 2 percent – were rejected. That rate is down from 2.2 percent in 2008, when Arizona led the nation in rejected provisional ballots.
SIDEBAR: Inside our analysis of Arizona’s rejected ballots
The rejected votes consist of early voting or provisional ballots in which voters went through the voting process but later had their ballots thrown out after review by elections officials. The most common reasons were that voters weren’t registered in time for the election, voted in the wrong precincts or didn’t sign their ballots.
Early votes and absentee ballots are cast when a voter is on the permanent early voting list or lives outside the state or country during election cycles. Provisional ballots are cast when voters are not listed on a jurisdiction’s voter roll or registration records, or if they received an early ballot.
Election experts say rejected ballot rates – and the reasons for rejection – can point to either poor voter education about Arizona’s election process or inefficiencies in the state’s election administration efforts.
“I know that [Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett] wants to identify areas that we can do better and will do better,” said Matt Roberts, spokesman for the Arizona Secretary of State’s office. “And that’s what rejected ballots can tell us.”
Of the 33,000 provisional ballots that were rejected in 2012, 38 percent were because the voter wasn’t registered in the state and 33 percent because the voter submitted a ballot in the wrong precinct.
Election officials said voters who weren’t registered might have missed the state’s registration cut-off date, which was 29 days before Election Day. Voters who register after that date are not eligible to vote in that election.
“If someone thinks that they’re registered and isn’t, then that could be an element of voter education that we need to improve,” Roberts said.
Arizona Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, agrees that voter education is an issue but thinks the 29-day cutoff for registration should be changed.
“Let’s get rid of that deadline and have same-day registration,” Gallardo said. “It’s ridiculous that such a large number of ballots are being rejected, and then a large number of people are having their rights taken away because they did not meet a 29-day cut off day.”
Voters who cast a ballot in the wrong precinct may have been confused by redistricting, in which 2010 Census data was used to redraw congressional and legislative voting districts in Arizona, election officials said. Redistricting shifted voting precinct boundaries and, in some places, reduced the number of precincts.
Roberts said this too comes back to voter education, adding that there “is a degree of responsibility that voters have to understand where their correct polling place is.”
Among the more than 12,000 rejected early voting ballots, which include voters on the permanent early voting list, 42 percent were rejected because the voter did not sign the ballot and 33 percent because the voter missed the submission deadline.
Election officials said missing signatures and late ballot submissions also indicate inadequate education.
While Roberts said the Arizona Secretary of State’s office spent nearly $600,000 in federal funds on voter education from the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), he said there are still areas where the state needs to better educate voters and election administrators.
The HAVA funding was used up in the last election cycle, Roberts said, and the Secretary of State’s office is working to include educational funding in the 2014 budget.
“The question we now have to be asking ourselves — and we have not asked ourselves — is what are we doing to make sure that we have funding there for voter education,” Gallardo said. “And I think that’s something that needs to be addressed.”
Election reform efforts stir debate among legislators, voting rights advocates
The Arizona legislature has introduced dozens of election-related bills this session in an effort to update, and in some cases reform, the state’s election system. Proponents of the two most controversial bills, which seek to clean up the permanent early voting list and limit who and what organizations can collect and submit early voting ballots, say the bills will increase efficiency and maintain the integrity of early ballots.
Opponents say the bills will disenfranchise voters by making it more difficult to vote and limiting efforts by advocacy groups to collect and submit early ballots.
Both sides agree on one point: The number of rejected ballots, combined with the reasons for rejection, document a disconnect between voters and election administrators.
Senate Bill 1261, sponsored by Arizona Sen. Michele Reagan, R-Scottsdale, proposes to clean up the state’s permanent early voting list (PEVL) by removing voters who do not vote in four consecutive federal elections.
Arizona attracted national attention last November with its high volume of provisional ballots, many of which were still being counted two weeks after the election. Voters on the early voting list who show up to vote in person instead must cast provisional ballots at the polls.
SB 1261 seeks to address why there were so many provisional ballots, why so many people on the PEVL didn’t know they were on the list, and getting those people off the list so they can vote the way they want to, Reagan said.
If SB 1261 passes, election administrators would send a notice to PEVL voters who did not vote in a primary or general election for two consecutive federal election cycles, asking them if they want to stay on the list. If a voter doesn’t respond within 30 days, he or she would be removed from the PEVL but remain a registered voter. The bill would be retroactive to include federal elections in 2010 and 2012.
Reagan has support from county recorders, the Secretary of State’s office and fellow Republican legislators, who think the bill will make the early voting system more efficient. But Latino advocacy groups and some Democratic legislators see the bill as an attack on voters by making it more difficult to vote.
“I don’t think that was her intent to try to suppress voters or put obstacles in peoples’ way of voting, but I think her bills have the unintended consequences of doing that,” said Gallardo. “There are so many bills that at the end of the day, if you look at them, they all make it more difficult for people to participate. It’s an attack. This is a war on voters.”
Reducing the number of voters on the PEVL who haven’t used the system would reduce administrative costs, said Maricopa County Assistant Director of Elections Rey Valenzuela.
Maricopa County, for example, has more than 20,000 voters who didn’t vote in the last four federal elections, he said. By removing them from the PEVL, the county would save $2.12 per voter – or more than $42,000 – by not having to send the mail-in forms.
Advocacy groups like Mi Familia Vota, which registered thousands of first-time voters in Arizona, argue that the focus of legislation should instead be placed on helping people vote.
“We believe the legislature and the counties need to invest more resources into educating the voter,” said Raquel Terán, Arizona director for Mi Familia Vota. “Purging the permanent early voting list, how does that really help the participation? It doesn’t. It’s just making it easier for the administration, not the voter.”
Senate Bill 1003 contains provisions that would prohibit paid or volunteer political committee workers from submitting early ballots on behalf of voters. If passed, violations of this provision would result in a class-six felony. Arizona Sen. Michele Reagan also sponsored this bill.
The Arizona Secretary of State’s office said the early ballot system was created so people could submit ballots through the U.S. Postal Service. Spokesman Matt Roberts called it the “most secure” way to submit early votes.
“Elections personnel want these live ballots secure,” Roberts said. “We don’t want anybody touching those ballots except elections people.”
Daria Ovide, a Phoenix-based voting rights advocate and communications director for Central Arizonans for a Sustainable Economy, said this bill would limit voting options for groups of voters, particularly Hispanics, who rely on organizations to help collect and submit ballots.
Ovide helped register more than 34,000 new voters in Maricopa County while working with Adiós Arpaio, a group comprised of the Campaign for Arizona’s Future Political Action Committee and the Promise Arizona in Action Political Committee.
Ovide said many of the voters her organization helped to register rely on advocacy groups to not only help them understand the voting process, but also to gather and submit ballots to elections officials.
“If we go away, that’s a significant loss,” Ovide said. “The reality is that we have not had an actual conversation about what was the problem in the election and what we’re going to do to fix it.”
Arizona’s election performance low compared to other states
Arizona was listed in the bottom third of all U.S. states for election performance in 2008, according to the Elections Performance Index released in February by Pew Charitable Trusts.
The index gauges the efficiency of state-level election administration based on a series of indicators, including the rate of provisional and early voting ballots cast, rejection rates and voter turnout, among others.
When compared to the rest of the nation, Arizona in 2008 had the highest number of provisional ballots cast and the highest rejection rate of such ballots as compared to total ballots cast. Nationwide data is not yet available to compare the 2012 statistics.
Arizonans submitted in 2012 more than 183,000 provisional ballots, or about 8 percent of all ballots cast. That’s up from 6.5 percent in 2008 and represents the highest number of provisional ballots ever cast here for a federal election.
High numbers of provisional ballots can in part be explained, according to election experts, by advocacy groups registering large numbers of first-time voters, many of whom signed up for the permanent early voting list, but later showed up at polling locations. Because these voters were on the PEVL, they were required to cast a provisional ballot.
The provisional ballot rejection rate among all ballots cast here was 1.4 percent in 2012, or more than 33,000 provisional ballots rejected last year. That’s down from 1.9 percent in 2008.
Thirty-three thousand rejected provisional ballots “is not a small number,” said Sean Greene, election initiatives research manager at Pew Charitable Trusts.
“We don’t really know what’s good or what’s not, honestly,” Greene said. “All we do know is that there are states that tend to be at the top of that, and Arizona is one of them.”
Tammy Patrick, federal compliance officer for the Maricopa County Elections Department, said Pew’s Elections Performance Index shows that states in the Western United States tend to have higher rejection rates because people have more options on how to vote.
But, she said, that doesn’t make high rates of rejected ballots acceptable.
“I don’t think that any rejection rate is acceptable by the public, by the voters or by election administrators,” Patrick said.
Rejection rates for counties vary by type of ballots cast, reasons for rejection
Maricopa County, which included 60 percent of all ballots cast in Arizona’s 2012 election, had lower rates of rejected ballots when compared to 2008.
Patrick and Assistant Deputy Elections Director Rey Valenzuela point to an information campaign to educate voters on new precinct boundaries from redistricting. Valenzuela said the county mailed more than 2 million notices to voters about new precincts and polling locations.
“We were expecting a low rejection rate just because of that mass mailing,” he said. The county’s provisional ballot rejection rate, as a percent of total ballots cast, decreased from 2.1 percent in 2008 to 1.6 percent in 2012.
Apache, Navajo and Coconino Counties experienced the highest rate of rejected provisional ballots in the state. The rejection rates were 2.7 for Apache County and 2.3 percent for Navajo and Coconino Counties. The most common reasons for rejection were because voters weren’t registered or voted in the wrong precinct.
Geneva L. Honea, voter registration supervisor in Apache County, says confusion among the large population of “snowbirds” – residents who live in her county for part of the year – helped raise its high rejection rate for provisional ballots.
“A lot of voters don’t know that ballots are unforwardable, or that any election form is unforwardable,” Honea said.
The county also has a high number of voters from the Navajo Nation, she said, which holds tribal elections on the same day as U.S. federal elections.
Voting places for tribal elections are different from the voter’s federal election polling place, officials said. For tribal elections, voters are required to vote where their umbilical cord was buried. This could be at any one of the 110 Chapters, or tribal polling places, across the Navajo Nation. In federal elections, those same voters are required to vote at polling locations based on their home address.
“We have our outreach worker out there trying to let them know this but there’s still a lot of people that don’t get it,” Honea said. “ They don’t realize that (the federal ballot) has to go to the location of your home.”
Navajo and Coconino counties also have high numbers of Navajo Nation residents and confusion among voters about where to cast a ballot, election officials said.
“That’s the biggest problem we have,” said Edison J. Wauneka, executive director of the Navajo Election Administration. “We need to educate our people traditionally – and what the process is as far as counties and states are concerned. We just really need to coordinate our efforts to do more with (the counties).”
Laurie Justman, Navajo County recorder, said despite education efforts throughout the county, registration issues are a big part of rejected provisional ballots there.
“A lot of the people that live on the Navajo reservation think that if they’re registered for the tribal election that they are registered for the federal election as well,” Justman said. “It’s two separate registrations.”
In Yuma County, however, rejected ballots are more common among early votes, which accounted for 73 percent of all ballots cast there in 2012. The rejection rate of these ballots was a little more than 2 percent, the highest rejection rate among early ballots in the state.
Yuma County election officials say they are aware of the high rejection rate and are working on a campaign to address it.
“I think they are individual issues and I definitely feel like we have to do the outreach and do the education so we can tackle some of the challenges,” said Yuma County Recorder Robyn Stallworth Pouquette. “I think across the board our county has some pretty aggressive goals in reaching out to voters so they know what the process is and what’s required.”
With more than half of its electorate using early voting instead of in-person polling sites, Yuma County changed from precinct polling locations to “vote centers” in 2012. Voters from any precinct can vote at any one of the county’s 11 vote centers, regardless of their precinct boundaries.
Yavapai County also has high numbers of early voters, about 72 percent, and uses vote centers. But Yavapai County’s rejection rate of early ballots, as a percentage of all ballots cast, was just 0.5 percent.
Sue Reynolds, Yuma County elections director, believes the high rejection rates are largely due to voter education, and the fact that third-party groups signed voters up for the PEVL without explaining exactly what that means. She said large numbers of those voters later showed up to vote in person.
“They don’t really understand what they’re signing up for,” Reynolds said.
Educating voters, election officials key to improving Arizona’s elections
At a state level, election officials agree that better education will help address high rates of rejected ballots. But how that argument is framed – and where the education occurs – is a matter of perspective.
“There’s a lot of education that goes into voting, but at the end of the day, people have to want to be a part of the system,” Arizona Sen. Michele Reagan said. “You can only do so much and so we identified what were the biggest problems that we wanted to fix and these (bills) are the ideas that came forward.”
Voter rights advocate Daria Ovide thinks the argument needs to be framed differently.
“There’s certain underlying assumptions that I think may be incorrect,” Ovide said. “That the large number of provisional ballots and large numbers of confused PEVL voters are for reasons that are the voter’s fault. In cases where the system breaks down, where do you presume the error has occurred?”
“We’ve identified that voter education certainly is something that we’re going to re-emphasize in the next election cycle,” said Matt Roberts, the Arizona Secretary of State spokesman. He said his office expects rejection rates to decrease in 2014.
“There’s no exact answer that’s going to solve all of it,” said Maricopa County’s Tammy Patrick. “But if we can try and make sure that whatever changes we are seeking to make, that they address the problem at hand, and that they’re not going to create more problems.”