County says 2018 voting might go faster than ever
Several of the most common complaints among Maricopa County voters on Election Day could be significantly reduced during the 2018 midterms, according to the county’s elections chief.
Recorder Adrian Fontes hopes to deploy new technologies for the first time on a wide scale to check voters into polling places and print ballots this fall, he told the Maricopa County Board of Su-
“As far as the voter is concerned, we’ve just opened the door to a level of access that has not been available at this scale. More voices being heard, less time to get to results — that’s a big deal.” Adrian Fontes Maricopa County recorder, on new technology being used to make voting easier and faster
By using the new system in the August primary and November general elections, voting and counting ballots could go faster than ever and fewer ballots could be thrown out because of voters going to the wrong polling place, Fontes said.
Although the Democrat took office last year promising major election reforms, the GOP-led board will have the final say on the plan. So far, supervisors seem supportive.
“As far as the voter is concerned, we’ve just opened the door to a level of access that has not been available at this scale,” Fontes said. “More voices being heard, less time to get to results — that’s a big deal.”
Two new technologies would be used for in-person voting this year under Fontes’ plan:
Touch-screen kiosks at every polling location to allow voters to check in faster by swiping their IDs or typing personal identification information. The kiosks eliminate the slower process of poll workers checking for voters on paper registries or glitch-prone e-pollbooks, while maintaining identity-verification measures required by law.
Ballot-on-demand printers, at a limited number of locations, that can quickly spit out ballots tailored to each voter. At these vote centers, there would be no pre-printed ballots that could go unused or run out.
The new technologies, built internally by the Elections Department, were used successfully on a smaller scale in the 2017 local elections and the recent 8th Congressional District special primary.
In the 2017 elections, the Recorder’s Office found:
The average check-in time for voters dropped to less than one minute, from an average of 31⁄2 minutes, during a similarly sized election in 2015. This helped to shorten voter lines.
The number of voters who had to vote provisionally dropped to less than 50, from nearly 3,000 in similarly sized elections in 2013 and 2015. This lessened the risk that a voter’s ballot would be tossed out for being invalid.
Final election results were released in 24 hours, compared with 72 hours in 2013 and 65 hours in 2015, improving certainty for voters and candidates.
One efficiency implemented in the 2017 election — mailing every voter a ballot — would not repeat this fall. Instead, as in previous elections, voters who are on the permanent early-voting list, or who request an early ballot, would receive mail ballots.
Even without a full mail-in ballot election in 2018, Fontes predicts the new system will provide a better experience for voters.
“We’ve designed a technology that is way faster than a lot of people expect,” Fontes said. “We now have technology that can make it as simple as possible.”
The improvements could solve serious problems that plagued voters under former Recorder Helen Purcell, from maddeningly long lines in the 2016 presidential-preference election, to a cripplingly high number of provisional ballots in 2014, to a weeklong delay of final election results in 2012.
Despite being tested only in small elections, the new technologies will be ready to accommodate the much larger 2018 contests, Fontes said.
In a survey of voters who encountered the new technologies at polling places during the 2017 election, 82 percent found the process easy, compared with 11 percent who needed assistance and 7 percent who disliked the system.
Although some voters reported difficulties, many commented that the system was an improvement from prior elections.
“The new streamlined system is fantastic, very easy and quick!” one voter wrote.
“I really like the new system of voting,” another said.
The Board of Supervisors also seemed impressed.
“Having seen these printers in operation, it’s pretty awesome what they do,” said Supervisor Denny Barney, R-Gilbert.
The new model was positive overall, despite a few hiccups in the 8th Congressional District primary election, said Supervisor Clint Hickman, R-Litchfield Park.
“You guys worked awfully hard in the primary. It was new for all of us,” he said. “It looks like things went exceedingly well.”
In a vote of confidence, the board on Wednesday unanimously approved the first step in Fontes’ 2018 election proposal.
The county will spend nearly $4 million to purchase about 2,000 additional kiosks and 60 printers to expand the system for the midterms and future elections.
If the county supervisors approve the rest of Fontes’ plan, voters who prefer to cast ballots in person will have new places to vote in 2018.
Before Election Day, the Recorder’s Office would open more early-voting sites than in the past. All voters, regardless of where they live in the county, could visit any early-voting site.
On Election Day, voters would be able to choose between visiting a traditional polling place they are assigned to or going to a vote center open to all eligible voters.
Vote centers are convenient because voters can cast a ballot on the way to work or school, no matter where in the Valley they happen to be.
The concept was implemented poorly by Purcell in 2016 but successfully by Fontes in 2017.
Because of the 40 vote centers, Fontes has proposed fewer traditional polling locations than in the past, roughly 600, compared with 649 in 2014 and 832 in 2010.
Slashing polling places has turned out badly before, such as when Purcell opened only 60 locations for the 2016 presidential-preference election, causing voters to wait in lines after midnight.
Some voters complained there were not enough polling locations in 2017. Supervisor Steve Gallardo this week cautioned that cutting polling places can disadvantage voters who lack transportation.
Fontes argued his office would evenly distribute locations and that roughly 600 sites will be plenty, especially as voters turn increasingly to mail-in ballots.
Counting ballots faster is a goal of Fontes’ plan — as well as a priority for voters, according to the 2017 survey.
“I resent that MY vote seems insignificant because it may not be counted until two weeks after results have been announced,” one voter said. “Counting should begin when the vote is received, not after the fact.”
Another voter added: “I don’t like that decisions could be made without my ballot. There have been elections where many mail in ballots were not yet counted but the results were reported.”
Most races are called on Election Night, despite uncounted ballots, because the margins of victory are so large or the direction of the count is so obvious.
But Fontes believes he can speed up the count significantly to put voters more at ease.
His plan if approved seeks to cut down the time to report final results by:
Reducing provisional ballots through vote centers. When voters go to the wrong polling place or haven’t updated their voter registration, they are required to cast a provisional ballot that takes a long time for election officials to validate. But when voters go to a vote center, they never have to vote provisionally.
Ordering staff to begin processing provisional ballots immediately. Previously, staffers waited to count provisional ballots until the day after the election.
Hiring more people to handle early ballots. With more people to separate mail-in ballots from envelopes, the time to tabulate them shrinks.
Fontes plans to continue greater efforts to communicate with voters and demystify elections.
Last year, he ramped up communit you treach and social-media campaigns and launched a redesign of ballot materials.
For the first time, the Recorder’s Office sent emails and text messages reminding voters of the upcoming election; spent more than $18,000 on Google, Facebook and Instagram ads; and interacted with as many as 12,000 people at community events, according to the 2017 post-election report.
More than three-quarters of voters surveyed last year said they felt they were well-informed about the election date and the purpose of the election.
Some voters said they wished the election date was more clear on ballot materials.
The Recorder’s Office said it would work to improve the design.
“I am proud of the advancements the Election Department and Recorder’s Office have made in less than a year, and look forward to continuing to improve the voter experience, enhance system security, and increase accountability,” Fontes said in the post-election report.
Have you experienced problems voting? What do you think about the proposed 2018 election changes? I’m part of the #HereToHelpAZ team. Contact Maricopa County and consumer investigations reporter Rebekah L. Sanders by emailing email@example.com, texting HereToHelpAZ to 51555 or filling out our online form.