County says 2018 vot­ing might go faster than ever

The Arizona Republic - - Front Page - Rebekah L. San­ders

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

per­vi­sors.

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 rsanders@az­cen­tral.com, tex­ting HereToHelpAZ to 51555 or fill­ing out our on­line form.

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