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J.D. Fitzgerald

Ballot Blunders

Arizona's presidential primary turns into a total dumpster fire

In Arizona, do we call it a presidential primary election? Or do we call it a presidential preference election?

Maybe we should just call it what it was: A towering inferno of a dumpster fire that required Maricopa County voters to stand in line for longer than most people have to wait for a table at Mi Nidito.

Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell—after first blaming "voters for getting into line"—has accepted responsibility for the shitshow and apologized for only opening up 60 polling centers instead of the 200 that were open for the 2012 presidential primary. Purcell told the Phoenix media that she thought most people in Maricopa County would vote by mail so she figured she'd save some money and reduce the number of polling places.

We've heard plenty of conspiracy theories about how the long waits in line were engineered by Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton to mess with a surging Bernie Sanders, which is ridiculous on its face because Purcell does not have any motivation to help Hillary out. (Those of you who believe that Purcell's husband served as Arkansas Lieutenant Governor under Bill Clinton are invited to visit Snopes.com to get straightened out.) And then there's the conspiracy theory that Purcell wanted Hillary to win because the GOP knows that Sanders would be a much more formidable general election candidate, which is silly because if the GOP machine were to start unloading negative ads on Sanders, his current poll numbers would take a huge dive. (Sorry, Sanders fans: We like what he has to say, too, but only Donald Trump is immune to the natural laws of politics—and The Donald's immunity only extends to a minority of particularly thickheaded GOP voters, anyhow.)

So Purcell made a huge blunder, to be sure, but likely more one of incompetence than malice.

But there's plenty of blame to go around, starting with the reason that Purcell wanted to save money in the first place: Gov. Doug Ducey and the GOP leadership in the Arizona Legislature decided last year that paying for the presidential primary wasn't important, so they cut the funding for it and told the counties to figure out how to do it.

After insisting on government-on-the-cheap, Ducey is now shocked that his decision could have a negative impact on voters, telling the press last week that "it's unacceptable that many of them had to battle incredibly long lines. Our election officials must evaluate what went wrong and how they make sure it doesn't happen again."

Ducey's concern for voting rights might be a little more credible if, just weeks ago, he hadn't signed legislation making felons out of activists who collect and turn in early ballots.

Then there was the problem that, unlike most primary elections in Arizona, independents couldn't vote; you had to be registered as a Democrat or a Republican to cast a ballot. Some of those people waiting in line were independents and once they got into the polling place, it took extra time to explain to them why they couldn't cast a ballot or, in some case, give them a provisional ballot to cast that likely wouldn't be counted.

That was acerbated by a problem experienced by people who weren't eligible to vote because they believed they were registered as a Democrat or Republican but discovered they were actually PND, or Party Not Determined. Most of those cases appear to relate to people who changed their voter registration online via the Motor Vehicle Department because they had moved or wanted to sign up for an early ballot or had some other business to attend to. The web page is somewhat confusing and it's easy for people to miss a question about party affiliation, especially if they assume they will remain with their current political party. But if they didn't check a box for Republican or Democrat, they were automatically assigned PND.

That's a glitch that needs to be fixed, but it also is more one of incompetence than malice.

It's also important to point out that while no one should be disenfranchised or stuck waiting in line for five hours to vote, the election results were so lopsided (Hillary Clinton beat Bernie Sanders by 16 percentage points, while Donald Trump finished 19 percentage points ahead of Ted Cruz) that the outcome was not affected by any of these screw-ups.

At any rate, these mistakes need to be straightened out before the August primary election. And if you really want to avoid this nonsense, your best bet is to sign up for the Permanent Early Voter List and just have a ballot sent to your home. You should have the right to vote in the traditional fashion at your polling place on Election Day, but last week showed there's no reason to believe that election officials Maricopa County can get it right.

Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel airs at 8 a.m. Sunday on the CW Tucson, Channel 8 on Cox and Comcast and Channel 58 on Dish, DirecTV and broadcast. You can hear the show on KXCI, 91.3 FM, at 5 p.m. Sundays or watch it online at zonapolitics.com. This week's guests are UA professor Steven Buchmann, author of The Reason for Flowers; Dot Kret of the Tucson January 8 Foundation; and UA scientists Michael Shupe and Shufang Su, who discuss their work with the Large Hadron Collider.


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