WASHINGTON – When Arizona voters go to the polls Tuesday, it will be at 212 fewer polling places than in 2012, with 13 of the state’s 15 counties cutting sites in that time, a new report shows.
The report by the Leadership Conference Education Fund looked at states that had been subject to federal oversight of their voting systems, until a 2013 Supreme Court decision struck the “preclearance” portion of the Voting Rights Act.
It found that many counties moved swiftly to close polling places after they were freed from the federal oversight that was aimed at protecting voting rights for minority voters.
“While there are legitimate reasons to reduce polling places … without the full powers of the VRA (Voting Rights Act), we have no transparency and no idea why polling places are being closed or changed,” said Nancy Zirkin, the group’s executive vice president. “The vast majority of closures have gone unnoticed, unreported and unchallenged.”
In Arizona, Maricopa County made national headlines in March when some voters were forced to wait hours to cast a presidential primary vote at one of 60 polling places, a fraction of the number the county usually opens.
But Maricopa will not lead the state in either the number of polling places cut or the percentage cut, according to the report. Those distinctions went to Pima County, which cut 62 sites from 2012, and Cochise County, where the reduction from 49 to 18 was a 63 percent drop.
Pima County Elections Director Brad Nelson said he is not worried about Election Day problems because of the large numbers who have voted early – one of the points made by election officials who defend the cuts.
“Here in Pima County, 65 to 67 percent of our registered voters receive a permanent early ballot,” Nelson said. “For our past elections – and the coming general election will be our fifth in the last 12 months – we’ve had 80 percent come through the permanent early ballot.”
The Arizona Secretary of State’s office said that more than 255,000 voters had already cast ballots in Pima County. Statewide, the office said, ballots equaling about 57 percent of this year’s projected turnout had already been cast by Friday.
But advocates in Arizona said they are still bracing for long wait times and voter confusion on Election Day next week.
Volunteers from the Arizona Advocacy Network, which helped prepare the report, are urging those who plan to vote in person on Tuesday to plan for child care and make arrangements to miss work if lines are long.
“The problem is widespread,” said Samantha Pstross, director of the network. “Part of it is there isn’t a lot of funding from the state legislature, but they (county officials) think everyone is going to vote early, but there are still a lot of people who are waiting to vote. We have a lot of undecided voters in Arizona.”
The network’s volunteers are planning to do “everything we can do legally to get them to stay in line” and vote, paying extra attention to voters in Maricopa, Pima and Cochise counties.
After opening only 60 “voting centers” in March, Maricopa County settled a lawsuit by developing a Wait Time Reduction Plan to cut lines and reduce wait times to no more than 30 minutes at locations across the county. It will have 644 polling locations Tuesday, down slightly from the 677 it offered in 2012.
While Cochise County reported heavy early voting, County Recorder Christine Rhodes is still concerned about voting next week.
“It’s been really heavy,” she said of the early voting that ended Friday. “A little under 44,000 ballots were sent out. We will receive, as of today probably, just around 30,000.”
Officials with the county’s election department, which conducts federal, state and countywide elections, did not return calls for comment on the reduction in polling places. But Rhodes said she was concerned that the early and mail-in voting seen this year still might not address challenges facing voters trying to make it out to one of the county’s 18 remaining voting centers.
“It is true people can go to any one of those (locations),” she said. “If you’re in the areas that are populated – for instance we have one of the biggest military installations, Fort Huachuca – there is plenty of voting locations there, but we’re a rural county.”
Some voters may have to travel 40 miles to vote, she said.
Graham County Recorder Wendy John does not expect problems at polls in her county, where officials reduced voting locations there from 18 to 9. John noticed no excessive waiting during early voting, though it’s been busy, she said.
In Pima County, 35 percent of the population identifies as Hispanic or Latino. But Nelson said that, even though the county is no longer required to clear voting changes in advance through the Justice Department, officials checked with community groups to make sure the changes did not hurt the ability of minority groups to vote.
All but two Arizona counties will have fewer polling places this year than they did in 2012. The counties, the number of sites in 2012 and 2016, and percent change:
- Apache: 42 in 2012; 42 in 2016; 0 percent change.
- Cochise: 49; 18; -63 percent
- Coconino: 64; 61; -5 percent
- Gila: 33; 17; -48 percent
- Graham: 18; 9; -50 percent
- Greenlee: 8; 5; -38 percent
- La Paz: 9; 9; 0 percent
- Maricopa: 677; 644; -5 percent
- Mohave: 70; 38; -46 percent change
- Navajo: 52; 39; -25 percent
- Pima: 280; 218; -22 percent
- Pinal: 98; 96; -2 percent
- Santa Cruz: 17; 12; -29 percent
- Yavapai: 30; 29; -3 percent
- Yuma: 11; 9; -18 percent
- State: 1,458; 1,246; -14.5 percent