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The Wrong Lessons From a Voting Fiasco

Maricopa County's botched primary brought accusations of voter suppression. What really happened is more complicated -- and even encouraging.

For the 2016 presidential primary season, it was the classic and inevitable television "election moment": As the clock ticked past midnight, thousands of Maricopa County, Ariz., voters were still standing in line to cast ballots in Arizona's presidential primary.

Longtime County Recorder Helen Purcell soon became the logical "film-at-11" culprit, especially after she'd initially suggested, not implausibly, that nearly 20,000 non-party-affiliated voters who couldn't legally cast ballots in Arizona's closed presidential primary had clogged the lines by showing up anyway on March 22.

However, long lines hadn't bedeviled Arizona's other counties on primary day, and a likelier explanation soon emerged. With more than 1.2 million registered Democrats and Republicans, Maricopa County officials, aiming to save taxpayers' money, had opened only 60 polling places. This compared to 200 in the 2012 presidential primary , and it was far fewer than other counties with far smaller populations. "We certainly made bad decisions … and didn't anticipate there would be that many people going to the polling places," Purcell later told the Arizona Republic. "We were obviously wrong -- that's my fault."

But as an elected Republican, Purcell's unfortunate moment in the national spotlight happened to fit conveniently into a larger narrative. Under the guise of fiscal responsibility, wasn't this yet another Machiavellian Republican attempt to disenfranchise or dissuade lots of young, minority and Democratic-leaning voters? Purcell's forthright mea culpa didn't begin to quell the partisan outrage: Democrats accused her of voting suppression, and a U.S. Department of Justice voting-rights investigation was demanded.

But is that the real story of Maricopa County's long voting lines? I spent nine years as Oregon's secretary of state, an elected Democrat overseeing an election system whose 36 county clerks were a mixture of elected and appointed officials of both parties (or none). Based largely on that personal experience, and some excellent reporting by the Arizona Republic's Rebekah L. Sanders, Maricopa County Democrats' dark assertions seem more like an implausible conspiracy theory than a genuine effort by Republicans to keep Democrats from voting.

Purcell's deputy, county Elections Director Karen Osborne, is herself a registered Democrat. When Osborne first unveiled the plan for voting in the primary, it was met with little criticism (or even attention), including from Democrats. And more to the point, it was a reasonable, and even innovative, attempt to deal with one of the most vexing problems of modern election administration.

American elections have been getting increasingly complicated and more expensive to administer, especially as voting-access advocates have lobbied successfully for a number of reforms to spur voter turnout. These include online and automatic voter-registration systems; making absentee ballots more available; and opening polls days or even weeks prior to Election Day. Mistakes, and even occasional serious misjudgments, are inevitable.

The real culprits in so many "election glitch" stories, including this one, inhabit state capitols and serve as state legislators. They're the ones who enact most substantive election laws -- and then largely insist that elections continue to be financed primarily (or entirely) by local governments. According to a report last month by the National Conference of State Legislatures, only two states, Alaska and Delaware, fully reimburse local governments for all election costs. In most states, including Arizona, local governments bear the lion's share of the bill.

When Arizona legislators decided to create a separate, stand-alone presidential primary election, they promised counties full reimbursement. But costs soon outstripped legislative appetites. This year, Maricopa County estimated it would cost about $3.5 million to hold another 200-polling-place election. This was about $1 million more than the state's reimbursement formula allowed.

In 2008, more than 400 polling stations had been used for the presidential primary contest. For 2012, the number was cut to 200, and even then many were little used or even empty for long stretches of time. Meanwhile, more and more voters were avoiding polling places altogether, preferring the convenience of mailed-out absentee ballots. This March's long lines obscured that fact that just 88,000 voters (most of them Republicans, by the way) cast their ballots at polling places, while 535,000 (85 percent of the total) used absentee ballots.

So further consolidation of polling places certainly made sense. Earlier this year the County Board of Supervisors -- four elected Republicans and one Democrat -- tried to strike an optimal balance between cost and voter access. What emerged was a fairly innovative idea, already used in several other Arizona counties. No longer would voters be required to find their one (and only) correct polling station. Instead, the county would set up 60 much-larger polling places. Voters still could vote near their homes, but they also could cast ballots near their workplaces or where they dropped their kids off to school.

With 20/20 electoral hindsight, Maricopa officials obviously failed to strike that optimal balance. A relative handful - maybe a dozen -- of the sites were unexpectedly overloaded with far more voters than projected. Hence some intolerably long lines, and a spate of bad publicity that Arizona's other counties largely avoided.

But if anything, most of those other counties arguably failed in the other direction, opening far too many polling places while racking up higher costs than necessary by hiring too many underutilized poll workers. Some polling places were so poorly attended that for much of the day paid poll workers outnumbered voters.

Since Maricopa's unwanted moment in the spotlight, thousands of election officials across the country doubtless have uttered their own prayers to the election gods to keep them as far from such notoriety as possible. The message they've gotten from Maricopa is pretty clear. Continuing to spend way too much on poorly attended elections is a lot safer than trying a new approach that might far better serve both voters and taxpayers.

This May, Maricopa County held another election involving several statewide ballot measures. Deciding to leave nothing to chance this time, election officials opened almost twice as many voting centers. Just 44,000 voters showed up, half of March's volume, and many polling sites sat empty for long periods.

In a country where voter turnout is among the lowest in the world, especially for local elections, we need far more state legislators and election officials willing to try new, innovative approaches. (One obvious one: Legislators should give Maricopa County the freedom, which they now lack, to save even more money by mailing ballots to all registered voters, at least for local and special statewide elections.)

So give Maricopa's election officials at least two cheers of praise for getting it almost right this time -- and some encouragement to continue to try to make voting more accessible as well as more cost-effective for as many voters as possible.

A Senior Fellow the Center for Public Service at Portland State University's Hatfield School of Government
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