'Early' voting causes count delays

Ballots dropped off at polls need to be verified, then recorded
2010-11-27T00:00:00Z 'Early' voting causes count delaysRhonda Bodfield Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
November 27, 2010 12:00 am  • 

When Arizona voters went to sleep election night, they knew who the winners were in the Senate and the governor's office, but it took until the weekend to ferret out who would represent Southern Arizona in Congress.

Then it took another whole week to find out we'd actually approved medical marijuana, despite earlier indications that the measure was in trouble.

Although we weren't alone in that regard, Arizona is among the more liberal states when it comes to allowing the last-minute delivery of early ballots, which drags out the count.

Of the 1.7 million ballots cast, nearly 300,000 were early ballots that weren't early after all, but folks dropping them off in unprecedented numbers at their polling places, which then triggered a new round of verification to make sure the ballots were authentic. There were another 84,000 provisional ballots that had some problems with registration or identification.

"It was a very long wait," said Andrew Myers, a spokesman with the Arizona Medical Marijuana Policy Project, who said the days following were a roller coaster of emotions. Election night brought the shock that the margins were so tight, followed by days of a sinking feeling as the early ballots, while swinging pro, weren't swinging to the degree they needed. It wasn't until Wednesday of the next week, when the provisional results started coming in heavily in their favor, that they figured it would turn their way. "All we could do was prepare for the worse and just agree to accept whatever happened," Myers said.

California, likewise, is plagued with slow counts because hordes of early voters bring their mail-in ballots to the polls - but it is nevertheless fairly unique, said Kim Brace, president of the Virginia-based Election Data Services, which does consulting on election administration issues.

"That provision that people can drop off their ballots at the polls on election day tends to be a unique circumstance," he said, noting many eastern states prefer more restricted absentee voting to the far more open-ended early voting.

In Massachusetts, for example, you can vote early only if you'll be out of town on Election Day or if a disability or religious beliefs prevent you from voting at a polling place on Election Day. In Brace's state of Virginia, absentee ballots must be mailed the Saturday before Election Day.

"You end up caught in that wave, because more and more people are voting early, so if people are dropping them off late, that certification process is just going to take additional time," he said.

Still, it could be worse. At least in Arizona, postmarks don't count. Ballots, mailed or otherwise, have to be in the hands of election officials Tuesday. But in Ohio, the postmark deadline is the day before the election, but properly postmarked ballots have to be processed as long as they're there within 10 days of Election Day. In Florida, they have to count absentee ballots mailed on Election Day.

Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center, a Texas-based nonprofit comprised of government election officials, said the permanent early voting list is compounding the delay by growing that voting bloc exponentially. Pima County has more than 234,000 on the permanent list - doubled from the first election cycle it was used in 2008.

"When you put in a permanent absentee system, what you did was create a situation in that as long as people mail them in, you're in good shape. But if they show up on Election Day and drop it off, then it's a long system."

Lewis predicted Arizona will get snappier results at some point, saying technology will eventually get faster.

And, he said, voters will get increasingly used to the system. "Part of what happens is that voters get distrustful that the mail is not going to get their ballot in, and so they just decide to hand-deliver them. The longer you have the system in place, the voters will get to a point where they are more comfortable with the system."

The Pima County Recorder's Office took a step to settle voters' minds with the ability to log in online and track your ballot. But Lewis said there's little that can be done about another wrinkle: "Human nature is that you're going to wait until the last cotton-picking second to make a decision."

Brad Nelson, Pima County Elections director, agreed with the prediction that things will settle out.

But he said people really need to change their mind set about Election Day altogether. "When I encounter - I don't know whether 'frustration' is right word but it's the word that comes to mind - that we're still counting after Election Day, what I try to get across is that it's a cycle. Election Day is an important day, but it's not the beginning and it's not the end."

On StarNet: Rhonda Bodfield will keep you aware of all of the political news with the Pueblo Politics blog at go.azstarnet.com/pueblo politics

Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at rbodfield@azstarnet.com or 573-4243.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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