PHOENIX - Arizona voters may be able to cast their ballots in 2014 at any polling place anywhere in the county.
Secretary of State Ken Bennett said Tuesday he wants lawmakers and county officials to consider "voting centers" capable of accepting and processing all ballots, regardless of the home voting precinct of the voter.
He said changing patterns in how Arizonans vote make the current system overly cumbersome and unnecessarily slow.
Arizona's slow count this year also could have been embarrassing, he said.
"If the close race in Arizona this year had been the presidential race, and the Electoral College was tied 265 to 265 and the whole country and world were waiting for Arizona's 11 electoral votes, what do you think the scrutiny would have been?" he said.
Bennett said the problem is the method and the timing of how people vote.
"Statewide, for example, I think we had about 450,000 early ballots dropped off at the polls on Election Day or the day or two before," he said. That last-minute process, he said, creates problems that do not exist if people simply show up at their own polls, get a ballot and vote it there.
"Right now if you drop your ballot off at anyplace, it goes into a box, which gets transferred to a bigger box, which gets transferred to downtown," Bennett said. He said sorting, verifying and counting all those early ballots took about a week.
All that would be different with voting centers.
In essence, each polling place would have electronic access to a list of every registered voter in the county, complete with an image of that person's signature.
Someone who shows up would be identified by voting precinct. And the poll workers, using printers linked to computers, could then print out a ballot specific to that person, including the right legislative districts, county supervisors and school board members and bond votes.
What that means, Bennett said, is the ballot can be not only verified on site but also put into the machine that, properly programmed, will tabulate the vote. That would apply both to regular and early ballots.
Bennett said the system is already used in Yuma and Yavapai counties, with safeguards, like having all the voting centers linked to ensure individuals don't show up at multiple locations.
Maricopa County Elections Director Karen Osborne said there's nothing wrong with the idea on paper. But she said making it work is going to be an expensive proposition.
It will require special machinery capable of figuring out and printing what in her case are 5,000 different ballot styles depending on residency and political parties, she said.
Plus, all the machines now used at polling places are capable of counting only one kind of ballot so they, too, would have to be replaced, she said.
The price tag? "Well into $20 million," she said - even assuming it works.
Coconino County Recorder Candace Owens questioned what happens if something goes wrong, like a polling place printer breaks down.
Osborne warned that the concept also suggests even fewer polling places, which were not well received by voters in Phoenix, which tried using voting centers.
"These are the very kinds of things that we will evaluate … with the county officials," Bennett said.
Bennett also pointed out any change in the state's voting law will have to be approved by U.S. Department of Justice.
Finally, Bennett acknowledged there are "funding implications" for what he wants to do.
Owens said a potentially simpler solution is to go all-in on the idea of early voting and go to an all-mail system, since well over half of Arizona votes are already signed up to receive early ballots by mail.
Owens said that could still allow for a type of polling place to be open on election day for people to either vote or drop off their ballots. Once the entire system is set up that way, the counting process will get simpler, she said.
Year / Total voter registration / Early ballot requests / Provisional ballots
2012 / 3.1 million / 1.7 million* / 171,661
2008 / 2.9 million / 1.35 million / 151,696
2004 / 2.6 million / 938,000 / 101,000
* Only those on permanent early voter list; final number likely higher.
2012 General election provisional ballots by county:
Apache - 1,612
Cochise - 2,326
Coconino - 5,300
Gila - 1,285
Graham - 593
Greenlee - 2
La Paz - 415
Maricopa - 122,000
Mohave - 2,680
Navajo - 2,285
Pima - 27,000
Pinal - 909
Santa Cruz - 15
Yavapai - 3,000
Yuma - 2,239
Total - 171,661
- Source: Secretary of State's Office