Phoenix official backtracks after blaming voters for lines

PHOENIX (AP) -- Bruce Weiss stewed after waiting 2 1/2 hours in line outside a downtown Phoenix polling place, where juice drinks, snacks and circus animal cookies were handed out by citizens hoping to pacify thousands who turned out to cast ballots in Arizona's presidential primary.
The scene was repeated Tuesday as thousands stood in lines that wrapped around sidewalks at churches, community centers and government buildings after the number of places to vote were cut back as a cost-savings measure. Some voters took shelter from the sun under umbrellas. Others brought lawn chairs. Still others gave up and went home. The last voters entered polling spots after midnight. 
"It's like a complete, total failure of government," Weiss said.
Waits dragged on as long as five hours in Maricopa County -- home to metro Phoenix and 1.2 million voters eligible to cast ballots -- but where only 60 polling places were open.
By Wednesday, the mayor of Phoenix said the cutbacks were about more than saving money. Mayor Greg Stanton, a Democrat, called for a federal investigation into whether election officials illegally put fewer polling locations in poor or minority-heavy areas.
Stanton in a letter to the Justice Department also cited examples of other policies adopted by elections officials and the state Legislature that have created "a culture of voter disenfranchisement."
Arizona's Republican governor called the primary day foul-ups "unacceptable," and others demanded the resignation of the county's top elections official, Recorder Helen Purcell.
Purcell initially put the blame on voters, stirring a clamor on the Internet. Her name was a trending topic on Twitter. But Wednesday she backtracked, saying she failed to anticipate the effect of intense voter interest on primary turnout.
"I made bad decisions based on the information I had, obviously, or we wouldn't have had long lines," Purcell told The Associated Press.
In the 2012 presidential primary, there were 200 places for voters to cast ballots in the county, which is heavily Republican. By comparison, Pima County -- home to more liberal Tucson, Arizona, and a quarter of Maricopa County's population -- had 124 voting locations Tuesday.
Ramped-up interest in the presidential primary was also seen Tuesday in Idaho and Utah, where results were delayed as throngs of voters packed caucus sites. Republican and Democratic party officials predicted record turnouts but still underestimated the crowds.
Three-fourths of the Democratic caucus sites in Utah ran out of ballots, sending workers to nearby stores to print more ballots or voters home to bring back reams of paper or even a home printer at one site.
But the biggest outcry was from Arizona.
Shrinking the number of voting spots in the Phoenix area was meant to save $1.5 million, officials said. But other factors that contributed to the fiasco -- which saw Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump breeze to victories in Arizona -- were the growing number of mail-in ballots the county recorder has seen in the last decade. 
When Phoenix news station Fox 10 asked Purcell who to blame for Tuesday's problems, she said, "Well, the voters for getting in line. Maybe us for not having enough polling places or as many as we usually have."
On Wednesday, she complimented voters.
"I don't ever want to deny a voter the ability to vote. I think it's great they turned out in large numbers."
In addition to drawing the ire of fellow Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, Purcell was slammed by Democrats and civil rights proponents, who called the lines the latest sign that the state was making voting for minorities and the poor more difficult.
Teresa Jimenez said she waited in line for nearly two hours in a heavily Hispanic neighborhood on the west side of Phoenix, only to have election officials close the site around 7 p.m. with people still waiting. She went home without voting.
Jimenez said the mood in the line was upbeat as voters -- many of them Latino -- were excited to cast ballots, but that enthusiasm was crushed when the site was closed.
"It was kind of a depressing site," said Jimenez, a medical assistant and single mother who wanted to vote for Clinton. "Everyone was so happy. Some were first voters. We're all happy and glad we're here. We're going to make a change, but for what?"
State Rep. Reginald Bolding, a Democrat and the only black member of the Legislature, said he visited four county polling places and said what he saw "was disheartening." 
"You saw individuals who were seniors, handicapped, you also saw individuals who had to spend their entire workday waiting in line to cast a vote," Bolding said. "And this was directly due to the county recorder's negligence in cutting the polling locations in Maricopa County from 200 to 60 locations."
He said while he didn't suspect the efforts were intended to suppress turnout, combined with cuts in election funding and new laws passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature, he sees a pattern.
"When you start to put all of these different voter-suppression mechanisms in a line, it's hard to believe that this is all coincidental," Bolding said. 
Candidates crisscrossed the state with campaign rallies in the days leading up to the election, which intensified voter interest. Added to the mix were independent voters ineligible because they weren't registered with a party, some of whom who lined up anyway and were eventually issued "provisional" ballots. 
Ducey suggested one way to fix the problem is by allowing independents who make up the largest voting bloc in the state to vote in presidential primaries.
"A big part of yesterday's problem was registered voters showing up, and being told they couldn't vote," Ducey said. "That's just wrong."
Raw Interview: Helen Purcell

Who's to blame for the long lines at polling places in Maricopa County? "The voters for getting in line, maybe us for not having enough polling places..." - Helen Purcell, Maricopa County Recorder

Posted by FOX 10 Phoenix on Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Arizona Secretary of State issued the following statement:

“The issues that arose with the amount of time voters had to stand in line, confusion surrounding eligibility and other issues are completely unacceptable and my office will launch a full-scale statewide review of county election policies and procedures surrounding yesterday’s election.

“What happened to Maricopa County voters yesterday was awful.  I can honestly say that as of right now we have no explanation why county election officials decided to reduce the number of polling places down to only 60 locations.  While each individual county makes their own decisions, I need to make sure yesterday's polling place upheaval doesn't happen at our next statewide election on May 17th.  Or worse, the presidential general election in November when thousands more new voters will be casting ballots for the first time.

“Yesterday, I spent all day trying to help voters.  Today, I have refocused my energy on finding out the what and why of the county decisions that were made that led to severe polling delays.  Election officials are constantly looking for ways to improve.  If we find that the laws need to change, we will lead the charge.

“In fact, next week I will announce a series of bipartisan public hearings in the areas most effected by the problems at the polls.  Our office will generate an action report on the outcome of those hearings and present it as a part of the next Election Procedures Manual meeting with all fifteen county election officials in attendance.

“To help alleviate concerns with provisional or early ballots, we’ve also created an online tracking tool ( where voters can find out when their ballot was processed and counted.

“I woke up at 3 am yesterday morning so excited for the election and full of hope for the people who were voting.  I feel awful that some of them may have given up and gone home or had to go back to work.  Voters deserve so much better and government should be held accountable.”

 The messy elections also added to a debate in Arizona and Utah about the costs of holding presidential nominating contests. Arizona leaders want to do away with their primary and make parties pay for the nominating contest. Utah lawmakers decide every four years whether they want to pay for a presidential primary and let the state run elections, or leave the cost--and operations--to the parties. 

Associated Press reporters Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City and Josh Hoffner and Ryan Van Velzer in Phoenix contributed.
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