The presidential preference vote held in Arizona's Maricopa County last month might well win the award for this year's most spectacularly dysfunctional election. In a primary season that has seen unusually high turnout, voters in the state's largest county arrived at polling places to find interminable lines, with some voters waiting until after midnight in order to cast their ballots—hours after Arizona's primaries had been called for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
The chaos wasn't just the result of unusually high voter turnout. Since the last presidential election, county officials slashed the number of voting places from more than 200 down to just 60, measures that local Republican officials justified under the banner of cost savings and administrative efficiency. As news broke about the county's long lines on primary day, Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell, the official responsible for administering elections, initially blamed voters for "getting in line" rather than mailing their ballots, before admitting that her office had indeed made several large missteps leading up to the vote.
In practice, of course, the dramatic reduction in polling sites erected a formidable barrier to those county residents who may not have had several spare hours to cast a vote. Last week, it was reported that the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division was opening an investigation into what happened in Maricopa County, responding to a request from Phoenix's Democratic Mayor Greg Stanton. In a letter to the feds sent in the days after the primary, Stanton claimed that the reduction in polling sites had disproportionately hindered voting access for the city's minority residents.
While much of the recent news surrounding voting rights has focused on strict new voter ID laws, the poll closures in Arizona point to a more subtle issue—one that melds the right's enthusiasm for government spending cuts with its more insidious support for restricting ballot access. While Maricopa County undoubtedly represents an extreme example of the effect that pinching pennies can have on voting, the problems there highlight the broader forces shaping voting policy in the United States, as cash-strapped jurisdictions across the country reduce personnel and shutter polling places in the name of saving the taxpayers' money.
In Texas, for example, the elections office in Harris County cited a lack of resources when accused of poorly allocating voting machines to precincts with a large number of minority voters during the state's Super Tuesday primary; elsewhere in the state, a round of precinct consolidations pushed through just before the March 1 vote resulted in chaotic scenes at the polls. Meanwhile, in Alabama, the Republican-led state government has been sharply criticized for closing DMV offices after passing a law requiring voters to show government-issued ID. From Hinds County, Mississippi, to Roswell, New Mexico, local civil rights leaders have reportedly raced to stop plans that would shutter precincts and polling sites in their area.
The lack of funding for election personnel and polling facilities is exacerbated in states with strict voter-ID laws, including Arizona, and Texas, which require poll workers to take additional time to verify voters on Election Day. A video circulated last week of a polling place in Wisconsin—which has a particularly stringent voter ID law—shows voting booths sitting vacant while a crowd of voters waits in line to be checked in; to make matters worse, a public-education campaign required by the state's voter-ID law never received funding from Wisconsin's Republican-controlled legislature.
The issue of election funding has been particularly acute in Georgia, where top state officials have reportedly promoted the practice of precinct consolidation, and where numerous counties have eliminated polling sites. In rural Upson County, local officials reduced the number of voting precincts by more than half last year, from nine to four, in an effort to slim the county elections budget; last month, polling places in Upson County were mobbed during Georgia's presidential primary vote.
"I'd never seen anything like it," said Kay King a member of the local board of elections who worked the polls that day. "It was just unreal." Although King doesn't believe the precinct consolidation was designed to discriminate against minority voters, she said she voted against the plan because it eliminated the sole polling site in her district, which she said has a high population of minority residents.
"Some of those people don't have transportation so they have a hard time getting back and forth to other precincts," King said. "We lost that precinct, so now those people will have to travel a little further."
Interestingly, support for precinct consolidation isn't limited to Republicans. The concept has also also championed by an Obama administration task force appointed to explore voting delays. In its 2014 report, that panel, formally known as the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, recommended that counties supplement or replace traditional precincts with so-called "vote centers," or larger polling places that could accommodate voters from any precinct in a given county.
But while advocates for the centers argue that the consolidation gives voters more choices of where to cast their ballots, Arizona's primary disaster seems to demonstrate the risks of shuttering precincts en masse in favor of these centers.
"When you do start consolidating precincts or reducing the number of points of access, it's important that it's not done so quickly, or to such a degree, that you create a new bottleneck," said Tammy Patrick, a proponent of vote centers who served on the Obama-appointed task force, and who has previously worked on voting rights compliance in Maricopa County. "Consolidations should occur as a reaction to what voters are already doing, rather than force voters to do anything new."
According to Patrick, there has been some fear among election administrators that the national outcry over consolidated polling sites could weaken the popularity of vote centers. Not all precinct consolidations limit voter access, she argued, although she conceded that the justification for these measures should ideally go beyond cost savings.
"If it's strictly budgetary," Patrick said, "that can be problematic."
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