Future Tense

Who’s to Blame for Voting Problems in Arizona’s Primaries?

Bureaucracy, probably.

An Arizona voter carries her ballot to a polling place, walking by a "VOTE HERE" sign and a sign that tells voters to "Have Your ID Ready."
An Arizona voter carries a ballot to a polling place on Aug. 28 in Phoenix. Ralph Freso/Getty Images

On Tuesday morning, some Arizona voters were met with locked doors when they showed up to polling sites ready to cast their ballots in the state’s primary elections. In dozens of locations across the state’s most populous county, the equipment that would allow them to do so was malfunctioning or had not yet been set up.

Maricopa County’s snafu shows that foreign interference with voting tech isn’t the only threat to election integrity. Bureaucratic missteps—and allegedly unreliable government contractors—can also get in the way of voting.

According to Maricopa County recorder Adrian Fontes, as of 6 a.m. Tuesday, setup had not been completed in 62 of the county’s more than 500 voting locations. By 11:30 a.m., all sites were reportedly functional. But for some voters, that was too late.

“This is not a hiccup. This is a serious concern where lots of voters all over Maricopa County are not able to get voting,” Fontes told reporters in a press conference broadcast via Facebook Live Tuesday morning.

According to reporting from the Arizona Republic, some polling locations where equipment was set up and tested were forced to turn voters away after running into “technical glitches.”

County officials first became aware of the potential for a serious issue on Monday afternoon, when around 2 p.m. they began getting calls from hired troubleshooters and inspectors who said that contractors weren’t arriving to set up equipment as scheduled. By about 6 p.m., Fontes said at the press conference, they realized it was “probably going to be a real problem.” He said they tried to train other employees quickly to perform the technical work that contractors were hired for. Fontes framed his office’s response as a success, noting that on Monday afternoon, they thought up to 250 locations wouldn’t be able to open on time—half of the county’s sites—instead of the 62 that were unavailable Tuesday morning.

The root of Tuesday’s problems was voter check-in equipment, which is used to confirm a voter’s identity and print their individual ballot. According to the Arizona Republic, on Tuesday the county rolled out a “new system that allows voters to scan their IDs to check them against the registration database.” The equipment relies on an internet connection to reference the database and then print a custom ballot for the voter. On Tuesday, voters told Arizona’s 12 News that polling places were unable to print ballots and that machine ballot readers were nonfunctional. Some voters met with these problems were given provisional ballots.

The contractor responsible for technical support and the setup of voter check-in equipment was Tempe-based Insight Enterprises. Fontes said Insight was contracted to provide 103 technicians to set up equipment Monday, but only 73 showed up. But the company denies the allegation: A spokesperson for Insight told the Arizona Republic that the company was only contracted to provide 83 employees for equipment setup on Monday and 40 technicians for Election Day troubleshooting. According to the spokesperson, the company actually provided more employees than it was contracted for—85 on Monday and 60 on Tuesday. (Slate asked the recorder’s office about how many technicians were contracted for Tuesday, but we haven’t heard back yet. We will update the post if we do.)

The spokesperson also told the Republic that problems with voter validation machines were attributable to a “lack of site readiness and on-site connectivity issues” that Insight was not responsible for.

Liz Howard, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program and former deputy commissioner for the Virginia Department of Elections, told Slate that problems in Maricopa County on Tuesday illustrated how important it is for officials to have robust contingency plans for when things go wrong on Election Day. For jurisdictions that use electronic poll books to check voters in, she emphasized the need for paper backups. And many of the preparations officials should make to protect against cyberattacks, she said, will also help in the event of equipment malfunctions.

Arizonans are no strangers to long lines at the ballot box. In the 2016 presidential primary election, a severe reduction in the number of polling locations in the county caused some voters to wait for up to five hours to cast their ballot—and an analysis by the Brennan Center found that long wait times disproportionately affected Latino voters. Frustration over those delays led to the ousting of then–county recorder Helen Purcell, who lost to Fontes after 28 years in office.

While Tuesday morning was fraught with problems, many voters had already cast their ballots in the weeks prior to Election Day through Arizona’s “Permanent Early Voter List,” which sends voters a ballot they return by mail. Fontes tweeted that the “great majority” of Maricopa County voters had cast early ballots. Research from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2010 demonstrated that early voters tend to be “more highly educated and wealthier than those who cast their ballot on election day.”

Fontes and Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan asked the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors to petition the Arizona Superior Court for an extension of polling site hours, but that request was rejected. “The Recorder’s Office received $3.9 million for new technology last fiscal year (FY18) and appropriated almost $20 million for elections this fiscal year so there is no shortage of resources to run a successful election,” board chairman Steve Chucri said in a statement explaining the decision.

In a Facebook video on Tuesday night, Fontes admitted that his office could have done better. But he said, “Once our system is plugged in and working, we can check a lot of voters in.”

Update, Oct. 3, 2018: In September, the Arizona Recorder’s Office issued a report that found Insight was required to provide 93 technicians with 10 technicians on standby for setup on Monday, and 40 for support on Tuesday. The requirement for standby technicians—and whether those technicians were in addition to or included within the 93—appears to have been interpreted differently by Insight and the County Recorder. Insight told the Arizona Republic it interpreted the contract to mean 83 technicians with 10 on standby. When Fontes spoke on Election Day, it seems plausible that he arrived at 103 technicians by adding the 10 standby techs to the 93 laid out in the contract. Regardless, emails obtained by the Arizona Republic seem to indicate the expectation of around 90 techs. Above all, it seems like this problem could have been avoided with a clearer contract and communication.

Problems, however, seem to have gone beyond the confusion over the number of technicians. In a report released to the Arizona Republic, Insight blamed Election Day problems on the county, citing hardware and software problems with county equipment, an inability to physically access some polling sites, insufficient network connectivity, and ballot and envelope printers that lacked toner. Similarly, a county audit of the way the Recorder’s Office handled the primary election identified problems including a lack of contingency planning and insufficient staffing, recruitment, and training.

Correction, Aug. 29, 2018: This post originally misspelled Michele Reagan’s first name.