Phoenix Election Chief Blames Voters and Laws for Super Long Lines on Tuesday
Bernie Sanders is learning the hard way about the realities of voting and voter suppression in America.
It’s not just that many localities were unprepared to handle spontaneous voter turnout, as in Arizona’s biggest city on Tuesday. But local election officials also resent voters who get in the way of others, when they show up to cast ballots but are ineligible and weren’t smart enough to vote early or vote by mail.
“What happened yesterday in Arizona should be considered a national disgrace,” said Sanders in an e-mail blast Wednesday afternoon. “I got an e-mail last night from a woman who waited five hours to vote in Arizona. Five hours. And she wasn’t alone. We don’t know how many thousands of people didn’t get to cast their ballots yesterday because they couldn’t afford to wait that long.”
Sanders said, “Voting should not be this difficult.” And when a young television reporter for Fox News 10 in Phoenix asked Maricopa Country Recorder Helen Purcell, who oversees elections in Arizona’s biggest city, what happened and why, she was dumbfounded that the first thing Purcell did was blame voters.
“Who’s to blame for the long lines?” the reporter asked.
“Well, the voters for getting in line. Maybe us for not having enough polling places or as many as we usually have,” Purcell replied. “But I think we have seen the hype in the last week to 10 days, of the national candidates coming here—which we haven’t seen in past years. So I think that’s kind of stirred everybody up, energized them.”
Sanders won 18 more delegates than Hillary Clinton on Tuesday by getting nearly 80 percent of the vote in party caucuses in Utah and Idaho. But he lost the night’s biggest prize—Arizona—where voters cast ballots for a primary election in a diverse state seen as a bellwether for California’s June primary. Clinton got 235,697 votes, 57.6 percent, compared to his 163,400 votes, or 39.9 percent.
“One reason it is so hard to vote in Arizona is because the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act,” Sanders said in his e-mail. “There were 70 percent fewer polling places this year than in 2012 in Phoenix’s county. They wouldn’t have been allowed to cut these polling places if the Voting Rights Act was still intact. These cuts mean with more than 4 million residents, there were just 60 polling places. This is unacceptable, but it’s also not an isolated incident.”
Back in Phoenix, the Fox TV reporter pressed Purcell about her first reply—that residents would not have had to wait if they voted another way, such as by mail.
“They’re not to blame for standing in line. They went to the polling places,” Percell replied. “They could have voted early. That was their option. I don’t mean to blame the voters. I think it’s wonderful that voters went to the polls.”
She then started to explain the numbing details of election administration—which are not unique to Phoenix but can be found all over the United States. “We looked at voter turnout over the past several years. It’s been very, very low,” Purcell said, which was one reason they consolidated polling places—besides lots of voting by mail.
“We knew that a third of our voters could not vote in this election, because independents could not vote,” Purcell said, referring to the fact that Arizona’s political parties do not allow open primaries where all registered voters can cast a ballot for any candidate. Purcell said independents showed up anyway, causing delays because they still had to fill out provisional ballots—which wouldn’t count. And she said the county was using large voting centers where any voter could show up, instead of neighborhood polling places only allowing pre-selected voters, because a state law dramatically cut the number of polling places.
“We are required by law to have no more than half of our normal polling places, and we tried to reduce that looking at past history,” Purcell said, raising an issue that the TV reporter didn’t catch, but underscored exactly how politicized voting rules can be. That change in state law presumably could have been overruled under the Voting Rights Act by the Justice Department if the Supreme Court had not gutted that law’s enforcement provisions—as Sanders noted in his e-mail.
“We will certainly look at this and see if we need to do something different,” Purcell said. “This was the first time that we allowed people to go to any polling place. So if that is not a good thing, if we need to go back to the old plan, where they are bounded by certain boundaries and that’s the only place they can go—we’ll have to look at all of those issues ... I am sorry that they had to wait that long. But I am glad they went out to vote.”
Purcell was insensitive to blame voters for being spontaneously inspired to go out and cast ballots in a presidential race where they might have an impact. Usually, that’s not the case in western states. But she was also correct that most voters, especially first-timers, don’t know that there are other ways to vote—such as voting by mail or showing up at early voting sites. And she also surely knows that independent voters tend to forget that they can’t vote in political party primaries that they are not members of—because her state’s political parties want it that way.
In other words, voting in America—as seen in Phoenix and across Arizona on Tuesday—has been made unnecessarily complicated for a variety of reasons, many of which are beyond the ability of local election officials to control or predict. That undemocratic reality occasionally surfaces on election days when the last thing a candidate expects is that polling places are unprepared for high turnout.
“We need to make it easier to vote, not more difficult,” Sanders wrote in his e-mail blast that called for restoring the Voting Rights Act. “One way we can do that is by reaffirming our support for the Voting Rights Act, which, when I am president, I will fight to reinstate … We need to remember the price paid for the right to vote. The Voting Rights Act was one of the great victories of the Civil Rights movement. Now, as then, change comes when people demand it.”
Sanders’ point is obvious and well taken. Purcell also said she took full responsibility for the snafus. But it’s also likely that even if Arizona’s lawmakers had not created barriers to voting by reducing the number of polling places—which Purcell tried to offset by creating voting centers—it’s unlikely Sanders would have beaten Clinton on Tuesday. She had 72,297 more votes than him.