County: More vote centers, more staff next time
Yuma County will open more voting centers in future elections as one way to avoid a repeat of the congestion and frustration seen here last November.
Instead of 11 voting centers, there will be 15, and all voting centers may have more staffing. In addition, the county hopes to do on-site printer tests, set up in bigger facilities, keep more people on hand to troubleshoot technical difficulties and whittle the wait times from as high as four hours to no more than one.
“We all know we had some pretty significant challenges we dealt with,” Yuma County Administrator Robert Pickels said Wednesday as he presented the board of supervisors with an after-action review of Election Day 2012, detailing problems and solutions.
He addressed primarily issues of equipment, staffing and facilities, including:
• Ballot printers: The printers that turned out ballots on demand “presented, by far, the most significant delays,” Pickels wrote.
Printers started malfunctioning as soon as the voting centers opened, with connectivity problems with the electronic election books that contained voter information. The printers also had mechanical problems all day because of the volume of ballots being requested. In some cases, components — input trays, unengaged paper guide locks and the paper — weren't lining up.
Then, there were paper jams. Dry, hot air caused static buildup that led to the snarls, as printers tried to pull in several pieces of paper that had stuck together. In addition, some paper was damaged during shipping.
Only two technicians from the printer vendor were in Yuma on Election Day. County staff admitted that they could have had more of them in town but did not, in an attempt to save money and because the smooth primaries created a sense of security.
The county wants to bring in more technicians next time, and municipal staffs around the county have tentatively agreed to train and make available members of their own IT teams on Election Day.
• Insufficient and inadequate voting centers: The county suggests adding at least one additional voting center each in San Luis, the Foothills and the north end of the city of Yuma, bringing the total up to 15 sites. Yuma County Recorder Robyn Stallworth Pouquette said more voting centers is “a given.”
Because some of last year's sites were too small or didn't have easy access to parking, restrooms, water or shade, the report recommends using county facilities as much as possible and considering better-appointed locations such as Arizona Western College, the National Guard Armory, the clubhouse at the Yuma East neighborhood, San Luis and Yuma city halls, the Somerton public safety building and the Yuma Civic Center.
• Staffing: Increase the staffs at each site from 10 to at least 15, recruited from county agencies, political party ranks, and the high schools. Students could earn credit and the small stipend that all election workers get.
• On-site early voting: The county recorder's office offered in-person voting the weekend before Election Day, drawing 771 voters. The idea would be to expand on this by having at least one vote center with a smaller staff in each area of the county a week prior to the countywide general election, in addition to the opportunity at the recorder's office.
• Provisional ballots: An influx of people on the permanent early voter list ended up wanting to cast ballots traditionally, at the voting centers. But because records showed that they had already been given ballots, if they wanted to vote on-site they had to fill out provisional ballots — and the preparation of provisionals is a slower process.
Pickels mentioned proposed and planned changes at the state level that would improve updates to voter records. Also, poll workers will walk along the line with an e-pollbook in hand, trying to identify provisional voters before they get to the head of the line where they could form a bottleneck.
Pickels said his recommended fixes, which also include purchasing more equipment, might erode at some of the cost savings the county had hoped to achieve by going to vote centers, but the process is much more up-to-date and accessible, which is the ultimate goal.
Yuma County started using the voting center concept last year, replacing the 39 polling sites that served the county's 42 precincts with consolidated centers where residents could vote regardless of where in the county they lived. For the smaller presidential and local primaries, this worked without major headaches.
But Nov. 6 was a big test for the system, with a voter turnout in Yuma County of more than 56 percent — or 42,521 cards cast, with 10,112 at the polls and another 2,239 provisional ballots.
Voting centers will return with the city of Yuma's election later this year. County elections director Sue Reynolds said she expects an improved experience then, as the county practices its new solutions.
“The vote center concept is not the problem,” she said. “That's what I want to make clear.”
Report: No evidence of abused process
Yuma County said concerns of undue voter assistance and electioneering were prevalent last November, but were “harsh accusations in the absence of demonstrative evidence.”
In a report reviewing the many issues that made Election Day a slow and not-always-painless process, County Administrator Robert Pickels also touched on the “perception among some that voter assistance, in some instances, turned into voter manipulation.”
“Yes, observations were made and inferences were drawn, but evidence of some systematic flaw that should somehow invalidate the election was simply not presented to County election officials,” he wrote. “Regardless, it should be the goal in every election to assure public confidence in the process. The mere fact that some individuals observed what they perceived to be improper activities gives rise to the need for a more attentive approach by County election officials in future elections.”
The memo didn't cover specific accusations but did mention friction between political party representatives, election watchers, community organizers and elections staff as election watchers said voter assistance was proactive and potentially being abused. Party representatives also suggested some disinterest by elections inspectors to election watchers' observations.
“Much of this was likely due to a lack of understanding by party representatives, election watchers and election inspectors alike about the role of the election watchers and the influence that they can or should have on the process they are observing,” the report concluded. “This confusion can be resolved through detailed agreements between political parties and training prior to Election Day on the statutory authority vested in election watchers.”
Long lines at the varying facilities also caused some confusion about electioneering boundaries. The 75-foot limit begins at the vote center's entrance, but many had lines longer than 75 feet. That made possible electioneering further back legal, though not necessarily appreciated. The report suggested circulating and compacting lines so that nobody is outside of the 75 foot limit — and ideally, keeping everybody completely inside.