State asked to consider switch to voting centers
PHOENIX — Arizona voters may be able to cast their ballots in 2014 at any polling place anywhere in the county — just as they already do in Yuma County.
Secretary of State Ken Bennett said Tuesday he wants lawmakers and county officials to consider voting centers' capable of not just accepting but processing all ballots, regardless of the home voting precinct of the voter. He said changing patterns in how Arizonans decide to vote makes the current system not only overly cumbersome but unnecessarily slow.
What it also could have been, he said, was embarrassing.
“If the close race in Arizona this year had been the presidential race, and the Electoral College was tied 265 to 265 and the whole country and world were waiting for Arizona's 11 electoral votes, what do you think the scrutiny would have been?''
Bennett said the problem is the method and the timing of how people vote.
“Statewide, for example, I think we had about 450,000 early ballots dropped off at the polls on election day or the day or two before.” That last-minute process, he said, creates problems that do not exist if people simply show up at their own polls, get a ballot and vote it there.
“Right now if you drop your ballot off at anyplace, it goes into a box, which gets transferred to a bigger box, which gets transferred to downtown,'' Bennett explained. He said sorting, verifying and counting all those early ballots took about a week.
All that would be different with voting centers.
In essence, each polling place would have electronic access to a list of every registered voter in the county, complete with an image of that person's signature.
Someone who shows up would be identified by voting precinct. The poll workers, using printers linked to computers, could then print out a ballot specific to that person, including the right legislative districts, county supervisors and school board members and bond votes.
What that means, Bennett said, is the ballot can be not only verified on site but also put into the machine that, properly programmed, will tabulate the vote. That would apply both to regular and early ballots.
Bennett said the system already is at work in Yuma and Yavapai counties. He said there are built-in safeguards, like having all of the voting centers linked to ensure that individuals don't show up at multiple locations.
Maricopa County elections director Karen Osborne said there's nothing wrong with the idea — on paper. But she said making it work is going to be an expensive proposition.
“You have to change the whole thing,'' she said. That means special machinery capable of figuring out and printing what in her case are 5,000 different ballot styles depending on residency and political parties. Then there's the interlink to keep people don't vote more often than once.
Finally, she said all the machines that now exist at polling places are capable of counting only one kind of ballot. They, too, would have to be replaced.
The price tag? “Well into $20 million,'' she said.
And that's even assuming it works.
Coconino County Recorder Candace Owens said while the concept sounds good, it has to be built with the possibility that things go wrong.
“The weakest link I think they've got to figure out is that ballot on demand.” Owens questioned what happens if a printer breaks down at one of the voting centers.
That actually happened in Yuma County
“You'd have to have printed ballots as a backup,'' she said. That means printed ballots for every possible voting precinct in the county.
The experience this year in Yuma County proved that things can go wrong. Some voting centers were having technical problems with their printers.
Yuma's back-up solution was to have touchscreens, something not available statewide.
Osborne said all that presumes that voters will accept the idea. She pointed to the experience the city of Phoenix tried with its voting centers.
“The places they were just sure people would go to, they didn't.
“They want to go by their homes, what they're used to doing,'' she continued. “And if whatever megacenter they have is not in that area, you're trying to outguess patterns of participation here.''
Bennett conceded that there may need to be a mix.
He said that Yavapai County, for example, used both voting centers in the areas around Prescott while also setting up a local polling place at the more remote community of Seligman.
Bennett also said there might be resistance to having fewer places to vote. “These are the very kinds of things that we will evaluate ... with the county officials.”
Bennett also pointed out that Arizona is one of several states required to “preclear'' any changes to voting laws or procedures through the U.S. Department of Justice.
That requirement, being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court, applies to states that have a history of discrimination against minorities. The purpose of the review is to ensure that election officials do not do anything to impede or dilute minority voting strength.
Finally, Bennett acknowledged there are “funding implications'' of what he wants to do.
Owens said a potentially simpler solution is to go all-in on the idea of early voting and go to an all-mail system.
Arizona is already more than halfway there, with 54 percent of those registered already getting their ballot by mail automatically. And that does not include others who make their request on an election-by-election basis.
Owens said that could still allow for a type of polling place to be open on Election Day for people to either drop off their ballots or pick up replacements for those that were lost or ruined. She said once the entire system is set up that way, the counting process will get simpler.