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Pima County voters will have choice of polling places with new 'vote centers'

New election system OKed by Board of Supervisors on Tuesday

Voter centers will replace precinct polling places in Pima County for the 2022 primary and general elections, following a jumbled Pima County Board of Supervisors decision on Tuesday.

Voters will be able to cast ballots at any voting location, rather than assigned polling places, after the supervisors approved shifting to use new election technology with a 4-1 vote.

The board adopted vote centers twice Tuesday after confusion during their morning meeting led multiple supervisors to pass the measure before they had fully discussed it. The board also approved a $1.5 million contract with the software technology company Tenex to provide e-poll books, an electronic check-in system.

Although a substantial majority of local voters have been casting their ballots early, with 70-80 percent in recent elections returning their votes before Election Day and a record 87 percent early in 2020, some voters still prefer to show up in person.

Although the state Legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey have instituted some changes in voting by mail, that choice will remain available for voters who request a ballot.

Voter centers and e-poll books are expected to make in-person voting cheaper, quicker and more secure, accurate, accessible and convenient, especially for rural voters, according to county officials. By reducing the number of provisional ballots that are cast, the new system should mean conclusive results can be determined days earlier, even with close races, they said. By using e-poll books, voters should be able to check in more quickly — in just 30 seconds, officials claimed.

Voters will still cast paper ballots, with one printed for each individual with all of the offices and propositions they are eligible to vote for when they check in at a voting center.

Officials said they expect to set up about 100 different voting centers around the county, down from about 230 precinct locations.

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Comments from some members of the public expressed concern about cyberattacks and voter fraud, often citing false claims about the 2020 election.

The annual additional cost of the voter centers is expected to be around $150,000 per year, after account for about $210,000 in annual savings over the current more paper-intensive election system, according to county documents.

The move to vote centers comes with support from other counties, including Republican-run Yavapai and Cochise counties, and Pima County's Election Integrity Commission, which voted to recommend them to the Board of Supervisors. Republican Benny White, who ran for county recorder and sits on the commission, urged “reality and facts, not assumptions and presumptions” to guide the decision to adopt voter centers and supported the change. 

In Arizona, 11 out of 15 counties — including Maricopa, the most populous — were using vote centers before Pima's decision to make the change.

There are 18 states that will give 3.2 million American voters access to vote centers in 2022. Election officials from Cochise County, who moved from 49 polling places to 17 voter centers in 2015, strongly recommended the switch to voter centers for the benefit to voters and how much it saves in tax dollars.

“We’ve now gone through three election cycles using the voter center model, and it’s one of the best decisions our Board of Supervisors has made relating to elections,” Cochise County officials wrote. “It gives the voter so many more options and based on statistics, increases voter participation. It has saved taxpayer dollars as it relates to poll workers, equipment, location rental, staff time and improved efficiency, which contributes to overall satisfaction of all county residents.”

It also reduces the use of provisional ballots, Yavapai and Cochise election officials wrote, which saves money and speeds up vote tabulations on election nights. Voter centers are expected to reduce the number of provisional ballots submitted in Pima County by 83 percent, according to Pima County.

Democrats, including County Recorder Gabriella Cázares-Kelly, supported the reform. The League of Women Voters also submitted written support and spoke in favor of voter centers at the Tuesday meeting.

Some local Republican officials opposed the move, citing vague concerns about "fraud" related to Donald Trump's loss in the 2020 election. White — one of the GOP's longtime local election integrity analysts and a candidate who himself lost in 2020, to Cázares-Kelly —  has dismissed claims that the election was "stolen" from the Republican presidential candidate.

A 'bungle' then a pass

Supervisor Sharon Bronson, chairwoman of the county board, opposed the adoption of voting centers the first time that the supervisors voted on the question. The motion first passed 3-2 with Bronson and Supervisor Steve Christy, the lone Republican on the board, voting “no.” However, the first vote came before discussion over the item was completed, with Supervisor Adelita Grijalva saying she had offered a substitute motion to continue to discuss the issue.

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 That led the supervisors to reconsider the motion, hold more discussion, and redo the vote.

“I think we’re making a mistake that we will regret,” Bronson said after the first vote. “We have no elections director at this point. We have a new recorder who has not had the experience, and she also has all new staff members who have not had the experience of running an election, and I fear this is not headed in a good direction.”

Pima County’s election director of 20 years, Brad Nelson, retired at the beginning of this year. The interim elections director is Mary Martinson, who is also retiring soon. Cázares-Kelly began her term as the county recorder in 2021. Each of the supervisors and their staff were given separate presentations by county election officials in the weeks leading up to the Tuesday meeting.

Confusion over the first vote came after Bronson moved to delay the vote to the second supervisors' meeting in March. Grijalva, who wanted to move ahead with a vote Tuesday, made a motion that Supervisors Rex Scott and Christy understood to be a motion for a discussion, not a vote. The clerk of the board would later confirm that Grijalva’s motion was indeed to approve the item, as Bronson had thought.

The board almost moved on to a related item on the agenda before Christy spoke up, saying they were “bungling” the process.

“This whole process is not in any way, shape or form a transparent or thorough discussion of the pros or cons of this system,” Christy said. Supervisor Rex Scott then made a motion to reconsider the motion so they could discuss and vote on it again. Bronson voted in favor of the motion on the second attempt after hearing the support it had during the discussion period.

Public comments against voter centers mentioned voter fraud and concerns about hacking the electronic voting system. Pima County doesn’t have “the sophisticated cybersecurity to stop hackers from infiltrating any electronic voting mechanisms,” one public comment read. Others referred to the false claim by former President Donald Trump that there was substantial voter fraud in the 2020 election.

Trump, who lost Pima County by nearly 20 points, has also claimed that the election in Pima County was “rigged and stolen” based on an “analysis of mail-in ballots,” a claim Bronson has called “bat-shit crazy.”

Paper-focused polling places, however, offer more opportunity for voter fraud, said Martinson, Pima's elections chief, because voters can register at two different polling places by saying they changed their address. Vote centers, by contrast, don’t rely on addresses printed in paper rolls to check people in, and will mark someone as having voted if they go to a second voter center. Voter centers also reduce the chance for human error, Martinson said.

The number of mail-in ballots has also been increasing since before the pandemic, which adds to the need to reduce the number of polling places. Voter centers will help with that reduction, but the County Election Department expects to have centers available in every district and have them in rural and tribal communities where polling places usually are.

The County Elections Department is considering putting more locations where there are more Republicans because they've been told not to use mail-in ballots, Martinson said.

Christy voted in opposition to bringing this “completely revolutionary way of voting” to Pima County because of “staffing issues, logistics and the firewall between the Recorder’s office and the Elections Department.” He said the Elections Department is understaffed and the county recorder too new to the job to implement the new voting system, echoing Bronson’s concern.

He also mentioned that 2022 will include elections for major offices in the state including that of governor, senator and U.S. representatives, saying it's too important of an election for the introduction of a new voting center.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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