Q&A: Pima Recorder Cazares-Kelly on county's new voting system
With her 2020 election win, Pima County Recorder Gabriella Cázares-Kelly made history as the first Native American to hold a countywide seat in Pima County, defeating her Republican opponent by more than 80,000 votes.
Now, more than a year into her first term, she's helping to usher in a new era for local elections.
This August, Pima County voters will now be able to cast ballots in-person at any one of about 100 vote centers on Election Day and will check-in using electronic poll books in lieu of paper voting rosters.
Both changes to the local elections process were approved in a 4-1 vote by the Pima County Board of Supervisors on Feb. 15.
Following the vote, Cázares-Kelly spoke with the Green Valley News about the decision and some of the concerns raised by supervisors and voters during the meeting. The following excerpts have been edited for clarity.
GVN: The Board of Supervisors voted to approve these changes that you've been working to pass for the past year. What was your reaction to the vote and discussion on Feb. 15?
GCK: We have been answering questions for weeks, so I was really disappointed that there were so many concerns brought up at a public meeting with no opportunity to respond … I think it was irresponsible because we know the voting public is very concerned about their vote and we've had this information available, transparent and have been presenting it.
Part of our core values here in our institution is to be transparent, and the information that I provide to the community needs to be factual, so the concerns that I feel were brought up during the meeting were political more than anything, and were distracting to the process. These changes are simply going to catch Pima County up to the rest of the country.
GVN: Since these changes affect both the Recorder's Office and the Elections Department, can you give us an overview of how each department will be affected?
GCK: The Recorder's Office oversees voter registration and early voting, which is anything prior to Election Day. In Arizona, there are about 27 days of early voting and our office is responsible for setting up those early voting locations throughout the county.
On Election Day, the Elections Department sets up voting locations, which are currently 240 precinct sites throughout the county, but in this upcoming primary it will be about 100 vote centers. They also collect our mail-in ballots, but are primarily focused on getting ballots to people who have not voted prior to Election Day, which is usually about 10% of voters. The Recorder's Office verifies signatures for mail-in ballots, but the ballots remain closed until we send it over to Elections, where they open them, tabulate them and provide us with the results. That's how we work together.
We also do voter registration and maintain the voting rolls, and the only change our office is making right now is the way we deliver that information, which Elections uses to check in voters. What used to happen is we would print all of these rosters, put them in plastic bags – not even bound – and send them over to Elections. Poll workers then assemble at least three voter books per location, and that's what they would look through to see if somebody was on the roster. Now instead, we're going to be able to do all this with an iPad.
GVN: During the meeting, some board members expressed concern about staffing levels, experience and your ability to tackle this change in time for the 2022 election cycle. How do you respond?
GCK: While I am somewhat of a figurehead, I've been in the office for 13 months now, so I'm not exactly new and it's not just me – I have a whole team of people behind me.
Among them are a project manager with over 20 years of experience, a deputy who has been with the office for a decade, an IT Systems Administrator who has been with the department for about eight years, a Systems Application Developer who has also been with the office for a number of years, and personnel from several other departments helping out, including the Pima County Information Technology Department and the Procurement Department.
There was a comment made that the Recorder's Office does not have an IT Manager. The Recorder's Office has never had an IT Manager – it's position I created when I took office, and we have actually just provided an offer to a highly qualified candidate that I wish I could share more on, but it's something I took initiative to do as I've been working for the past year to organize this office in a way that responds better to the needs of the current time.
We know this project is going to be heavily reliant on IT programming as we are updating antiquated software, materials and equipment, so we really are beefing up our IT Department.
GVN: Supply chain constraints were brought up during the meeting as something that has been a problem throughout the pandemic. Did your office take into account possible delays in getting this new technology?
GCK: We absolutely have been looking at all of this, and that's why we felt this needed to be approved (in February) so we could order the equipment much earlier than we would have had to if we were not in the middle of a pandemic. We built extra time into this process because of concerns of delays, and the Procurement Department has been working with us to help us get all the equipment in the time we need.
I've also had assurances from the service provider, Tenex Software Solutions, that we will have all the equipment in time and we've been meeting with them regularly. It's one of the reasons we wanted to use Tenex because they have much larger access to distributors, they have cooperative agreements with their suppliers, and they've been keeping us up-to-date with everything that's available to us.
We have some equipment on hand, and have been able to test much of it within the Vail School District, so we're really just scaling up that technology with a much larger order.
All of the equipment is scheduled to arrive in May, in time for the target date of getting everything in order for the August 2, 2022 primary elections.
GVN: The use of vote centers and e-poll books has been documented in Arizona since about 2011, and a majority of the state's counties have now adopted some form of vote center model. Why did these reforms take over a decade to bring to Pima County?
GCK: There was a pilot program done here in Pima County in 2014 under the previous administration and under Brad Nelson (former Pima County Elections Director), and he loved it. He thought it was great and wonderful, but the previous administration in the Recorder's Office did not want to move forward with it. I don't know the particulars, but they weren't comfortable with the technology, but that was a number of years ago, and we know the technology has drastically improved since.
Nelson approached me when I first took office asking if I was interested, and I said absolutely. It made complete sense to me, and that's how the Vail School District pilot was brought about because we wanted to test it and see if it would work for Pima County, and it just made sense – it helps voters and was just a win-win-win across the board, so we absolutely wanted to make it happen.
Now that we are on this path, the office is behind the technology. Staff is excited that we're going to be doing this because they are the ones that get the angry phone calls asking where to vote, and calls from voters who are frustrated they can't vote in a certain place.
Ultimately, this technology makes it easier for people to access their vote, which is our most fundamental right. We should be doing everything we can to make it easy, fast and accessible for people to participate in our democracy, and whatever we can do to help that, we're going to try to do that.
This report was first published by the Green Valley News.