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MVD glitch: Here's how updating your license can cost your vote

Confusing forms and voters unfamiliar with election procedures combined for problems

In Pima County, problems in Tuesday's presidential nominating election can in large part be traced back to an influx of infrequent primary voters, and a confusing MVD form that led to many registrations being switched to independent.

Turnout was high in Pima County, with nearly 57 percent of eligible voters casting a ballot. Most who took part — about 71 percent — cast an early ballot.

The "vast majority" of local voters who thought they were eligible party members but ran into trouble had recently updated their information with the Motor Vehicles Division, said Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez.

TucsonSentinel.com tracked down the root causes of the complaints of many voters who got in touch with us after they experienced problems at the polls. Here's what our investigation found out about Arizona voters who had their party registrations switched and didn't realize it until they showed up at the polls: a confusing paper driver's license form was involved in every case we checked out. Contrary to reports elsewhere, the online registration system doesn't allow voters to update their info without making a party choice.

While Tucson-area voters didn't experience the hours-long lines that some in Maricopa County endured, many here were also unable to easily cast their vote.

For many, that's because they had chosen to be "independent." Voters not registered with a political party were not eligible to participate in Arizona's version of a presidential primary. A number went to the polls anyway, only to be turned away.

Even though the state's presidential preference election is closed to all but party members, those registered as Party Not Designated can participate in the congressional, state and local primaries in August — but must select a specific party's ballot.

For some voters, they didn't know they were registered as non-party voters, as they hadn't cast a primary ballot in years, if ever.

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For other voters, they had been registered Democrats, Republicans or Greens, but had been switched to non-party registration due to having errantly filled out a driver's license form.

That was the case for Fred Urbina. The long-time Democrat made a change to his driver's license in December 2015, and checked a box on the Motor Vehicle Division form to update his voter registration as well.

The license form asks, in part, "Are you a United States citizen who wishes to register to vote or update your existing registration?" The voter registration section is buried in middle of the first page of dense text on a two-page form.

Those who are already registered will have their addresses updated on the voting rolls if they check "yes." But those who do so, but don't also make a pick in the party preference box on the right side of the form have ended up classified as "other - blank" as MVD clerks enter the data. That has led to county recorders switching voters to Party Not Designated after the data is transmitted to them.

Urbina found himself listed as PND when he went to cast a ballot Tuesday. Urbina, who said he normally receives an early ballot, was surprised by the change, but was able to cast a provisional ballot.

The county recorder said Urbina's ballot will be counted, as his registration was switched due to the license form.

Some voters may not even realize that a section in the middle of the driver's license form has a bearing on the registration. Hastily filling out the form, they could check "yes" after reading, "Are you a United States citizen...?"

County recorders across the state made a policy decision "about two months ago" to not switch the registration of party voters if they updated their info at Motor Vehicles but made no choice of a party on the form, Rodriguez said.

"Recorders started noticing that was happening, and we determined that we would not switch the party registrations of voters who didn't make a specific choice on those forms," she said Friday. "We don't actually see those forms," as MVD sends election officials updated information, she said.

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"Did we catch them all? No," she said. Most voters use ServiceArizona.com, which allows for easy online changes to licenses, vehicle registrations and voter registration, she said.

The design of Arizona's online system requires voters to make a specific party or no-party choice, precluding the sort of error that has happened with the paper form, Rodriguez said. TucsonSentinel.com's testing of the system showed that those who try to register or change their address with the online system get an error message if they don't make a party choice.

"We're all about inclusion. We don't like to tell voters that they're not eligible," said Rodriguez, an elected Democrat who says she favors opening the presidential preference election to independent voters, just as the other primaries are.

Kelly Green is another longtime registered voter.

"I used to be a proud Democrat and now I'm so angry," Green said. After showing up as PND on the rolls at the polling place, Green called the Recorder's Office on Tuesday.

"They told me my vote might not count, but I should go back and get a provisional ballot. I went back after work and demanded a provisional ballot. The people at the polling place were rude, but relented after I demanded it," he said.

Green recently updated info with MVD, but said he didn't update his voter information while doing so. Rodriguez said Green's voting information was changed after that visit, when information from a paper form showed his choice was "other -blank."

Green's provisional ballot will be counted, Rodriguez said after examining his case with TucsonSentinel.com.

"Anyone can come down to the office as look at their record," the recorder said. "We want to work with everybody to make sure they're listed correctly."

Voters reported a variety of concerns about their voting experience.

Megan Beardmore, a University of Arizona psychology student, was able to vote by mail before election day, after she had to call the Recorder's Office to request an early ballot she was expecting.

Beardmore's records show that she had not asked to be on the Permanent Early Voting List, but had requested early ballots for last year's local elections, Rodriguez said.

Some voters have considered themselves members of political parties without being listed on any party's rolls.

Brian Lopez said he was surprised to find himself listed as PND when he went to cast a ballot. Lopez described himself as a longtime Democrat.

But his registration history shows that he was signed up as a Democrat in 2004, but his party was switched to independent after an MVD visit in 2007. As he hasn't voted in any recent primaries, Tuesday's election would have been the first where being listed PND would affect his ability to vote.

"Just to be clear, I don't think I've fallen victim to any 'voter suppression' conspiracy," he said. "There is definitely room for improvement within the system — but in
the end, it's my fault not knowing the rules. I'll get it right next time around."

A voter in a Republican household, Katrina Ellis was turned away from the polls as an ineligible independent Tuesday. Her voting records indicate that she has regularly voted in general elections but has never cast a primary ballot, and has never been a registered Republican.

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Of the many voters whose cases we investigated this week, we found just a single instance of a Pima County voter whose troubles at the polls didn't have a simple — if often somewhat maddening — explanation.

Rodriguez said she would look into why Jayson Gilliam — who is on the rolls under a different name than he uses in public — was turned away and not given a provisional ballot, despite carrying a voter card labeled "DEM."

Chris Babbie, who like many turned away from the polls Tuesday was vocal about his experience on social media, has been an independent voter who has cast ballots in both Democratic and Republican primaries.

The difference between who is eligible to vote in the other primary elections and the partisan nominating vote in Arizona isn't readily apparent, Babbie said.

"In the end it was my error," he said in hindsight, but "if that verbiage had been included" it would have been more clear that his most recent request for an early ballot in the primaries didn't allow him to participate in Tuesday's vote.

"I would have corrected the problem myself ... if it had been more apparent," he said.

Babbie said the difference between the primaries and what he called the "Preferential Indication Ceremony" is "semantics." He also said that he didn't have a voter registration card indicating that he wasn't a registered party member.

Rodriguez said she backs opening up the presidential nominating vote, and noted that a new batch of voter notification cards was being sent out beginning this week.

That routine action raise eyebrows among many voters who got their new cards in the mail even as the polls were still open Tuesday.

"My experience was more strange than problematic," said Nicola Freegard, who was one of the voters who got a new card on Election Day.

"Nothing about my voting status has changed since I registered four years ago and I did not change, request or expect a new card," she said Wednesday. "Why would they mail out cards to early voters to arrive on voting day? It made me wonder if my early ballot was even counted."

Rodriguez said that new cards are being sent to all registered voters, as part of a regular process "required by law."

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"Maybe my timing wasn't so great," she said, but explained that with a special election coming in May, "we had to mail out a half-million" cards with enough time to see which are returned as undeliverable before early ballots are mailed beginning April 20.

"If we didn't have that May election, we wouldn't have dropped (the cards) this early," she said. "No time is a good time" with so many elections in one year, she said.

As for Freegard's early ballot? She checked it online, and it was counted. Anyone who cast an early ballot or a provisional ballot can check its status on the Recorder's Office website.

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If you had problems casting a ballot in Arizona's presidential preference election, we want to know more about it. Please email us with details about your experience: editor@tucsonsentinel.com.

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