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Pima County finalizes 129 vote centers for August primary, November election

Board of Supervisors votes 4-1 for new election system, picks locations where ballots can be cast

Pima County finalized a list of 129 vote centers for the August primaries, the first in-person election of the year, and the November general election with a vote by the Board of Supervisors vote Tuesday. Officials have added 29 new locations since the county first approved the new election system in February.

The supervisors voted 4-1 to approve the list of election centers, which will allow voters to cast ballots at any location, regardless of where they live in the county. Supervisor Steve Christy, the lone Republican on the board, voted against it, saying “We have a long way to go” until vote centers should be used.

The voting centers will use a print-on-demand system to provide voters with the ballot that's appropriate for the precinct in which they're registered, but allow them to go to any location in the county, instead of one fixed voting site per precinct.

Supervisor Rex Scott commended the County Elections Department for increasing the number of locations, saying that now “it seems to me that we’re ready for high turnout, even though there’s been a trend to voting by mail.”

He also applauded the increase of check-in stations from one to two at precinct locations to four at each vote center and the county's plan for a PR campaign to inform voters about the new system.

Christy said he still wants to hear from the Elections Department and Recorder's Office again about the security and efficiency of the system.

“That cheerful optimism that you just expressed is not shared throughout the community,” Christy said to Scott. “There is a lot of territory yet to cover from where you painted quite a rosy picture.”

Board Chairwoman Sharon Bronson also voiced her doubts about the voting system, even after she voted in favor of it “very reluctantly,” she said. “I still think we have issues.”

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Supervisor Adelita Grijalva said she appreciates that the vote centers are placed “more equitably” and specifically in her district, District 5, which includes Tucson and is the county’s most urban district.

“We represent the largest number of city of Tucson locations, so I appreciate that distribution,” she said. She also encouraged the rest of the board to move forward with the new election system and not slow it down with doubt.

“Bringing the item back repeatedly to undermine vote centers and really undermine our democracy is, in my opinion, a really bad look for our board,” she said. “A majority of the board voted for the vote centers. We have to continue to move forward.”

The number of vote centers, which can take ballots from anywhere in the county, is smaller than the number of polling places that were assigned to voters based on their precinct location. There were previously 230 locations at which in-person votes could be cast on a precinct basis.

The vote centers were selected because they met 11 criteria to make sure the locations were accessible and equitably located.

Locations had to meet these requirements:

  • Room dimensions of 2,000 square feet
  • Free parking
  • ADA compliant
  • Close to public transportation
  • Restrooms for both poll workers and voters
  • Breakroom for poll workers
  • Electrical outlets
  • Close to population centers
  • Close to language minority communities
  • Close to low‐income communities
  • Traditional polling places

Security & connectivity

Vote centers are replacing assigned polling places to make voting quicker, more secure, accurate, accessible and convenient, especially for rural voters, county officials said. Voters will be able to check in through e-poll books, a process which is expected to take 30 seconds, officials said.

The new voting system is also expected to reduce the numbers of provisional ballots, which are cast when a voter's eligibility is uncertain then counted after the issue is resolved. With vote centers taking any Pima County ballot, conclusive election results can be determined days earlier, even with close races, officials said.

“The main reason for a provisional ballot is when somebody shows up at a precinct other than their own,” Supervisor Scott said. “Close to 30 percent of the ballots that were cast in person in the 2020 general election were provisional ballots.”

Public criticisms about the vote centers that were submitted to the county included concerns about cyberattacks against a system connected to the Internet and that shrinking the number of voting locations will “suppress the vote,” one county voter wrote.

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Scott addressed concerns about election security, saying “the fears about vote centers that are being propagated by some in our community are completely unfounded.”

“The arguments against (vote centers) do not stand up to scrutiny,” Scott said. “I’m confident that we are not only increasing access to voting by moving to this model, but we are also enhancing security when compared to the existing precinct model.”

Pima County election workers will be using 330 iPads along with e-poll books, and the check-in system will use Tenex software. Tenex received a $1.5 million contract to work with the county. Election staff are working with the county IT Department to test the equipment and software between May and June. Scott said the county chose Tenex for their confidence in delivering security and internet connectivity.

Christy said there are inherent problems with the voter centers and the technology they’re using.

“There are many, many inherent problems with vote centers,” he said. “There are many, many inherent problems with iPads. There are many, many inherent problems with ballots on demand being printed.”

Though all e-poll books have been delivered, Elections Director Constance Hargrove answered concerns from Christy and Bronson over supply-chain issues with the devices needed to make the switch. Hargrove said she's talking to the vendor every day to know if there is a problem. If the Elections Department doesn't get enough ballot printers, they'll revert to paper ballots, Hargrove said, and they'll have to make sure they print enough ballots for each location and hire more staff.

The bigger concern for Hargrove, she told the board, is if vote centers have issues printing ballots on-site, though she said the election system should still work in that case. The Elections Department is testing technology to make sure it works. She also said that elections staff is monitoring the Internet service of rural election sites to prepare for a loss of connectivity.

Hargrove said she's "absolutely not" worried about the security of the vote center system. "Because we are accustomed to operating in the old way, even though it was a precinct system, we can revert to that even in an e-poll book setting. We wouldn't have a problem bring that back if we need."

A list of vote centers by the county that are expected to have more than 600 voters includes:

  • Ellie Towne Flowing Wells Community
  • Knights of Columbus #5133
  • Roadrunner Elementary
  • Orange Grove Mobile Estates
  • Oro Valley Country Club
  • Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church & School
  • Sahuarita Town Hall
  • Richard Wilson K-8
  • Cienega High School
  • Copper Ridge Elementary School

The additional vote centers were added after a 31-day public outreach campaign by the county. The public gave 90 comments to the county Elections Department, which included a request to add locations like Kirk – Bear Canyon Public Library as a voter center.

Two vote centers will be open for the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, one at the Pascua Yaqui Tribe Wellness Center and another at the Pascua Neighborhood Center.

Early voting locations, 15 in total, will be open in July as usual and will be located in the same place as previous locations, according to county documents. ​​A majority of local voters cast their ballots early, mostly by mail, with 70-80 percent in recent elections returning their votes before Election Day and a record 87 percent early in 2020.

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

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported what would cause the county to use paper ballots in an upcoming election. If enough on-demand printers are not delivered, pre-printed ballots will be used.

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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