Pima Supes spar over election procedures, despite mostly positive report on August primary
Partisan questions & accusations of 'grandstanding' amid push for tweaks after primary was 'very smooth'
An interim report on the August primary election found few problems, but Pima County supervisors clashed Tuesday over "woes" and indicated they want more answers about possible fixes before November.
Republicans — including Supervisor Steve Christy — have continued to question election systems in the wake of Donald Trump's loss in 2020, while the Democratic majority on the Board of Supervisors pointed to some areas that should be improved before the general election.
The primary on Aug. 2 was “mostly successful,” said Supervisor Rex Scott at a board meeting Tuesday, despite what Christy called election “woes.”
A glowing early report from County Administrator Jan Lesher supported Scott’s assessment, as she found “very positive” responses from the public and poll workers about their voting experiences.
Lesher’s report is preliminary. Elections Director Constance Hargrove will deliver a more detailed report by Oct. 4, the first Board of Supervisors meeting next month. The supervisors unanimously voted to ask for the report after canvassing the primary results on Aug. 15.
The August primaries went “very smooth from beginning to the end,” according to the first report, but the Elections Department plans to “reinforce” training and “need more” electronic poll books for the general election in November.
Christy, the lone Republican on the board, first requested the report to explain election “woes” such as delays at vote centers and inaccurate information on voter information cards.
The Elections Department was pitted against a series of challenges heading into the primaries. The county switched to vote centers in February, hired a new elections director a few weeks later, had to test new election technology such as electronic poll books and ballot printers and struggled to find vaccinated Republicans to staff election boards, which need an equal number of people from both major political parties.
Though they voted to have staff draft the report, Supervisor Adelita Grijalva congratulated the work of county elections staff and Supervisor Matt Heinz said last month he considered his voting experience “flawless.”
Christy, following a standard Republican line in questioning elections since Donald Trump's loss, has been challenging officials all year on security and preparedness, but other supervisors agreed that voter confusion during the primary was “just not acceptable,” as Board Chair Sharon Bronson said at the Aug. 15 meeting. Christy voted against certifying the canvass of the 2020 election — in which he was voted back into his seat.
Lesher's report acknowledged that issues such as a “two-hour wait for ballot stock (at the Kirk Bear Canyon Library vote center) is unacceptable” and said “some areas of concern were identified that need improvement relating to equipment, human error, logistics and supplies.”
Overall Scott agreed with Lesher's report which he summed by saying the primaries were “mostly successful.” Elections staff were able to solve problems such as ballot shortages, discrepancies in vote counts and bad connections between the e-poll books and printers, her report found.
The information from the report “ is by no means all-inclusive,” it admits, but “the larger points are unlikely to change,” Scott said. “The bottom line is that our first run with e-poll books and vote centers was a success, which is a credit to our employees and our volunteers.”
Christy, who was attending the event virtually, challenged Scott’s summary right away, saying with his first comments “the only thing missing from Supervisor Scott’s report were rainbows and unicorns.” He drew a solitary laugh from the audience, who were animated during the discussion.
The county finished counting primary votes in early August. Voter turnout was around 36% for the county, with almost 228,000 ballots cast, according to a county report. Almost 197,000 of the ballots — 86% of the total — were early ballots. About 27,000 voters cast their ballot on Election Day. More than 4,000 ballots were provisional.
The Secretary of State's Office finished canvassing the election results from Pima County in late August.
The primaries included a tight race in Oro Valley and congressional candidates vying for a bid in the Nov. 8 general election. Candidates for top state offices were also on the primary ballot, including governor, secretary of state and attorney general
A 'mostly successful' election
Lesher based her report on feedback from the Elections Department, the public and the Elections Integrity Commission, according to the report. Their comments about the vote centers were “very positive,” she wrote, and they reported that issues with technology "quickly" and "easily resolved.”
“Poll workers commented that they found the new system to be an improvement from 2020 and that e-poll books allowed for a faster and smoother process,” Lesher wrote. “The most common observation from poll workers regarding the e-poll books was that they needed more of them or expected to need more of them for the General Election, which is great feedback.”
Similarly, the county was able to avoid major delays at the vote centers and “the redirection of voters to another available close voting site was possible due to the vote center model.”
“The Elections Department successfully deployed the use of vote centers in the primary election for the first time in Pima County,” Lesher wrote. “The e-poll books and ballot-on-demand printers performed well and with minimal disruptions in the majority of the 129 vote centers, with most locations experiencing only a few quickly remedied issues.”
Nearly every other county in Arizona has already been using vote centers, some for years. Pima County is the 12th out of 15 counties in the state to make the switch.
The report did acknowledge a two-hour delay at the Kirk Bear Canyon Library, which ran out of ballots in the middle of Election Day. This delay was “unacceptable,” according to the report, but “the (poll) inspector made the decision to offer and direct voters to a nearby location instead.”
Some voters were sent to Morris K. Udall Regional Center, and “the inspector also sent a poll worker… to assist with the increased volume of voters,” which “was the appropriate decision.”
“Many voters also chose to vote at the Udall site,” according to the report, but “some decided to wait for the vote center to reopen, where a very long line was observed. Once reopened, voters were processed and the line moved quickly.”
The “1,700 temporary aides and workers” that the county hired for the primary election also “performed well and admirably in a new system and with new equipment,” Lesher wrote.
On Election Day, 10 different vote centers were reporting numbers that were different from what county has reported, according to Lesher's report, but a commissioner with EIC who was with Hargrove on Election Day attested that “every time the computer count differed from the count on the report, every one of them was investigated.”
Those “discrepancies” in the vote count, as the report calls them, were “due to inspector fatigue,” or exhaustion from the inspector reporting the county at each vote center, which caused counting to be “not always accurate or inputted correctly.”
Pima County has not provided the Tucson Sentinel with details about those discrepancies, despite numerous requests for that information in the month since the election.
The report also mentioned that “there were several precincts where solutions were not available and those were all investigated the next day and resolved satisfactorily.” It noted “that as with every election, there are minor procedural discrepancies at polling places by poll workers. Vote centers are no different and these are not unusual,” and the EIC commissioner who was present said “she was very confident in this process,” however, because Hargrove investigated and fixed each of the discrepancies.
The Elections Department also found a low rate of provisional ballots, with "90 percent of those due to registered early voters who did not vote their early ballot and instead cast their vote in person at a vote center" and minor issues with connectivity between the e-poll books and ballot printers, which "were temporary and could be fixed simply by logging off/back on to the e-poll books."
The department did, however, find themselves fixing mistakes with training and technology all the way up to the day of in-person primary voting on Aug. 2, some of which weren't mentioned in the preliminary report.
Just prior to in-person primary voting, an Elections Department staffer bungled training by telling temporary poll workers that voters registered with a political party can choose a different ballot.
In-person polling was also delayed the day of primaries, board members said on Aug. 15, by ballot printers not working and supplies running out. People who tried to reach out to the Recorder’s Office by phone were also put on long holds, Bronson said last month, citing comments sent to her District 3 office.
Technical issues with the new e-poll books also cropped up during a mock election in June intended to show how the new vote centers would work. The department put on a second mock election to “ease doubts” in the voting system.
Voters were doubtful all the way up until election day, however, leading Hargrove to make a public statement the day before primaries that elections would be “safe, fair and secure.”
Christy and the public also aimed extra scrutiny at Hargrove, who was hired in February to replace Brad Nelson, who retired.
Lesher delivered the preliminary report early, however, because Scott asked the board to have discussion “closer to the completion of August primaries.”
“Waiting until October, right before early ballots are sent out, for the board to discuss this is not how we should be doing it,” Scott said. “There is great importance in reassuring the public about the safety and security of our elections.”
Scott admitted that he was “also very much motivated by recent headlines” about a judge dismissing the lawsuit by Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem. Land and Finchem sought to ban electronic voting machines, but the judge found they had no evidence to substantiate their conspiracist claims.
The EIC will be the first to look at the final after-action report by Hargrove at their Sept. 16 meeting.
'If anybody’s grandstanding in this space, Supervisor Christy, it’s you'
Responding to Scott’s summary of the success of the primaries, Christy said the Democrat “has done a wonderful job of defending the Elections Department.”
Christy then said he was “being chastised for questioning a voting system that’s never been implemented in Pima County by two new officials who have never run a full blown election in Pima County.”
He then asked why Lesher had overlooked “the recorder’s after-action report,” but Scott later noted that Pima County Recorder Gabriella Cázares-Kelly, elected in 2020, was the head of an “independent office not accountable to the board.” Hilary Hiser, chief deputy recorder, did say at the Aug. 19 EIC meeting that the office was "impressed with their operations and their staff worked very well with the Elections Department."
He also went on to say Lesher’s report “was brought in the most inappropriate manner, in the most inappropriate time” and that bringing it up at that meeting was “superfluous and grandstanding.”
Christy was directing his comments at Scott, who put the discussion item on the day’s agenda, and called him out for “taking a swipe at Trump.”
Disinformation about Pima County’s elections, Scott said, had come from “a scheming former president who refuses to accept the fact that he lost the 2020 presidential election,” which drew a firm “boo” from some in the audience in the chambers.
He also talked about the “misplaced anger fomented by Donald Trump” and mentioned the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, who have a 4-1 Republican majority, for standing up “against the big lie that the 2020 election was somehow stolen from Donald Trump and stood up for the integrity of their system” during the Finchem and Lake lawsuit.
After attacking Scott’s position, Christy said “I think we have both sides, and I hope we can move on.” To which Scott answered “Uh, no” before Bronson spoke up to close out the discussion.
Scott addressed Bronson, saying Mmadam chair, if I may,” before he spoke, following typical procedure, but Bronson first told him to “keep your voice down,” which drew a small but enthusiastic clapping from the audience.
“No, I’m not going to keep my voice down when I’m being accused of grandstanding by a colleague who monopolized this topic at the last meeting to further his own ends,” Scott said, protesting.
“Supervisor Christy, you’re very fond of taking up a significant amount of time during our meeting to advance your own causes and your own opinions,” he said. “Then someone else has the temerity to put something on the agenda — which is the right of every supervisor, and I’ve never challenged your right to do that, sir — you refer to it as grandstanding.”
Scott was mostly upset about the grandstanding remark and blasted Christy “for how much time you spent on these emails and phone messages” from the public about election concerns “that were supposedly so substantive.” Christy was using those messages to “carry the water of members of your own party,” Scott said.
“If anybody’s grandstanding in this space, Supervisor Christy, it’s you,” Scott said. “You’ve been doing that on this issue since its inception, and you’re continuing it today, and you’ll probably continue it into October.”
Scott refused to work on Christy’s timeline because “that’s what you want,” he told him. He then doubled down on his Trump comments, saying the only person he “chastised” was “President Trump, who I believe is worthy of that.”
At the end of his red-faced rebuttal, Scott then offered to “take back what I said about you grandstanding. I’d certainly appreciate it if you did the same for me.”
Christy said “I can play the last word game” and defended his grandstanding charge against Scott.
The feud ended with Scott turning to confront Bronson, saying to the chairwoman “you’re a little bit more willing to shut me down than you have been to shut down our colleague from District 4,” which is in Vail and Eastern Pima County.
“I disagree,” Bronson said.
Scott and Christy also sparred during the Aug. 9 meeting, when Scott proposed a resolution to sue the state to end limits on local gun control. That item passed with Christy and Bronson voting against it.
Bronson said the proposal would have “unintended consequences,” but Christy accused Scott of trying to “take away everyone’s guns.” Scott responded, saying Christy’s attacks were “painting with a very broad brush.”
At that meeting, the public was also invested in the discussion, with more than a dozen in attendance that day delivering speeches during the call to the audience against Scott’s proposal. However, a couple of speakers also came out to that meeting to support it.
Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.