Despite poll issues, Pima County primary election 'very successful,' officials say
Recorder 'confident' about Nov. 8 general election with new vote center system
Poll workers needed better training and partisan observers bothered staff at ballot processing centers in the August primary, officials told the Pima County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday in a review of how problems are being worked through before the November election.
County election officials delivered their final after-action report about the primary election, and talked about plans to improve voting ahead of the Nov. 8 general election.
Overall, County Recorder Gabriella Cázares-Kelly is “excited for the 2022 general election,” according to an after-action report she presented to the supervisors.
“(We) feel confident that the improvements implemented for the primary election will only enhance the overall operations of early voting during the general (election),” the recorder wrote. “We know these improvements will ensure our constituents have better access to the electoral process.”
Elections Director Constance Hargrove said her department is working hard to prepare for the general election, just five weeks away, saying that since the primaries “we’re still working. We haven’t stopped working.”
The primary was the first election in which Pima County used a "voting center" model — already employed by nearly all other Arizona counties — that allows ballots to be cast at any voting site throughout the county on Election Day, rather than requiring voters to go to a specific precinct site.
At their first meeting after the Aug. 2 primaries, the supervisors asked for areport for both themselves and the Election Integrity Commission, a county oversight body.
Two after-action reports, detailing issues, feedback and an improvement plan related to the primaries, were written, one by the county recorder and the other by the elections director.
Cázares-Kelly and Hargrove appeared before the EIC and presented their reports on Sept. 23, when the EIC made recommendations that are included in an updated election report.
The supervisors first asked for the reports from both the Recorder’s Office and Elections Department when they canvassed the primary results two weeks after the election. Republican Steve Christy, the only supervisor from his party, was the first to call for a report on “election day woes,” such as delays at vote centers and errors by poll workers.
Training poll workers
At Tuesday's meeting, Hargrove said that an election inspector brought a box of ballots home with him, though he lived across the street. An election staffer also bungled training just ahead of the primaries by telling temporary election workers that voters registered with a political party can choose a different ballot.
“The training provided before the election did not adequately prepare some poll workers to conduct the election successfully,” according to Hargrove’s report. However, her report looked at training staff to use polling technology as the main problem, writing “much of the problem was that adequate planning did not happen when Elections acquired the e-pollbooks and ballot-on-demand printers.”
It was Pima County’s first year using ballot printers and electronic pollbooks, which are iPads used to find voter information and check them in at vote centers. The new polling technology was the target of a large share of the scrutiny leading up to the elections as some GOP voters — and Christy — expressed worry about their ability to be hacked.
Poll workers need to be trained in small classes, according to Hargrove’s report, writing “the class size made it difficult for everyone to practice using the equipment, and it was sometimes difficult to hear the instructor…The goal is to have no more than 40 people per class.”
Although the person leading the training courses for poll workers “did well with the technology portion of the training,” Hargrove’s report acknowledged that “the trainer made some mistakes and provided some misinformation while teaching some classes.”
“The training is something we need to address before the general election,” Hargrove said at the board meeting, but Christy also pushed her to explain how she handled the election inspector who left a vote center alone with a box of ballots.
“I did speak with him after the election, and he indeed did take the ballots home for the sheriff to pick up,” Hargrove said to Christy. “That was not proper, and I did tell him that.”
The inspector did maintain “chain of custody,” which means he documented who had the ballots before and after him, Hargrove said, but another person should have been with him. The ballots were handed over to the sheriff on the election night, the same night they were taken home, and Hargrove said “steps have been made so that won’t occur again.”
Christy, who has long echoed claims by Republican supporters of Donald Trump about "issues" during the 2020 election — and who refused to vote to approve the formal tally of the last election in which he ran — said Tuesday that if the concerns of GOP voters aren't addressed, than those "conspiracy theories" will continue to circulate.
Voters and county supervisors have both brought up polling technology repeatedly this year, as the primary election saw the county switch to the use of ballot-on-demand printers and electronic pollbooks, which are iPads used to register voters.
The Elections Department is also still trying to balance the party representation of its election boards, which must be made up of poll workers from each party.
“The law actually states first the election board is the inspector, the marshal and the judges, and then we can have as many clerks as necessary,” Hargrove said. “When I say equitable distribution, the clerks don’t have to be from one party or another, but the inspector, the marshal and the judges do.”
A shortage of Republicans who've been vaccinated against COVID-19 made it hard for the Elections Department to fill those slots ahead of the primary, but the supervisors lifted the vaccination requirement for the election board positions in July — and recently, all other vaccine requirements for county employees have ended.
Hargrove is also trying to balance party representation among their election staff, but she told the Tucson Sentinel that she already has a list of qualified Republicans candidates that was given to her by the local party chapter.
Observe and report
The county recorder's report focused on early voting and said that they “received predominately positive feedback from the voting public related to the early voting operations.”
“Early voting during the August 2, 2022, primary election was very successful,” according to the report. “The Recorder’s Office staff did an admirable job and provided exceptional customer service to the voters of Pima County.”
Cázares-Kelly did have a problem with political observers, however. Observers are people approved by their party chair to monitor the early ballot verification process, when signatures are checked and ballots are counted but not yet opened.
Observers are not required by law, but the Pima County Recorder’s Office still invites them to come to monitor the verification process at the ballot processing center to keep with precedent. No observers were invited to early voting sites, however, because those locations are too small and the Recorder’s Office doesn’t have enough staff to help the observer, she said.
For this year’s primaries, the Pima County Republican Party sent 26 observers to the ballot processing center, and they spent 100 hours total watching operations. Republican observers averaged 4 hours per visit, according to the report.
The Pima County Democratic Party sent 24 observers, who spent about 34 hours total at the facility, with an average of 1.5 hours per visit, according to their report.
Staff at those processing centers had problems with those observers, however, “especially female staff,” who were “made to feel uncomfortable by male observers.”
One observer was asked to put away a set of binoculars while watching the verification process, another refused to wear a mask then left, another “was reminded that ‘his opinions about fraudulent elections’ would not be tolerated.”
One observer “had been displaying COVID-like symptoms” and another “needed multiple reminders to not speak to the other observers and multiple reminders that they cannot stare at private voter data during verification.”
Observers would also interrupt staff “‘because they’re bored’ and try to make conversation, which isn’t allowed while handling ballots, as high concentration is needed.”
The Recorder’s Office also had “an increase in unaffiliated private citizens demanding to gain access to our facilities to observe,” with seven such incidents at early voting sites this primary.
Two of these “non-party observers” had to be removed by security, one of them after “using profanity and disturbing other voters.” Several of these observers would stand outside the 75-foot limit, inside which electioneering and photography are barred, and take photos of staff as they unloaded equipment or moved ballots.
One of them was a political candidate on the primary ballot who “had a particularly strong presence at three of our locations and needed multiple reminders to leave voters alone.” Another “returned daily and took photos of staff…as they walked into the building.”
Christy demanded to know why Cázares-Kelly wouldn’t accommodate more observers and allow them at early voting sites, arguing that if she was able to get a more spacious voting location on the East Side to replace the tiny Recorder’s Office near Broadway and Kolb Road, she should be able to make more room for observers.
“The law is I’m not required to have political party observers at our early voting sites,” Cázeres-Kelly said to Christy. “We do allow for political party observers at our ballot processing facility and that’s a courtesy.”
The Recorder’s Office was “happy” to have the observers at the processing center, Cázares-Kelly said, but “with added people are added concerns.”
Christy asked the recorder if she would let observers come to early voting sites if space and staffing wasn’t an issue, to which she flatly answered “no.”
The Libertarian Party, which is recognized as a major party in Arizona, can also send political observers though the Recorder’s Office report didn’t include how many were sent for the primaries.
Pima County has about 626,000 registered voters. More than 226,000 of those voters cast early ballots in the last primary election in August 2020, which was during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year’s 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.
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.
Registered Republicans in Pima County had a voter turnout of 57%, a few points higher than Democrats at 51%. Local Republicans also used the vote centers more, with more than 21,000 voting on Election Day versus only about 5,600 Democrats doing so.
However, more Democrats voted early, and the county has far more voters signed up with that party. About 119,000 Democrats sent in early ballots while about 77,000 Republicans did so. Republicans also cast about 2,500 provisional ballots while Democrats only about 1,700.
Libertarians had a 15% voter turnout, with 120 voting on Election Day and 575 voting early — 695 total. Exactly 440 nonpartisan votes were sent in by mail and none were cast on Election Day.
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.