With surge in early voting, Pima County election staff working double shifts
'I’ve never seen early ballot numbers like this'
After 28 years in office, Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez knows her job, but nonetheless, a "surge" of early ballots in the county ahead of the November 3 general election surprised her.
"I’ve never seen early ballot numbers like this," said Rodriguez.
On October 7, county officials mailed out a record 505,903 early ballots, and over the last 10 days, 191,755 ballots — nearly 38 percent — have returned. Additionally, officials are also working through 4,751 ballots from three early voting sites that opened that same day, as well as three drop-off locations the county opened the following week.
"The one that is a surprise to us really, the biggest one, is our walking early voting sites," Rodriguez said, during a press conference and media tour at the Recorder's Ballot Processing Center on South Country Club Road. "The first day we had lines. That's never happened before, and then we had lines for people just dropping their ballot off."
This included the recorder's main office at 240 N. Stone Ave., and Rodriguez said she asked people why they came to Downtown, where they had to pay to park. Voters, she said went to the office and stood in line because "they wanted to be assured that their ballot was in our possession. And, that's fine, OK; we're here to do our job."
"It's just that it's more than what we can process in this thing," she said, but added that county employees and staff were going to operate two shifts — one beginning at 6:30 a.m. while a second shift begins at 1 p.m. and ends at 8:30 p.m. — to work through the surge in ballots.
"We're far enough out from the election that we will have time to catch up on this. The public, she said, "should feel secure in the voting process; it's just a huge volume all at once."
Rodriguez added that they're working six days a week, and they may expand to seven, but she asked for patience from voters who might see that their ballot has been received in, but hasn't been scanned in. "Be patient, it's now in there, but it's taking us a little bit longer."
As voting began Rodriguez recommended that voters fill in their ballot, and "return it to us as soon as possible. "Voters may return their ballot by mail, return it to an Early Voting Site, bring it to a curbside ballot drop-off location, or take it to any polling place on Election Day," she said.
On the first day of voting, around 775 people voted by 4 p.m., and the next day, an additional 640 people voted, said Mary Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the Recorder's Office. On the first day, a shipment of 480,000 went to the U.S. Post Office's Cherrybell station, and officials have mailed nearly 26,000 additional ballots upon request. The deadline to request an early ballot be mailed out — which can be done online — is October 23.
During the 2016 presidential election, the county mailed out just over 373,000 ballots.
Beginning on Tuesday, the county's Elections Department can begin counting votes, under Arizona law.
Rodriguez gave a tour of the ballot-processing facility this weekend, and inside more than 50 people were churning through thousands of envelopes, opening the outer envelopes and then checking and rechecking to make sure each ballot was received and then handed over to a team of operators who would compare signatures to a database that includes signatures from the last election and the Motor Vehicles Division.
In the break room, four men worked in pairs to count ballots separated by a plexiglass pane, while across the operator's floor everyone worked while wearing masks. In another room, thousands of ballots in their yellow secure envelope waited to be turned over for counting.
In a separate part of the building, Brad Nelson, the county's elections director, showed off his staff, who were preparing ballots for counting. Here, ballots that are damaged, or where a voter made an obvious mistake—including using circles instead of bubbles, or changing their mind and scratching out a choice—are duplicated by officials and then readied for tabulation machines.
"There are instances where we don't know the remedy," Nelson said, but officials work through ballots looking for "uniformity" to make decisions about a voter's intent, using teams that include representatives from both major parties.
In the main room where ballots were readied and checked for signatures, Rodriguez explained how ballots that were unsigned, didn't have matching signatures, or damaged in some way were managed. Those ballots are shunted over to specialists can reach out to voters to ensure their ballot was filled out correctly, using emails, texts, and phone calls to reach people.
The office also had to manage ballots from married couples, who accidentally signed their spouse's ballot, resulting in a signature mismatch. In a metal in-and-out bin, a laminated cartoon of a married couple covered several ballots until they could be "married," as Rodriguez put it.
During an hour from around 11 a.m. to noon Saturday, the office worked their way through just over 1,800 ballots. By Saturday, about 98,000 ballots had been processed. Among the ballots processed, about 58 percent were from registered Democrats, and about 23 percent from registered Republicans. The rest were voters affiliated with the Green and Libertarian parties, as well as nearly 18 percent of voters who were independents.
Rodriguez asked for voters who have received early ballots to use them, either by mailing them in or dropping them off. "Provisional ballots, slow it down."
"I cannot stress to voters, if you've got an early ballot vote it," she said. "Turn it in at an an early voting site, or mail it," she said, adding that people can go to a polling location after receiving an early ballot, but "you become part of the problem."
At the polling location, workers will have to give voters a provisional ballot that will not be counted on Nov. 3 to ensure that a voter does not cast two ballots.
"We do not begin to even start checking those until we have finished every single early ballot that was dropped off at the polling location first. Once we finish that, then we can move on to the provisionals," she said.
On Oct. 7, a small line had formed at the early voting location on E. Broadway Blvd., and Dawn MacFarland, 44, was excited because for the first time in two decades, all three generations of women in her family were able to vote together. A teacher for the Defense Department, MacFarland has voted by mail, but because of COVID-19, she was home in Tucson, and so she excited to get her mother—Patricia MacFarland, 66, and her 86-year-old grandmother, Patsy Bratton—to the polls.
"I was so excited about this," MacFarland said. "I said please, please come vote with me."
Meanwhile, Dan Levy, an A-10 pilot out of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, was more sanguine. In his flight-suit, Levy said that he wanted to make sure he "got it out of the way." With three kids at home, he said, the first day of voting was a chance "to get it done." Voting was important, he said. "We've got to trust the process."
Stan Lupeika said he worried about people involved with Antifa, anti-fascist activists, or Black Lives Matter, keeping people from voting. From behind a pair of mirrored Oakley sunglasses, Lupeika drew out a conspiracy involving Ukraine, peaceful protesters and the "deep state" that sought to undermine democracies. As Lupeika spoke, his phone covered in a large Infowars sticker buzzed. Infowars, a website mongering conspiracist fantasies led by Alex Jones, was hit with a $100,000 judgement because Jones told his followers that the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax.
"They're trying to divide us, by race, by sex, by color, by creed. And the only thing that will hold us together is praise to God," Lupeika said.
Paul Sherrett, 72, wore a black “Resist” T-shirt with Smoky the Bear holding his fist in the air, and a Vietnam veteran hat. Along with his wife, Jean Zwick-Sherrett, he filled out his ballot on the first day it was possible. "I’ve voted in every election I could,” Sherrett said, standing with his wife Jean Zwick-Sherrett. “I turned 21 in Vietnam, that was the first time I could vote."
"I waned to make sure my vote was counted," he said, and was glad that the voting location was open, because the couple are both vulnerable to COVID-19. Sherrett has been on immunity-suppressing drugs for two decades after a liver replacement, necessary because he was exposed to the defoliant Agent Orange, and contracted Hepatitis-C. "The Army builds men, and it gives them incurable diseases," he said.
Sherrett criticized the president, and said that he started protesting the day that Donald Trump announced his candidacy, descending a gilded escalator at Trump Tower. But, while he hated the then-candidate's statements, including his claim that some Mexicans were "rapists," it was revelations that Trump called war dead "losers" and and "suckers" that hurt.
“This is not what I signed up for,” Sherrett said. “I served my time, and it makes me cry to think about where we are right now, and I do not consider myself a sucker or a loser for doing what was necessary to stay alive in Vietnam. And, now I’m scared shitless about where we’re going as a country. This vote is important.”
As he spoke, Sherrett lowered his head, and his wife Jean, rubbed his arm. “You’re not a loser or a sucker,” she said, quietly.
Rodriguez defends county, critiques 'third party' groups
At several points during this weekend's tour, Rodriguez bristled at criticisms aimed at Pima County. She said that "third party" groups had given "misinformation to voters," and she said that the national news media had taken a "broad swipe at the state."
She also defended the county's ability to manage the election, noting that the election's department was live-streaming the room where counting was taking place, and she worked through the security procedures that were in place to protect the election's results.
"This is Arizona, we follow our laws," she said, adding that officials can begin tabulating early. "Remember we've been doing this for two decades, it's nothing new to us. Okay, so we're ready for this. So people need to not listen to their friends on Facebook, do not listen to the national talking heads and all the political pundits," she said. She also criticized polling, arguing that it "discourages the voters."
She also criticized a lawsuit launched by Democrats that would require handing over some information about ballots. "We’re holding fast," she said. "Would you want anyone to know about your vote?" she asked rhetorically, before arguing that having the Democratic Party involved in the process would confuse voters who could be called by a third-party when it was the Recorder’s Office that needed to get in touch with voters about ballots with problems. "I’m steadfast in this,” she said. "And, this probably won’t be the last lawsuit,” she said. "You know, it’s easy for people to give critiques, or offer advice, but we know how to do this. I’ve been doing this a long time."
"We want all voters to vote," she said. "That's what we're here about."
"This is how democracy works," Rodriguez said. "It's not perfect, but it works."
The Recorder's Office will maintain three ballot drop-off locations in Tucson until October 30.
This includes one at the Recorder's Main Office in Downtown Tucson at 240 N Stone Ave. in the County Public Service Center, at the Recorder's Ballot Processing Center at 6550 S. Country Club Rd., and the Recorder's East Side Annex at 6920 E. Broadway near Little Anthony's Diner.
Beginning October 26, the Recorder's Office will also begin operating sites for curbside ballot drop-off, including a site in Oro Valley, one at the University of Arizona's Student Union, a site at the Salazar-Ajo library for Ajo residents only, and a site at the TOKA Community Building in Sells, Arizona on the Tohono O'odham Nation.
A few of these sites will also offer emergency voting on October 31 and November 2.
Voters will questions about their ballot, or problems can call the elections department at (520) 724-4350.