Fewer voters in Arizona election, but latest cost $1M more

PHOENIX (AP) — Fearing another botched election, Arizona’s most populous county opened twice as many polling spots for a special election this week than for the March presidential primary.

This go-round cost about $1 million more, even though Maricopa County election officials knew far fewer voters would turn out to vote on education funding and pension overhaul plans.

But those officials say the extra spending was necessary to rebuild lost confidence after some people waited as long as five hours to cast their vote for the Democratic and Republican nominees for president.

The county cut the number of polling places from 200 in 2012 to just 60 in March to save money. Tuesday, there were 116 places to vote, county elections department spokeswoman Elizabeth Bartholomew said Thursday.

Only about 43,000 — or 2 percent — of Maricopa County’s 2 million eligible voters showed up this week. There were virtually no lines at the polls.

Elections without candidates generally have smaller turnouts. Larger numbers of voters show when a presidential race is at stake.

More than twice that number voted in March, when even fewer were eligible because voters must have been registered Republicans or Democrats to vote in the presidential primary.

County officials sought additional polling places in areas that had the longest lines in March, Bartholomew said. They also took into consideration an added 730,000 independent voters eligible to vote in this election, which was open to anyone registered, regardless of party affiliation.

“We did end up spending an additional million but just to kind of make up for our errors in the past,” she said. “While money is obviously still an issue, we want to ensure that voters don’t have to wait in line for four or five hours.”

Political fallout from primary planning failures continues. The U.S. Justice Department is looking at its elections practices, and a lawsuit filed by the Democratic Party alleging voting rights violations statewide is awaiting its first court hearing.

The Arizona Democratic Party declined to comment Thursday on Maricopa County’s efforts to improve voter access to the polls.

Maricopa County spent $2.97 million on the presidential preference election and estimates it will cost close to $4 million for the special election. Bartholomew called it a no-win situation but said it was more important this time to err on the side of overspending to make sure everyone had a chance vote.

“When we were trying to save money, that almost backfired on us because then voters are saying it shouldn’t be about the money, it’s about their fundamental right to vote,” she said.

Democratic and Republican elected officials agreed spending more cash would rebuild faith in county elections.

“It’s more important to establish that confidence that took a hit than it was to save a million dollars,” said Republican Rep. J.D. Mesnard, who served on a House elections panel.

Steve Gallardo, a Democratic Maricopa County supervisor, voted against the increase in polling centers during a board meeting in April saying the plan needed more community input.

“At the end of the day, every voter should have easy access to the ballot box. And when it comes to conducting our elections, I think we should look not at how much an election should cost,” Gallardo said, “but are we disenfranchising voters?”

Voters this week overwhelmingly approved the proposal to change police and fire pension plans. The verdict is still out for a school funding measure that will tap the state land trust to fund $43.5 billion in new school spending over 10 years.

That measure remained too close to call on Thursday, although with new vote counts it was moving closer to a win. A near-final tally isn’t expected until Friday.

Gov. Doug Ducey backed the school funding measure and on Thursday declared it a victory. But he said he knew from the start of the campaign it would difficult to get voter approval.

“I think it is just a tough, oftentimes toxic political environment,” Ducey told reporters.

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