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Why Is Arizona Still Counting Votes?

Answer: a record number of early and provisional ballots that’s squeezing the system.

It’s been two weeks since Election Day, but it’s not all over in Arizona. Thousands of early and provisional ballots remain uncounted. These votes aren’t actually expected to impact any more races – just one state legislative race is too close to call – but the prolonged vote count has drawn national attention.

So what’s the reason for the delay, who have been the most vocal critics and why did so many ballots take so long to be counted? We take a closer look:

Exactly how many provisional and early ballots were there in Arizona this year?

Out of an estimated 2.3 million votes cast, more than half consisted of early ballots. More than 400,000 of these weren’t actually turned in close to or on Election Day, catching county elections officials off guard. Arizona voters cast roughly 171,000 provisional ballots this year.

How many votes were left uncounted following Election Day?

About 602,334 votes in all, which includes those early and provisional ballots. The vast majority of these ballots came out of Maricopa County, Arizona’s largest county and voting district. There, nearly 440,000 early ballots were still uncounted the day after Election Day. And at least 115,000 provisional ballots were issued in polling locations across the county.

As of Tuesday morning, Maricopa County was still counting roughly 34,450 of ballots. The state has until Dec. 3 to certify final election results.

Were there more provisional ballots in Arizona than past years?

Yes, but it’ll be roughly the same proportion. In 2008, voters cast 151,799 provisional ballots – or about 5 percent of the total vote. That’s about the same percentage the state will see this year, according to the Arizona secretary of state’s office.

What is notable is the concentration of the overall bump in provisional ballots. They’ve largely originated out of Maricopa County, where in 2008, voters cast 99,826 provisional ballots (compared with 115,000 this year) and neighboring Pima County, where in 2008, voters cast 17,912 provisional ballots (compared with 26,194 such ballots this year.)

Is that why it’s taking so long to count these votes?

That’s one reason. Before they can be tabulated, provisional ballots have to be checked to confirm a voter’s eligibility and that they were cast in the correct precinct. For early ballots, the signature on the envelope must be independently verified. Arizona has also seen a decreased number of polling locations this year as the result of redistricting. The delay is not new to this election. “The media seems to believe that things are taking longer than four years ago, but they aren’t,” Arizona secretary of state spokesman Matthew Roberts told ProPublica. “Our counties completed their work in 15 or so days last time, and that’s what we are expecting this year.”

How many state races are still pending?

As of Tuesday, the local media reported that just one state House seat remained too close to call as the result of Maricopa County’s untabulated votes. But that’s hardly been the only – or most significant – delay. It took nearly a week for the state’s 9th U.S. congressional district to see a winner. And it took until just this past weekend for a victor to be declared in the seat once held by Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Democrat Ron Barber edged out his opponent, Republican Martha McSally, by just 1,402 votes.

Despite the fact that the most crucial races are settled, the vote count continues for other reasons. “We wouldn’t want to disenfranchise Arizona’s voters that cast a ballot,” Roberts said. “We don’t necessarily have any value on who’s winning or who’s losing – we just want to make sure they’re accurate.”

So why have some Arizona groups been vocal in protesting the delays?

Because they contend that provisional ballots were issued to a disproportionate number of minority Hispanic voters – many of whom are first-time voters. Petra Falcon, president of the voter advocacy group Promise Arizona, told ProPublica her organization helped register 34,000 new Latino voters this year in Maricopa County alone.

However, Falcon said some of those registered reported never receiving a free voter registration card or a requested early ballot in the mail. Others showed up at their polling location only to be told they were not on the voter registration list and that they’d have to cast a provisional ballot instead. (Falcon said she didn’t have exact figures on the number of complaints.)

A national voter rights hotline illustrates the kinds of problems voters encountered this year. One person called to report that a polling location in South Phoenix was “running out of provisional ballots because they are providing so many.”

Another caller in Maricopa County reported that many voters “were denied provisional ballots even when provisional ballots were requested. Ran out of provisional ballots and people were turned away.”

The outcry in the election aftermath led Pima County to assure voters that “provisional voting is designed as a ‘fail-safe’ method to allow voters to participate in an election even if problems occur.”

What else led to these snafus?

According to Matt Roberts, the secretary of state’s spokesman, voter error can’t be ruled out. “It’s possible they didn’t receive an early ballot, or far more likely they lost or misplaced it,” he said. As far as the missing names on voter registration lists, he said: “It’s hard to say why that would occur. Would I tell you the system is 100 percent every time? Of course not, there’s not a system that’s going to function perfectly every time. That’s why we have provisional ballots.”

Yet Falcon says the day before the election, at least 6,800 voters signed up by Promise Arizona were not appearing in the state’s official voter database. “How do we know that all of our voter registrations were accounted for on their end with so many new ones coming in?” she said. “These are the questions we’re asking because there’s obviously something broken in that part of the system.”

What’s the objection to provisional ballots? Aren’t they guaranteed to count?

No. There could be any number of reasons for them to be rejected, but Arizona has a few extra. In 2008, about 29,531 of provisional ballots in Maricopa County were rejected because voters cast ballots in the wrong precinct – the leading reason why such ballots were invalidated. That’s why some voter advocates are concerned by the especially high number of provisional ballots this year in Maricopa County, whose elected sheriff, Joe Arpaio, is a controversial figure. He was a vocal proponent of the controversial state law that authorizes police to question one’s immigration status when a “reasonable suspicion” of illegal status exists.

“If you’re a voter, you at the very least should expect not only that your vote is counted, but that it’s done in a timely manner. Not doing it in a timely manner shakes peoples’ confidence in the process,” said James E. Garcia, spokesman for ACLU of Arizona, which is calling for a deeper investigation into the state’s election delays.

It hasn’t helped that in the run-up to the election, Arizona saw several hiccups. For instance, on Spanish-language election pamphlets, officials in Maricopa County indicated that Election Day was on Nov. 8 (when it was actually Nov. 6).

And aren’t other states are still counting provisional ballots at this point?

Yes. Ohio is still counting provisional ballots– but unlike Arizona, Ohio doesn’t typically begin its provisional vote count until 10 days after the election.

Why is Arizona’s delay potentially significant?

Activists are worried it could be a harbinger of future problems in a state with a shifting demographic. According to the research organization, the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, the number of voting-age Latino citizens in Arizona is expected to increase by 178 percent between 2010 and 2030. The Pew Hispanic Center projects that the number of eligible Hispanic voters nationwide will increase by 40 percent in that same time frame.

Big gains were seen just in the last four years. According to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, the number of Latinos registered to vote nationwide increased by 40 percent from 410,000 in 2008 to 576,000 in 2012.

National exit polls show that Latinos nationwide favored President Obama by 71 percent to 27 percent for Mitt Romney this election. While the state’s unofficial results show that Arizona voters on a whole voted for Romney over Obama, 54 percent to 44 percent, the state’s Latino population favored Obama with 74 percent over Romney’s 25 percent share.

Some national polls also indicate that Latinos in Arizona generally lean Democrat: A June 2012 poll by Latino Decisions found that 53 percent identify as Democrat, 9 percent as Republican and 27 percent as Independent.

What, if anything, is the federal government proposing to fix these issues?

Concern with long voting wait times this election sparked response from the president himself. Last week, during a symposium at George Washington University Law School, Tom Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s civil rights division, proposed several reforms, including allowing same-day voter registration, making voter registration automatic and reducing the number of provisional ballots. We’ve asked DOJ for more details. They’ve yet to respond.

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