By Brandon Quester | Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting
Tens of thousands of ballots cast in Arizona’s last presidential election were rejected by elections officials, indicating continued communication and voter education problems in the state, according to a 2014 analysis.
Nearly 46,000 of the more than 2.3 million ballots cast in Arizona’s 2012 election — or about 2 percent — were rejected. That rate is down from 2.2 percent in 2008, when Arizona led the nation in rejected provisional ballots.
The rejected votes consist of early voting or provisional ballots in which voters went through the voting process but later had their ballots thrown out after review by elections officials. The most common reasons were that voters weren’t registered in time for the election, voted in the wrong precincts or didn’t sign their ballots.
Early votes and absentee ballots are cast when a voter is on the permanent early voting list or lives outside the state or country during election cycles. Provisional ballots are cast when voters are not listed on a jurisdiction’s voter roll or registration records, or if they received an early ballot.
Election experts say rejected ballot rates — and the reasons for rejection — can point to either poor voter education about Arizona’s election process or inefficiencies in the state’s election administration efforts.
Of the 33,000 provisional ballots that were rejected in 2012, 38 percent were because the voter wasn’t registered in the state and 33 percent because the voter submitted a ballot in the wrong precinct.
Voters who cast a ballot in the wrong precinct may have been confused by redistricting, in which 2010 Census data was used to redraw congressional and legislative voting districts in Arizona, election officials said. Redistricting shifted voting precinct boundaries and, in some places, reduced the number of precincts.
Among the more than 12,000 rejected early voting ballots, which include voters on the permanent early voting list, 42 percent were rejected because the voter did not sign the ballot and 33 percent because the voter missed the submission deadline.
Arizona was listed in the bottom third of all U.S. states for election performance in 2008, according to the Elections Performance Index released in February by Pew Charitable Trusts.
The index gauges the efficiency of state-level election administration based on a series of indicators, including the rate of provisional and early voting ballots cast, rejection rates and voter turnout, among others.
When compared to the rest of the nation, Arizona in 2008 had the highest number of provisional ballots cast and the highest rejection rate of such ballots as compared to total ballots cast. Nationwide data is not yet available to compare the 2012 statistics.
Arizonans submitted in 2012 more than 183,000 provisional ballots, or about 8 percent of all ballots cast. That’s up from 6.5 percent in 2008 and represents the highest number of provisional ballots ever cast here for a federal election.
The provisional ballot rejection rate among all ballots cast here was 1.4 percent in 2012, or more than 33,000 provisional ballots rejected last year. That’s down from 1.9 percent in 2008.
Thirty-three thousand rejected provisional ballots “is not a small number,” said Sean Greene, election initiatives research manager at Pew Charitable Trusts.
“We don’t really know what’s good or what’s not, honestly,” Greene said. “All we do know is that there are states that tend to be at the top of that, and Arizona is one of them.”
Rejection rates for counties vary by type of ballots cast, reasons for rejection
Maricopa County, which included 60 percent of all ballots cast in Arizona’s 2012 election, had lower rates of rejected ballots when compared to 2008, as did Pinal County.
In 2008 Pinal had 2750 rejected ballots. In 2012 the number dropped to 1,296, a difference of -1,454, the second biggest diffrence behind Maricopa County that had -2091 between the two elections.
Apache, Navajo and Coconino Counties experienced the highest rate of rejected provisional ballots in the state. The rejection rates were 2.7 for Apache County and 2.3 percent for Navajo and Coconino Counties. The most common reasons for rejection were because voters weren’t registered or voted in the wrong precinct.
Geneva L. Honea, voter registration supervisor in Apache County in 2014, says confusion among the large population of “snowbirds” — residents who live in her county for part of the year — helped raise its high rejection rate for provisional ballots.
“A lot of voters don’t know that ballots are unforwardable, or that any election form is unforwardable,” Honea said.
The county also has a high number of voters from the Navajo Nation, she said, which holds tribal elections on the same day as U.S. federal elections.
Voting places for tribal elections are different from the voter’s federal election polling place, officials said. For tribal elections, voters are required to vote where their umbilical cord was buried. This could be at any one of the 110 Chapters, or tribal polling places, across the Navajo Nation. In federal elections, those same voters are required to vote at polling locations based on their home address.
“We have our outreach worker out there trying to let them know this but there’s still a lot of people that don’t get it,” Honea said. “ They don’t realize that (the federal ballot) has to go to the location of your home.”
Navajo and Coconino counties also have high numbers of Navajo Nation residents and confusion among voters about where to cast a ballot, election officials said.
“That’s the biggest problem we have,” said Edison J. Wauneka, executive director of the Navajo Election Administration. “We need to educate our people traditionally — and what the process is as far as counties and states are concerned. We just really need to coordinate our efforts to do more with (the counties).”
Laurie Justman, Navajo County recorder, said despite education efforts throughout the county, registration issues are a big part of rejected provisional ballots there.
“A lot of the people that live on the Navajo reservation think that if they’re registered for the tribal election that they are registered for the federal election as well,” Justman said. “It’s two separate registrations.”
In Yuma County, however, rejected ballots are more common among early votes, which accounted for 73 percent of all ballots cast there in 2012. The rejection rate of these ballots was a little more than 2 percent, the highest rejection rate among early ballots in the state.
Yuma County election officials say they are aware of the high rejection rate and are working on a campaign to address it.
“I think they are individual issues and I definitely feel like we have to do the outreach and do the education so we can tackle some of the challenges,” said Yuma County Recorder Robyn Stallworth Pouquette. “I think across the board our county has some pretty aggressive goals in reaching out to voters so they know what the process is and what’s required.”
With more than half of its electorate using early voting instead of in-person polling sites, Yuma County changed from precinct polling locations to “vote centers” in 2012. Voters from any precinct can vote at any one of the county’s 11 vote centers, regardless of their precinct boundaries.
Yavapai County also has high numbers of early voters, about 72 percent, and uses vote centers. But Yavapai County’s rejection rate of early ballots, as a percentage of all ballots cast, was just 0.5 percent.
Sue Reynolds, Yuma County elections director, believes the high rejection rates are largely due to voter education, and the fact that third-party groups signed voters up for the PEVL without explaining exactly what that means. She said large numbers of those voters later showed up to vote in person.
“They don’t really understand what they’re signing up for,” Reynolds said.
At a state level, election officials agree that better education will help address high rates of rejected ballots. But how that argument is framed — and where the education occurs — is a matter of perspective.
Voter rights advocate Daria Ovide doesn’t think the blame lies entirely with the voters.
“There’s certain underlying assumptions that I think may be incorrect,” Ovide said. “That the large number of provisional ballots and large numbers of confused PEVL voters are for reasons that are the voter’s fault. In cases where the system breaks down, where do you presume the error has occurred?”