The Pinal problem

Pinal County Attorney Kent Volkmer, second from right, and Pinal County Supervisor Jeffrey McClure answer questions about the ballot shortage during a press conference Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022, in Florence.

The Daily Agenda

August 18, 2022

Poll workers and observers spent several hours yesterday telling the Pinal County Board of Supervisors about a laundry list of problems at the polls in the county’s primary.

Some precincts ran out of ballots for some voters before noon. They waited hours to get more ballots. Some voters left. Some got angry. One was arrested, the sheriff said.

Poll workers didn’t get the equipment they needed. They weren’t properly trained. They’d call a phone number designed to help them with immediate problems and dispatch people to help, only to wait on hold. 

Newly placed Elections Director Virginia Ross, formerly the elected recorder, explained what led to the ballot shortages: The previous director, who has since been fired, assumed nearly all people on the Active Early Voting List would not vote in person, which Ross called a “false assumption.”

“You have to be not only politically savvy, you have to be media savvy because if you’re hearing messaging from one party or the other party directing their members, their voters to go to the polls or to vote early, those observations need to be taken into account when you’re doing this work,” Ross told the board.

The county is working on an outside review of what went wrong that led to both the misprinted ballots and the problems on Election Day. That should be ready in a month or two, before the general election. In the meantime, county supervisors approved new positions to help run elections, increasing the department by five people, effectively doubling the people who report to Ross.

County officials have shown a willingness to accept responsibility for the disaster. Taking the time to learn from workers what went wrong is another good sign. Ross, who is now running the show, is a steady hand who understands Arizona elections.

But it’s going to take a lot of work to restore confidence. The problems didn’t all come from one elections director, and simply firing him doesn’t solve them.

And they’ll have to contend with lawsuits, one of which goes to a hearing today. Arizona Sen. Kelly Townsend, who lost her race, filed suit last week, seeking an injunction to stop the canvassing of the county’s election results. The county has already canvassed, so that particular lawsuit is likely moot.

Townsend, though, thinks voters have legal claims under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection provisions.

“After what we’ve heard here today, no one can argue that the people who voted in the morning were not treated differently than the people who voted in the afternoon or the evening,” Townsend told the board. “People were met with a different situation, and the right to vote was denied. The question is, how many were denied the right to vote?”

We still don’t know exactly how many people were denied the right to vote in Pinal County because of the bureaucratic meltdown. But the public deserves a solid estimate from the county, which has so far not provided one, to understand whether some outcomes could have been different.

Republican Rep. John Fillmore, who lost his legislative primary for re-election by a little more than 1,300 votes, also told us he’s considering a lawsuit, since he had momentum in Pinal County and might have been able to win if the county didn’t run out of ballots.

“I’m not gonna say that the election was rigged, like Trump,” he said, laughing. “I’m not gonna say that the election should be held over. I am going to focus on the fact that thousands of people’s votes were disenfranchised, which is in violation of both the United States and the Arizona Constitution.” 

He said his suggested remedy would be to simply put him on the November ballot — which, unlike the primary, will not be limited to Republicans and independents who request a Republican ballot. He said he might fare better in a general election, with Democrats voting, considering he once ran for Congress as a Democrat.  

“Had there not been this SNAFU, there’s a very good probability that I would have pulled it out as a squeaker,” he said. “So my request is just put me on the ballot.”

Without knowing how many voters were turned away, we’ll never know if Fillmore or any of the other failed candidates in Pinal County ever had a chance anyway. 

* The Daily Agenda is a year-old subscription newsletter reported by former newspaper journalists Rachel Leingang and Hank Stephenson.

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