Will Clearer Instructions At Maricopa County Polls Lead To Fewer Rejected Ballots This Election?

By Jude Joffe-Block
Published: Sunday, November 6, 2016 - 9:54pm
Updated: Monday, November 7, 2016 - 5:42pm
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(Photo by Jude Joffe-Block - KJZZ)
Tonya Tunnell shows a new sign that will be in polling places on Nov. 8 warning voters that ballots cast in the wrong polling place will not count.

On Tuesday, when Maricopa County voters head to the polls, they must go to their designated polling place to vote — otherwise their ballots won’t count.  In the last few presidential elections, thousands of Arizona provisional ballots cast at the wrong place were rejected.

This Election Day, the question is if clearer instructions at the polls will help.

Chandler resident Dawn Homan learned firsthand during the Aug. 30 primary how inaccurate guidance from a poll worker could stand in the way of her vote counting.

On the day of the election, Homan’s schedule changed at the last minute. She was called in to the church she works. The church is a polling location, but not the location Homan usually votes at. Once she got to the church, Honan said she asked a poll worker if she could vote there, and the poll worker assured her she could.

“She was like, ‘Oh, you can do a provisional ballot.’ And I was like, oh okay,” Homan said. “So I did my provisional ballot thinking it was going to count — and it didn’t.”

The federal Help America Vote Act says anyone who shows up at a polling place can get a provisional ballot if poll workers do not see their name on the list of voters for that site.

The policy is a safety net to make sure that voters are not unfairly turned away at the polls if there is a mistake or valid reason their name does not appear on the rolls. Once the polls close, election workers determine whether the vote is valid and should be counted.

But under Arizona law, if a voter casts a provisional ballot at one polling place, but they were actually supposed to vote at a different polling location, the provisional ballot will be tossed.

That policy has been a source of confusion in Arizona elections. Poll workers who should have directed voters to their correct polling site to cast a valid ballot have sometimes instead handed voters provisional ballots that later were never counted.

At the same time, in other instances provisional ballots are typically counted. Voters who recently moved to a new residence within the county will vote provisionally at their new polling location, and those ballots will count as long as voters prove their new addresses.

In the 2012 presidential election, Arizona rejected almost 11,000 provisional ballots cast by voters who showed up to the wrong polling place. In 2008, more than 13,000 ballots were tossed for this reason.

It wasn’t until after the August primary that Dawn Homan found out that’s what happened to her ballot.

“I was really disappointed because the whole point of voting is so it counts,” Homan said. “So to find out that I did the provisional there and it didn’t count, they should have explained that to me.”

After the August primary, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge found county poll workers had failed to properly inform voters who showed up at the wrong place to vote that their ballots wouldn’t ultimately count.

It was part of a lawsuit over counting ballots in the Congressional District 5 primary, where the difference between the top two candidates was razor thin. In a rare move, the court ordered a small number of rejected ballots to be counted, including Homan’s.

KJZZ interviewed Homan in September after she testified in that case.

That litigation prompted Maricopa County to make some changes ahead of Tuesday’s election.

At a recent training for poll workers, Tonya Tunnell of the Maricopa County Elections Department told the class “we have changed our procedures a little bit to make this exceptionally hopefully clear to the voter.”

She held up a new sign that will be in every polling place in the county. Under a heading that says “Notice” in red, the sign says in bold font, “Attention—per state law your ballot will not county if you cast the ballot in the wrong polling place. To find the correct polling place call 602-506-1511.”

Tunnell took the class through an exercise about how to handle a fictional lost voter “David” who shows up at a polling place in Phoenix, when he is actually assigned to a polling place in Mesa.

With the help of an e-pollbook — an electronic tablet loaded up with the voter file—the poll workers could pull up the Mesa address where David should vote and print it on a receipt for him.

This is the first presidential election that poll workers in Maricopa County are using e-pollbooks, which allows them to direct lost voters more effectively than when they just had paper rolls and maps on the wall. Since the August primary, Tunnell has also updated what poll workers should tell lost voters.

“You are going to say David, per the voting records, it indicates that you are not in the correct polling location, you are not in the right precinct, in order for your ballot to count you must vote in the correct polling location,” Tunnell modeled for the class.

She then held up the receipt the e-pollbook printed with the correct address. “So you hand this to him,” Tunnell said. “And then I honestly want you to stop and stare at him.”

Tunnell hopes that stare will encourage David to go to his polling place in Mesa rather than insist on voting where he is.

The Help America Vote Act says poll workers have to let people vote provisionally right then and there if they insist.

“We cannot turn them away, so we have to give them the ballot if they insist, but they need to understand we are not going to count that ballot,” Tunnell told the class.

Returning poll worker Viola Dubay was relieved to hear the updated advice. She’d heard poll workers in the past tell people in the wrong polling place that there was just a “possibility” their provisional ballot wouldn’t count.

“And I thought afterwards, I thought this isn’t right when we know it not going to count,” Dubay said.

Tunnell reminded the class there are other scenarios in which provisional ballots are likely be counted, such as a voter who moved to a new address.

“Do not go off and say “provisionals” do not count because that is not true,” Tunnell said. “But ballots cast in the wrong polling place will not count.”

Meanwhile, Democratic groups say that Arizona policy rejecting provisional ballots cast in the wrong polling place unfairly disenfranchises voters and disproportionately impacts minorities.

The Arizona Democratic Party, Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign are challenging the policy in a federal lawsuit. They argue if someone votes provisionally in the wrong place, but is properly registered in the county, election officials should count all the races the voter was eligible to vote on.

Late Friday the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied Democrats’ request to suspend Arizona’s policy before Tuesday’s election, but the court will examine the issue in January.

Voters in Maricopa County can find their correct polling place on the county recorder website.

KJZZ's Jimmy Jenkins contributed to this report.

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