November 4, 2004
Arizona's continuing population growth coupled with massive voter registration efforts produced a record number of voters who swamped many of Maricopa County's precincts Tuesday.
State and county election officials conceded Wednesday they failed to accurately predict the impact from population growth, new voters and the intense interest in the presidential race. So the county's limited number of polling places were understaffed, forcing elections officials to quickly recruit nonpartisan poll watchers to help out.
Even with thousands of ballots still to be counted, the number of votes statewide and in the county already exceed totals from 2000.
"I don't know how anybody would have been totally prepared for the amount of turnout," said Karen Osborne, county elections director. "I think that was a welcome surprise for all of us."
Secretary of State Jan Brewer shared Osborne's positive outlook, saying that voters who waited for hours in long lines mostly were calm, patient and upbeat.
"I just think it's a great day for Arizona to see the number of people who turned out and democracy was exhibited," Brewer said. "I couldn't wish for anything as smooth as we had."
Arizona had it easy compared with states such as Ohio, where some voters had to wait more than eight hours into a freezing early morning. But some people wondered why Arizona's election experts didn't anticipate Tuesday's outpouring, given the enormous attention the presidential campaign received all year long.
"I think when the election (counting) is said and done, I would hope the county recorders and the secretary of state would look at the process for voting," Gov. Janet Napolitano said. "It would seem to me in this day and age, it is unreasonable to expect people to wait two or three hours in line to exercise their right to vote."
The Tribune found isolated cases where people left their lines without voting because of the late hour and cool, nighttime temperatures. But most voters persisted so they could take part in what many felt was the most important election in their lifetime.
“Everybody here has been fantastic,” Ed Herrara, a poll worker at Desert Canyon Elementary School in Scottsdale, said Tuesday night. “There were several women with babies, and the crowd let them up to the front of the line.”
Warnings from the county's 140 troubleshooters alerted officials midafternoon Tuesday to start shipping extra ballots and other supplies to more popular polling sites, Osborne said. The county also hired about 100 people who had been acting as independent observers to fill in as poll workers because some of the 7,700 people recruited by the county didn't show Tuesday.
"I was trying to make the point that if all the people who were observing, and were observing each other, had helped us at the polls, we wouldn't have been short of workers," Osborne said.
Elections officials will have to address whether they had enough polling sites to serve the number of voters that could have been expected.
Voter registration has jumped by 18 percent from 2000 in Maricopa County, and by 21.6 percent statewide. But Maricopa County has added only 51 polling sites since 2000, an increase of 5 percent. In all, Arizona counties added 82 sites, an increase of only 4 percent. Osborne said Maricopa County hasn't added more polling sites because of the rising popularity of early voting by mail or in person. Early ballots made up about 30 percent of the total vote in 2000, but should cover about half of the votes cast this year, Osborne said.
County Recorder Helen Purcell said she doesn't see a need to substantially increase her election budget, which was at $10 million this year, or to rapidly add polling sites.
"That's kind of a natural evolution," Purcell said. "I don't think it will lead to a special request to the board (of supervisors)." But Purcell said she will ask for some supplemental funding this year for overtime related to the general election. The county elections department likely will be working 24 hours a day until Nov. 12 to verify and to count an estimated 71,894 early ballots and 65,664 provisional ballots.
Some poll workers said widespread use of provisional ballots added to Tuesday's lines. Provisional ballots are offered to people who want to vote but don't appear on a registration roll at the polls, or are listed as voting early. Election officials later verify a provisional ballot was cast by an eligible voter at the correct polling site before those votes are counted.
Separate forms must be filled out to use a provisional ballot, adding to the wait for people behind those voters, Osborne said. But Osborne said she's confident most of Tuesday's waiting lines came from a combination of unusually high voter interest and a lengthy ballot.
"There were 89 questions on that ballot, 89 selections that you could make if you chose," Osborne said. "Between the judges, between the issues, and all the candidates, 89 things to stop and look at take time."
- Tribune writers Jason Emerson, Mark Flatten and Steve Stout contributed to this report.