By the end of today, Arizona will have finally finished counting all of its ballots from the election that took place more than two weeks ago. More than a quarter of the roughly 2.2 million votes were cast as early or provisional ballots, and the delay in getting them all counted has stirred great controversy in state in which people of color have grown accustomed to dirty tricks. Some watchdogs charged that Latinos were being targeted for disenfranchisement, but as more and more of those ballot were tallied, it became increasingly apparent that all sorts of voters have had to wait for their ballots to be counted. Still, the last two weeks have illustrated that Arizona needs to revamp the way it conducts elections.
As The New York Times reported three days after the election, “several races remained a mystery” in Arizona for far too long. Although some candidates conceded defeat, their activist supporters didn’t always give up on the idea that a full ballot count could turn towards their candidate’s favor. The Senate race between Democrat Richard Carmona and Republican Jeff Flake and the race for Maricopa County Sheriff between Republican Joe Arpaio and Democrat Paul Penzone hung in the balance. The Republican candidates took both of these hard-fought races once counting for them was finally complete, confirming the result that was projected two weeks ago when polls officially closed.
That Latinos would have concerns about the process is to be expected. More than a month ago, the Maricopa County Elections Department misled some voters by printing the wrong election date on cards and book markers issued to Spanish-speaking voters. Just one week later, voters received a letter stating their signatures needed verification. When I called the number these voters were given, there was initially no answer or voicemail setup. Eventually, someone did pick up, but no one on the line spoke Spanish and I was told to call back “mañana”.
But when it comes to provisional ballots, it seems they were issued all over Arizona, and not just to Latinos. The Arizona secretary of state’s spokesperson, Matt Roberts, was quick to point out when we spoke yesterday that there was nothing unusual about the amount of time it’s taken to count all the ballots. Both Maricopa and Pima counties took two weeks to tally all the votes in 2004 and 2008 as well.
“It’s nothing new, so let’s get over that misconception,” he told me. And he’s right. According to the law, Arizona can take its time to make sure all its votes are counted, and it does. But that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence for voters who might feel their ballots didn’t count for weeks after such an important election.
Arizona isn’t the only state that uses provisional ballots—although it does stand out because it takes the state so long to count them. In order to understand what happened in Arizona, it might help to understand what the rest of the country looks like when it comes to provisional ballots.
Under the Help America Vote Act, if a voter is determined to be ineligible to cast a ballot by poll workers, that voter still has the ability to cast a provisional ballot. The only states that don’t use provisional ballots are Idaho, Minnesota, New Hampshire and North Dakota, where there exist no circumstances under which a voter would need to be issued a provisional ballot. Three of those states use same-day registration. The fourth, North Dakota, is the only state in the union that doesn’t have voter registration at all—voters simply show up and vote at the polls. All the remaining states use provisional ballots in some way.