Although the November 2020 elections are still 15 months away, the growing staff at the Maricopa County Recorders office is already undergoing training to prepare for it.
Maricopa County is the fastest-growing county in the United States and it has encountered its share of Election Day difficulties over the last three years.
During the 2016 elections, then recorder Helen Purcell received harsh and justifiable criticism for the extremely long lines and lack of polling locations during the Presidential Preference (Primary) Election.
Her successor, Adrian Fontes, took steps to improve the electoral process after taking office in 2017. Although these measures helped facilitate a smoother, faster processing, Election day in 2018 with a high turnout (especially with mail-in ballots,) concerns (some of them partisan) still surfaced with the Recorders opening of emergency voting centers the weekend before the election and the slowness (due to the tight races) of ballot counting and signature verification after election day.
Recorder Fontes and his Deputy Recorder for Communications Kathren Coleman graciously sat down at the Recorder’s office conference room for an interview and responded to several questions about the steps they took to improve the 2018 electoral process and the measures taken to prepare for the 2020 elections.
The questions and responses are below:
- What were at least three improvements (voter registration for example) in the Maricopa County Electoral Process that occurred from the 2016 to 2018 elections?
- “ We created a site book checkbook system that reduced check-in time for voters by 75 percent. This was an award-winning (National Association of County Officials) system that was deployed in time for the Jurisdictional 2017 Elections.”
“This was necessary because the way Maricopa County checked in voters for elections was badly flawed. It did not operate well. It was slow. It was inaccurate. It allowed double voting.”
2. “We changed the communication culture. We’ve leaned into talking to the public, giving out info, especially social media tools like Facebook and Instagram.”
3. “ We completed very deep internal improvements by restructuring the budget and financial aspects of the office. It is much easier to account for the money.”
“We improved communication because we needed to give people as much information as possible. We decided to talk (to the people.) When there are Jurisdictional Elections in Chandler and Tempe a week before the 2020 PPE (Presidential Preference Elections), we will talk about it a lot.”
Ms. Coleman concluded by commenting that:
“From August 2017 to November 2018, we saw more improvement in the efficiency of this facility (The Recorders office) than in memory.”
- What were at least three areas (voter site setup and accelerating signature verification for example) in the Maricopa County Electoral Process that still need improvement following the 2018 election?
- “We needed more staff. People were working 18 hours a day. It put us in a very precarious position where everything had to be perfect while the staff became exhausted. (A post-election) staffing analysis revealed they (the Recorders office) needed more people (more than double)”
2. “The tabulation system. The current one relies on late 1960’s tech with 1980’s software. It was built for a Maricopa County from 40 years ago and purchased for the department in the 1990s. It is still reliable and accurate but it takes so much time with the volume. in 2000, there were 1.2 million voters. In 2018 there were 2.3 million active voters and had the same system and we are the fastest-growing county in the country.”
3. “Having enough money to get the information out. It is so necessary for the survival of our Democracy. It is so important that people are getting the right information and counter misinformation from bad actors.”
- What are at least three areas of improvement that your office and the County Supervisors have devised to correct the electoral issues that were still present in 2018?
- Doubled the size of the Election Department: We have just started the process of increasing the staff from 21 TO 47 people.”
- Through the Elections Board, were also granted an increase in communications, specifically for the P.P.E. (Presidential Preference Election.) We are going to Geotag a lot of media outreach. We are working on identifying specific jurisdictions to improve communications. We will be setting up a trial run during a one-person city council race in Peoria on the new technology to reduce confusion. We will be conducting post-debate surveys as well as post-event (election and other) surveys so we can serve the public good/needs. I want to know what the voters want.”
- “I also have funds to secure new ballot tabulation technology.”
- Please advise what steps have been undertaken to further improve the voter registration process since the last election.
“We were a party to the Lulac vs. Reagan case. What that did was clarify the statute of Proposition 200 with regards to citizenship and put fewer burdens on the voters.”
“ We also became part of the E.R.I.C. (Electronic Registration Independent Center with 26 other states) member consortium. They will take data from the state (Voter and Motor Vehicle) and will reveal who are the eligible but unregistered voters (E.B.U.). This helps identify who has moved or come in. We have identified 800,000 potential E.B.U.’s in Maricopa County. We sent one postcard to each of these E.B.U.’s and gave them a link to a vote. We sent out over 800,000 postcards and a little over 20,000 returned (this does not include people who registered through other means.) We will do the next one in the middle of 2020.”
“It is a different function for people who moved. We get return mail and we make attempts to ascertain where they went.”
“ Also, beginning with the prior sec of state and finished in this current one, there is a new voter registration form that we helped design. We went from a half sheet sized form to a full-sized one in both English and Spanish on the same side of the sheet.”
- Please advise what steps will be undertaken to increase, if any, access to early and emergency voting sites.
“Under the new agreement emergency voting will be shared with the supervisor’s office. They decide how. The recorder still has to validate and process (the results.) One partisan handling the election is not good for democracy. Let them have a hand in the game and build trust in the system. and hope the people trust we are doing the best for them.”
- Please advise on how the mail-in signature verification post-Election Day issue has been addressed going forward.
“Signature verification can be accomplished through a review process that looks at 27 different characteristics of handwriting. Signature verification is easier to verify than photo id.”
“The 1.2 million mail-in ballots received before Election Day was no problem.”
“The issue was the counties not having a uniform procedure for mismatched signatures received before 7:00 p.m. on Election Day.”
“Why does the provisional voter have five days to validate identity and not the mismatched person? Why not do it like Coconino or Pima (counties) and treat them the same as provisional (voters.) There is nothing in the law that prevents it and other counties had been doing it.”
“Then there is the makeup gap. There are three buckets of votes. Bucket one is the early ballots received before Election Day. That gets reported at 8:00 p.m on Tuesday of the Election. Election day numbers are the second bucket and get reported throughout Election night. That is the smallest number (because 85 percent of the voters submit mail-in ballots.) The last bucket is the late early ballots that did not have time to open and the ones that are dropped off at the polls. They take 8 to 15 days after Election Day to record.”
“The gap is 2.5 percent to 3.00 percent from election night gap that closes between traditionally higher Republicans and lower Democrats. McSally forces tried to stop the verification first by enjoining Maricopa County and then settled to make sure that all the counties did what Maricopa did (because the McSally campaign realized that the only road to victory was the counting of every conceivable rural vote that needed verification).”
“This situation with verifying the mail-in ballots submitted on Election Day was solved during this legislative session when “Legislative District 23 State Senator Michelle Ugenti-Rita (sponsored legislation) that gave all recorders 14 days to start tabulating voters. The early ballot gets bigger and the late ballot gets smaller. It then codifies the policy that I introduced and gives the county recorder five business days to process the mismatched signatures. The legislation passed.”
- Please explain (if possible) the steps taken to ensure election security and prevent bad actors from hacking/altering the voting system.
“The Recorder’s Office engages with local through federal law enforcement to ensure the security of the system and are in the process of hiring a Chief Security Officer to review security measures on a continuous basis.”
“Concerns for our voters and voter confidence are at an all-time high. The office is sensitive to misinformation distributed through nefarious actors and encourages voters to get election information from trusted sources. Your local City Clerk, County Recorder, Secretary of State, and the Arizona Citizens Clean Election Commission are all wonderful resources for voters.”
- Is there anything you would like to add that was not covered in the preceding questions?
“ We have held many roundtables and engaged a lot of underrepresented voters and then a big town hall. The topics have centered on voter outreach and election security. We get a lot of folks talking about these issues.”
“I feel an amazing sense of gratitude to the response from folks and the importance of the work. This is a very big deal for American democracy. It is very humbling to be the decision-maker at the core of this democracy. I take this very seriously and humbling to be this guy at this time for this amazing jurisdiction. Maricopa County is badass.”
Ensuring that elections are conducted in a safe, orderly, fair, and correct process is a great responsibility for those entrusted with safeguarding this vital component essential to a vibrant Democracy.
Recorder Fontes and his team recognize this challenge and are making every effort to make sure that the 2020 elections will proceed without any major difficulty.
For more information on Mr. Fontes, his team and the Maricopa County Recorders Office, please visit their website at https://recorder.maricopa.gov/.