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Arizona Rejected Thousands Of Election Ballots In 2012 And 2016, But 2020 Might Be Different

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Tuesday, October 20, 2020 - 12:11pm
Updated: Wednesday, October 21, 2020 - 9:14am

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2020 ballot
Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
A 2020 ballot.

LAUREN GILGER: The voter registration deadline in Arizona has changed several times in the final weeks before the election. At first, a lower court extended the deadline, allowing groups three extra weeks to sign people up until Oct. 23 because the pandemic had made it so much harder to do so. Then the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals changed course after the original deadline of Oct. 5 had already passed, and the final cut off day ended up being Oct. 15. Confused? Right. A lot of folks might be. That's led to concerns about counting every eligible ballot as we inch closer to the election. And our next guest found problems with voter registration in Arizona aren't new, and they have caused thousands of ballots to be thrown out in previous elections, including in 2016. Sam Kmack is a reporter with the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting. He analyzed the rejected ballots in the past Arizona elections. And I spoke with him more about it.

SAM KMACK: Actually, in both 2016 and 2012, it was the most common reason for ballot rejection. In 2016, there were about 14,000 people who cast ballots at a polling location who either hadn't registered by the cutoff deadline or hadn't registered at all, so those ballots ended up getting thrown out. Through my conversations with experts, they told me that this is not only the most common reason in Arizona for a ballot to get thrown out, but it's the most common reason across the country. So it definitely plays in in a big way to the number of rejected ballots that we'll see here in Arizona and that we'll see nationally come Nov. 3.

GILGER: So then there's another issue you break down in the story, this time about another — a different decision from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that says an Arizona policy of throwing out the entire provisional ballot if it's cast outside of a voter's precinct, is discriminatory. The state argues it protects against voter fraud, and now it's headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. That gives a little overview of what this is about, but first of all, explain this to us, Sam. What was the decision?

KMACK: So the decision was ultimately that the practice of rejecting a provisional ballot in its entirety because it was cast out of precinct was discriminatory. And that was based on some research that the complainants had put forth during their case showing that voters of color are disproportionately impacted by those types of ballot rejections. So that decision, the state ultimately asked the 9th Circuit Court to put that decision basically on pause while it appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, like you said, has agreed to take up that case now. So as of right now, unless the Supreme Court hears the case and rules on it before Nov. 3, saying that Arizonan election officials cannot throw out out-of-precinct ballots in their entirety, election officials will be required to do that. Now, the sort of caveat with that whole thing is that a lot of counties throughout the state have switched over to a new model of voting called a vote center model that basically makes precincts irrelevant. There aren't precincts. So in counties like Maricopa, for example, any voter in the county can go and vote at any of these vote centers and have their ballots counted. So the counties that are using that model are home to about 71% of Arizona's active voters as of August. So that will cut down on the number of rejected ballots that are cast out of precinct come 2020. There are other counties, though, that are still using the precinct-based model, and those counties are home to about a quarter of Arizona's active voters as of August. So if voters cast their ballot in the wrong precinct in those counties, which include Pima and Apache, their ballots will be thrown out in their entirety.

GILGER: So this could affect at least that quarter of ballots. But like you say, it's just a quarter. Is this going to be, I'm guessing, in more rural parts of the state where there might already be other challenges to voting?

KMACK: Right. Yeah. So, you know, for example, Apache County up north. It contains a decent chunk of Navajo Nation. And I've spoken with their elections officials. And, you know, they would like to switch to a vote center model, but that requires a lot more technology, and the vote centers need to be able to kind of, for lack of a better word, talk to each other, to let them know who's voted where, so that people can't vote twice. Things like that. And the internet connectivity is, is just something that they don't have up there. So switching to a vote center model is not a realistic option for Apache County in particular.

GILGER: One other issue I want to hit on quickly, Sam, is this issue of mail-in voting, which has become so contentious in this election cycle. But Arizona has long been known as a state where mail-in voting is the way a lot of us vote. We do it well. Are there concerns about mail-in voting when we go into November here when it comes to rejected ballots?

KMACK: Right. So, I mean, a lot of the experts I spoke with — it was pretty much the consensus among experts — is that Arizona is in a really great place to deal with mail-in voting during the pandemic. The concerns, again, come down to the deadline changes and cutoff date shifts. So as long as voters can kind of keep track of those deadline changes, they shouldn't have a problem with getting their ballots counted that are cast by mail. And just to run through some of those changes real quick. Typically in past elections, it was the Wednesday before Election Day that voters could send in their mail-in ballot and expect that it would be counted. Now, this year, it's going to be the day before. So this year, it's Tuesday, Oct. 27. That's when voters need to send in their ballots and can reasonably expect that it will be counted.

GILGER: OK, one final broad question for you, Sam. So having looked at this data, Arizona's history of rejected ballots, what are some of the major trends that you saw? Like, are we improving? Is there a lot to work on here?

KMACK: Well, yes, we're definitely improving. It's gotten better between 2012 and 2016 — both the overall number of rejected ballots went down as well as the rejection rate. So experts say that we're headed in the right direction, and a lot of them are hopeful that it's going to get better again this year. Where it becomes tricky and difficult to kind of predict the outcome this year is when you throw in all these extra factors that are kind of unique to this year. Again, the deadline changes, the shifting cutoff dates, things like that. That's when it gets a little bit tricky. Plus, there's going to be an influx, an expected influx in new voters who may not be as familiar with the voting process as a whole. So when you throw all those factors together, it's certainly difficult to make a guess as to what the rejected ballot rate and number of rejected ballots are going to look like in 2020. But we'll find out after Nov. 3.

GILGER: We will find out. All right. That is Sam Kmack, reporter for the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting, joining us this morning. Sam, thank you so much for coming on The Show and breaking this all down for us.

KMACK: Thank you, Lauren.

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