Who is to blame for Maricopa County's election day problems?

When voting began at 6 a.m. Tuesday, 62 Maricopa County polling places were not ready for voters.

Story by Jessica Boehm, Dustin Gardiner, Rebekah L. Sanders, Jen Fifield, Dennis Wagner, Lorraine Longhi and Michael Kiefer, Arizona Republic

The check-in equipment that allows poll workers to verify voters' identity had not been set up, leaving some voters unable to secure ballots for hours. 

The Maricopa County Recorder's Office blamed its IT contractor for the issues. The Tempe-based contractor pointed the finger back on an unprepared recorder's office. 

Regardless of fault, thousands of Maricopa County voters found themselves bouncing between voting locations, casting provisional ballots or, in some cases, giving up on voting altogether. 

"This is not a hiccup," Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes conceded. "This is a serious concern where voters across Maricopa County couldn’t get voting."

Fontes and Secretary of State Michele Reagan hatched a plan to keep voting booths open an extra two hours to try to compensate for the early-morning issues, but it was derailed by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, which feared extending the voting deadline would confuse voters.

The problems triggered flashbacks to the 2016 presidential preference election, when tens of thousands of voters were frustrated by long lines, causing more than 100,000 to walk away from the polls without casting ballots.

Former County Recorder Helen Purcell lost her job over the fiasco, paving the way for Fontes, who was elected after promising to overhaul the balloting system.

What happened?

Tuesday's election issues were exclusive to Maricopa County.

Arizona has 3.6 million registered voters, 2.2 million of whom live in Maricopa County. 

The "SiteBooks," which store voter registration information and let voters check in at the polls, were not properly installed at some polling places on Monday, leaving voters unable to secure ballots Tuesday morning.

The check-in equipment requires an internet connection to access the voter registration database. If voters cannot check in, they cannot vote.

By 10 a.m., four sites were still closed. All were open by 11:30 a.m, Fontes said, though voters reported issues at polling places well into the afternoon. 

Who is to blame?

Fontes and a Tempe-based technology company are trading blame for the lack of preparedness. 

The county hired Insight Enterprises, a global information technology contractor, to set up voter check-in equipment on Monday and provide technical support on Tuesday, the Recorder's Office and an Insight representative said. 

Insight successfully provided the Recorder's Office with setup services earlier this year for 55 polling sites in the Congressional District 8 special election, according to an email to county staff from Keely Varvel, chief deputy for the County Recorder's Office.

The Recorder's Office said the primary election contract called for 103 Insight employees to set up polling sites Monday, but only 73 technicians showed up, according to Varvel's email.

Insight had a different story.

Company spokesman Scott Walters told The Arizona Republic the company was hired to provide 83 employees to set up equipment Monday and 40 technicians on election day to troubleshoot, with additional support as needed. 

The company provided more employees than required — 85 on Monday and 60 on Tuesday — Walters said in an email.

The Recorder's Office said technicians were so behind that they missed appointments with building owners to set up polling locations, which are typically at churches, schools and other community buildings, the email to county officials said.

When it became clear the 463 sites would not be ready on schedule, the Recorder's Office called building owners to reschedule appointments to activate equipment Monday night and Tuesday morning and trained county staff how to set up the equipment, the email said.

On Tuesday morning, "The contractor again failed to produce the number of staff they had promised, and so many sites were not set up in a timely way," she wrote.

Insight officials said only 43 sites were inoperable by the time polls opened Tuesday morning. But Walters said the county was at fault, not his company.

The reason the voting sites did not open on time was because the Recorder's Office was unprepared, he said.

"Voter validation machines were not fully operational ... almost exclusively as a result of lack of site readiness and on-site connectivity issues," Walters wrote. "Insight's responsibilities to provide technical support did not extend to those matters."

Insight "is committed to working with the county to ensure that disruptions to the voting process do not continue in future elections," Walters said.

Extending voting hours?

At about noon, Reagan called for Fontes to seek a court order keeping select polling places open past 7 p.m. because of the reported problems.

Local election experts said they couldn't remember a time, at least in recent history, when polling hours were changed on election day.

In Arizona, poll hours are dictated by state law, which states that polls must be open in every precinct from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.

The county would have had to secure a court order to override the law, said Amy Chan, who served as state election director from 2009 to 2013.

Tuesday afternoon, Fontes said his office was working with the County Attorney's Office and discussing keeping polling sites open late.

But the Board of Supervisors, the head county decision makers, quashed the idea in a sharp statement criticizing Fontes.

"The board is being asked to step in and take unprecedented action that may confuse voters, delay returns and have other unintended consequences," Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Steve Chucri said in a statement at 3:45 p.m. "We encourage any voter who wants to cast their ballot to be in line at any of your designated polling places by 7 p.m. and their vote will be counted."

Reagan's office said she was "disappointed for the voters who were inconvenienced this morning and hope they have the opportunity to vote this afternoon."

Voter complaints

Kristina Kelly wanted to be the first person voting at her polling location, the Via Linda Senior Center in Scottsdale. That's because she's running for state Senate in Legislative District 23.

But the location was closed when she went to vote with her mother at 6 a.m.

Volunteers told her computers were never delivered and never set up for voters. She and her mother then went to nearby Mountain View Community Center, where a volunteer took her name down on a yellow legal pad and gave her a ballot.

"We definitely need to learn from this," Kelly said. "People told me they don't feel included or part of the process, and then to top it off they get to the polling location and this happens. That's incredibly frustrating."

Scottsdale resident Joe Cerrito dropped off his ballot at about 4:10 p.m. at the Mountain View Community Center. He said it was the third polling location he had been to on Tuesday.

Earlier in the day, one polling location near Scottsdale Road and Acoma Drive was closed, he said. Another location had a long line, he said, even for people who were there to just drop off ballots. 

Noelle Stovell and her husband went at 6 a.m. to the polling location they've been voting at for the past 15 years. But they arrived to find the building closed and completely dark.

Stovell says they then went on a scavenger hunt looking for their next polling location, tucked away in the back of a trailer park off Cave Creek Road. They arrived to find that none of the voting machines had been set up, with the location only accepting mail-in ballots.

The Stovells ultimately had to head to a temporary voting location at Paradise Valley Community College, where only provisional ballots were available.

"My vote might not even count," Stovell said. "This is absolutely ridiculous."

Not all complaints related to the late openings of polling sites. 

State Rep. Jeff Weninger, R-Chandler, tweeted that voters in Legislative District 18 received incorrect ballots for 30 minutes in one precinct. 

Dick Conser who is from the Choctaw Nation but lives in Maricopa County, said there was no option on the voting screen to submit his Tribal ID to check in at his Scottsdale polling place.

The poll worker said he had to vote by provisional ballot, which will not be counted until after Election Day.

There were also reports of some voters experiencing long lines towards the end of the night at a couple Phoenix and Tempe locations. 

Legal issues 

Reagan's office said they do not plan to pursue any legal action regarding the closure of polls or the decision not to keep them open late.

Voters could sue, though, if they felt their right to vote was denied, said Joseph Kanefield, a Phoenix-based election law attorney who served as the state's election director from 2004 to 2009.

To prove they were disenfranchised, voters would be required to prove that they were unable to vote otherwise, even after being directed to another location, Kanefield said — a high burden to prove.

But Chan said that if some of the precincts didn't open on time, that might be proof enough that their right was denied.

If a lawsuit does arise, the court may be able to look at one case in the state's distant past for direction.

In 1912, the Arizona Supreme Court took up a case involving an election for county treasurer in Santa Cruz County, Kanefield said.

On Election Day, one precinct's polling place didn't open because it lacked the proper amount of poll workers and supplies hadn't arrived. The loser of the election, who only lost by six votes, contested the election, Kanefield said.

The court found that it would not overturn the result of the election in a situation where polls opened late unless someone could show that there was fraud on the part of election officials, or unless someone could show that the closure affected the result of the election, Kanefield said.

The court, in that case, did not overturn the result.

Joel Edman, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, a voting-rights watchdog group, said the county should conduct an formal analysis, led by an outside third party, to determine what caused Tuesday’s blunder.

"What the voters deserve now, at the very least, is a full and honest accounting of what happened, what caused this problem," he said. 'And a plan to ensure that it's not going to happen going forward."

Edman said there also needs to be a provision, in state or county law, that outlines specific remedies elections officials must take if polls are closed on election day.

Flashbacks to 2016

Many voters impacted by Tuesday's polling place delays compared the incident to the 2016 presidential preference election.

Charles McNulty on Tuesday went to vote at Burton Barr Library around lunchtime after he learned the voting system at the Encanto Park Clubhouse was not operational.

"It was very frustrating," McNulty said. "For a primary two years ago, I waited in line for four and a half hours, so I was annoyed again."

But Fontes said the latest breakdown is unrelated to the fiasco two years ago.

"What happened in 2016 is the day got worse and worse as the day went on," he said. "In this case, we had a circumstance where the day didn't begin too well and got better and better as the day went on."

He said this time it wasn't a situation of the county doing something wrong, but of "a lot of county employees, a lot of our staff solving problems beyond our control."

The debacle two years ago was caused not by equipment flaws but by a drastic and intentional reduction in the number of polling locations, from 200 in 2012 to 60 in 2016.

Voters waited up to five hours at some sites, and those who stayed cast ballots long after the official closing time was waived. As long as voters were in line by 7 p.m., they were allowed to vote.

The chaos in a presidential preference election triggered nationwide outrage and complaints of voter suppression. 

Months later, voters replaced longtime recorder Purcell, a Republican, with Fontes, a Democrat.

Fontes had fiercely criticized Purcell's handling of the 2016 primary and promised sweeping reforms. 

In April, Fontes predicted a much smoother voting experience thanks to new technology, more polling sites and clearer instructions to voters. 

"We've designed a technology that is way faster than a lot of people expect," he said. "... We now have technology that can make it as simple as possible."

Purcell said Tuesday she doesn't believe Fontes understood the complexities of collecting ballots, especially in the nation's fourth-largest voting district.

"I have never known an election that didn't have some issues," she added. "These seem to be a little more impactful. … But I certainly don't wish anyone bad luck when it means an infringement on voters."

Purcell said a review should be performed to learn what went wrong and who was responsible.

"Something's got to happen after the election. But that's too late for people who didn't get to vote," she added.

A controversial analysis of the 2016 election problem blamed cuts in state election funding. Author Jeffrey Mason, a former employee of the Recorder's Office, said election officials were forced to scale back the number of polling places, creating a logjam when turnout exceeded expectations.

Mason concluded that more than 133,000 voters were disenfranchised by the bottleneck.

But Fontes, who had commissioned that report, rejected its findings, telling Maricopa County supervisors it was "filled with errors, poor analysis, conjecture and hyperbole."

In an interview Tuesday, Mason again placed the blame on a lack of necessary funding.

Mason said the number of voters have been increasing while employees in the election's department have dropped.

"It's not going to end here either," Mason said, warning that issues could seep into the November election and beyond.