Bye Bye Provisional Ballots

Screenshot_1.jpgLeave it to a Democratic county recorder to make democracy even better.

When constituents head to the polls to cast their ballots they’ll use a new ballot on demand system instituted by Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes. (Unfortunately, voters choosing the next District 6 Phoenix City Councilman won't get to use this system since the City of Phoenix runs their own elections. It's the only jurisdiction in Maricopa county that does).

It all begins at the Maricopa County Electronic Tabulation Center in downtown Phoenix, a studiously understated cinder block building that stands in the midst of Arizona’s fractious political landscape as an unperturbed example of democracy at its best.

How is the ballot on demand system different?


The ballot on demand system re-enfranchizes voters who previously would have received provisional ballots by printing out a brand-new ballot for them instead. The entire process takes less than five minutes and requires a few simple taps of a touch screen.

People receive provisional ballots for a variety of reasons. Maybe they showed up to the wrong polling place. Or maybe they forgot to update their address when they moved. Perhaps they’re on the Permanent Early Voting List, or PEVL, but just really want an “I Voted!” sticker.

Whatever the reason, those voters will now just get another full-fledged ballot, period.

“We’re basically turning everyone into a [permanent early voting list] voter,” said Chatham Kitz, community relations coordinator for the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office, during a recent tour he led for District 24 Democrats. “It eliminates precinct voting.”

The first ballot-on-demand stations are set up 27 days prior to the election at four locations. Eleven days out from election day, more stations are set up. Finally, what Kitz called “mega sites” are set up and remain open through election day.

To prevent people from voting twice, each printed ballot has a serial number followed by a 1 or 2. The first ballot received by the recorder's office is the one counted and a “soft hold” is placed on ballots that may be doubled to ensure they are not counted twice.

As an added bonus, the ballot on demand system saves taxpayers a significant amount of money (and reduces the office’s waste) because less paper is needed for provisional ballots.

After the vote is cast

For voters, marking a ballot and signing the affidavit envelope are often their final, and sometimes only, step in civic participation. But for the recorder’s office, it’s just the beginning.

Long before an election even begins, recorder’s office staffers work to ensure every voter receives a ballot, including absentee voters stationed on submarines. Every absentee voter's location is meticulously marked on one of many wall-sized maps that line one of the tabulation center’s hallways. Dots scatter the globe from tiny Pacific islands to points north of Alaska. Wherever they are, whether by post, email, fax or airmail drop, Maricopa County voters will get their ballot.

Setting up polling stations themselves is also a major operation. A warehouse attached to the building has endless shelves filled with the equipment needed to turn a school, auditorium or building lobby into an official polling station. Sandwich boards, handicapped parking posts, tables, chairs, and countless plastic bins fill the room. Come election time, an army of moving trucks and other equipment mobilizes to set up polling stations.

Throughout the year, the recorder's office collects and analyzes data, a vital component of any election. The aforementioned giant maps testify to the meticulous attention to detail conducting successful elections requires. The maps tell stories that range from the hyper-specific, such as how far voters had to travel to vote at a polling station in Surprise, to more macro views of the voting populace, such as the ratio of polling locations to voters and the number of ballots cast by each party in each precinct.Map_wall.jpg

Once the votes are in, the real fun begins.

First, staffers with FBI training verify ballot affidavit signatures.

Elections are still a human endeavor, however, and voters make mistakes. If someone sends an old ballot for a previous election (it’s happened), or forgets to sign the affidavit, the staff makes every effort to reach out to that person and correct the error.

Then trained citizen volunteers, or “citizen boards”, sit in pairs of two at folding tables in another room. Each person at the table is from an opposing party, and if a member of an opposing party can't be found an independent is put in their place. Affidavits are brought to the table in batches of 200 along with a printout that lists identification information matching that batch of affidavits. After counting the stack of envelopes to confirm there are 200, each person at the table matches every single envelope to the printout to verify that every affidavit is present.  (Click here if that sounds like your idea of a good time.)

The ballots themselves are counted in a room in which hulking ballot tabulations machines take up most of the space. Before the machines are fired up, a logic and accuracy count – basically a hand-count in reverse – is run. Only three people, including Fontes, have access to this room but on election day you can watch ballots being counted via live stream.

The paper ballots are kept in a vault and saved for six months after the election.

Five races undergo audit counts. These include the elections for two different federal offices, one statewide office, one statewide ballot measure and one state Legislative office.

You have to see it to believe it

This blog barely scratches the surface of all the pieces that come together during an election. To truly appreciate it, you need to see it for yourself. If you're lucky enough to have Kitz lead the tour, you'll find his obvious dedication and passion for the election process to be contagious and a perfect antidote for The 45 Blues.

Best of all, you get to try out the ballot on demand system and receive a fun mock ballot (Frida O. Kahlo as the District 9 Democratic Supervisor? Absolutely!).

Schedule your tour by contacting Kitz directly at [email protected]

This blog was updated August 28, 2017 at 11:48 a.m. to reflect the following: The City of Phoenix is the only jurisdiction in Maricopa that runs its own elections. As such, the ballot on demand system will not be used in the Phoenix City Council race.