November 13, 2022
Mary Jo Pitzl
Arizona Republic

Can vote counting speed up for future elections in Arizona? The options come with consequences

Vote counting in Arizona has rounded the corner into a new week.

It’s not unusual to see ballots tallied days after an election, but the close races and high stakes this year have many wondering why the pace can’t move faster.

There are ways to do that — many, in fact — although they come with tradeoffs, elections experts and others say. And many of those practices already are in place in Arizona.

But the tension remains between getting accurate results out quickly and giving people the longest time possible to vote, and in a convenient manner.

“I would not put quick out front of accurate,” said former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, a Republican and now a state senator-elect. “But we want quick in America. We shouldn’t sacrifice one for the other.”

Tammy Patrick, senior adviser on elections for the nonprofit Democracy Project, hears this debate every two years.

“This is the mantra in every election that is close: how do we do it faster?’ she said.

Eliminating mail-in voting and requiring people to line up at the polls is the simplest way to speed up vote counting. Mail-in ballots require extra verification steps to ensure the person who marked the ballot is the voter the ballot was intended for.

State Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, has said she would re-introduce
legislation to abolish mail-in voting with exceptions only for military and disabled voters when the Legislature convenes in January.

But given the popularity of the program in Arizona — about 85% of voters used mail-in voting in the August primary — that’s a fraught issue for policy makers. Although Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and lawmakers who align with her have favored eliminating the 30-year-old program, it might not go over well with the public.

Losing early voting also would reduce voter participation for those unable to travel to the polls and stand in what could be hours-long lines.

Even if the state eliminated the program, vote counting would go on for days, Patrick said.

However, dropping early voting and the extra verification steps it requires could allow media outlets to call a race sooner.

Vote counting has averaged 12.5 days since the 2006 election, Maricopa County officials said.

F. Ann Rodriguez, the former recorder in Pima County, said no one complains when races aren’t close, even as vote tabulation goes on for days. It’s only when things are tight that some in the media and among the political class start to question the speed of vote counting.

“When it’s close races, they’re hammering everybody,” Rodriguez said.

Patrick agreed.

“There isn’t a state nor territory that has official results on election night,” Patrick said.

Laws give voters time to clarify questions about their mail-in ballots, a so-called “cure” period that runs for several days after the polls close. And ballots sent in by overseas and military voters take extra time to process, making one-day vote counting impossible.

An express lane at the polls?

Still, there are ways to streamline mail-in voting, said state Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R- Chandler.

Doing so could have helped especially this year, as Maricopa County on Friday just started to process the estimated 290,000 mail-in ballots dropped off at the polls, a number that is 70% greater than the previous record for drop-off ballots.

Mesnard intends to tweak a law he authored last year to require Arizona’s 15 county elections offices to provide a space where voters who wait until Election Day to turn in their ballots can opt to actually slide their ballot into the tabulation machine rather than drop it off for later processing.

This would be a separate line from in-person voters, or perhaps at a separate location; call it an express lane for people who have already filled out their ballot.

The law as it’s written doesn’t take effect until 2024, and only makes it an option for counties to provide this service.

“It seems like a really basic thing you can do,” he said, arguing it will cut down on hours of processing time because ballots would get counted on site, just as they are for voters who show up in person to vote.

“I suspect there will be renewed interest,” Mesnard said in an understatement, pointing to all the suspicions surrounding what many view as a molasses-slow counting process.

The focus on the state’s ballot counting is amplified more by the nationwide consequences of Arizona’s U.S. Senate race, which could affect the balance of power in Washington D.C., he said.

Elections officers said the idea sounds good, but counties would need more space and more equipment to make it work. That means more spending on elections, something Mesnard said he would entertain.

He also is considering whether to introduce legislation to remove ballot drop boxes at the polls, which would force voters either to mail their ballot or open their ballot envelope at the polls and put the ballot in the tabulation machine.

Faster results require more money

Nationally, elections experts say the best prescription for faster vote counting comes down to two basic elements.

“What you need is really simple: enough workers and enough space,” said Sam Oliker-Friedland, executive director of the Institute for Responsive Government.

With more trained workers, and enough space to accommodate a bigger
workforce and more equipment, ballot counting could run faster, he said. That amounts to more money for elections offices.

“Literally, more resources can be the best medicine to a county problem,” Oliker-Friedland said.

At full capacity, for example, Maricopa County’s tabulation machines can process up to 60,000 to 80,000 ballots a day, officials say. More machines would handle more ballots, but cost of thousands of dollars.

Cochise County was grappling with the resource issue as its officials
contemplated a hand count of every ballot cast in this month’s election.

While that effort was apparently shut down by the state Supreme Court,
organizers were searching for a big enough site in the rural county to handle about 200 volunteers and staffers, as well as nearly 40,000 ballots that would have to stay in a secure space. They also were attempting to do the unorthodox count without drawing further on taxpayer dollars, although a law passed last year bars the use of outside money to help conduct elections.

Deadlines, vote centers can help

Other steps can speed up vote counting, experts say.

For example, states can allow the processing of early ballots for tabulation before the polls close, said Patrick, a former Maricopa County elections staffer. Arizona adopted this practice a few years ago.

States can set deadlines for requesting a mail-in ballot that match the U.S. Postal Service’s estimated time frames for getting a ballot back to elections offices in time for counting.

Arizona does this, with an 11-day cutoff before Election Day to request a ballot. But 20 states allow voters to request an early ballot during this period, which sets them up for failure because the ballot won’t be returned in time, Patrick said.

States also can enact policies that allow voters to resolve issues with their voter registration before they show up at the polls, reducing the need for provisional ballots, Patrick said. Provisionals take extra time to process and ensure the voter is properly registered.

Arizona has reduced the volume of provisional ballots by using vote centers, where a voter can cast a ballot anywhere in their home county, rather than being tied to a specific precinct.

More speed could come at a cost

Other measures would come at the expense of voter access, Patrick said.

For example, states could eliminate the cure period for ballots, shut down drop boxes before Election Day or require mail-in ballots to arrive at elections offices days before Election Day. Arizona accepts mail-in ballots until 7 p.m. on Election Day.

“Those are not moves that strengthen our elections. They simply erode the voters’ ability to successfully participate in order to pander to our need for instant gratification,” she said.

Like other elections officials, she said the public and the media need to practice patience while votes are counted.

“Those final seconds in a close game can stretch out for awhile, but we want to be certain that the final score is correct,” she said.

Published on November 13, 2022 on Arizona Republic