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Politics & Government

Arizona Polling Places Overwhelmed With Long Lines On Primary Day

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Imagine spending hours in line to vote and then finding out the race has been called before you can cast a ballot. That's what happened in Maricopa County, Ariz., this week on the day of the presidential primary election. Maricopa is Arizona's most populous county and accounts for almost two thirds of the state's residents, and yet there were only 60 polling places, down from 200 in 2012. Reporter Jude Joffe-Block from member station KJZZ in Phoenix has been following this story, and she joins the program now.

And Jude, so far, what's the explanation as to why there were just fewer polling places to begin with compared to four years ago?

JUDE JOFFE-BLOCK, BYLINE: Well, you know, I was at a polling place in Phoenix where voters who'd gotten in line right before 7 didn't cast their ballot after midnight. So very dramatic problems that we are seeing. And it seems like the issue might've come down to budget cuts. The state passed a budget last year that cut funding to counties, and we know that county supervisors directed election officials to run a cheap election.

And one of the ways they did that was by reducing the number of polling places. The idea was the 60 polling places would be larger than past polling places, would accommodate more voters and voters would be allowed to visit any of the 60 polling places in the county. But what's clear is that 60 was really not enough.

CORNISH: So who's getting the blame?

JOFFE-BLOCK: So on the one hand, there's one county official who's getting a lot of heat, and that's Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell. There's been some calls for her to resign. She's going to face challenges in the November election. She's elected to this post as a Republican. She'll face a Republican and a Democratic challenger in November.

And some people are asking whether the secretary of state has blame in this, whether she should've had better oversight. Democrats are saying this is part of a larger issue. They're blaming the Republican administration saying that the budget cuts as well as legislation that's made it harder to vote in Arizona is really the problem here.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, Arizona does have a history of discrimination when it comes to voting and voting rights, correct?

JOFFE-BLOCK: Right. I mean, Arizona has a history of discriminating against minority voters, particularly Latino voters, and that's one reason the state was one of the states that used to be required to check any election changes with the Department of Justice to make sure they wouldn't be discriminatory. But that stopped three years ago, or almost three years ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a section of the Voting Rights Act.

And many people are now wondering if there were still federal oversight over Arizona if this debacle could've been prevented. The Phoenix mayor has said that he believes the reduced polling places disproportionately impacted minority voters in Phoenix. He's calling on the Department of Justice to investigate what happened. And the Democratic Party is threatening to sue Maricopa County.

CORNISH: Do you get the sense this episode changed the debate around voting and elections in the state?

JOFFE-BLOCK: Well, this is a state with voter ID laws. There was controversy here over whether voters should have to prove citizenship in order to register to vote. And usually those debates fell on partisan lines, but what we're seeing now, this basic issue of whether you should have to stand in line for hours and hours to vote, there's bipartisan outrage over this and joint agreement that this has to be fixed right away.

There's a statewide election coming up in May, and there's a lot of pressure on officials to get things right and there does seem to be a sense of urgency. We're going to see hearings in the legislature starting Monday. The secretary of state has promised to hold her own hearings. And yesterday, the attorney general announced that he intends to introduce legislation that will prevent early results from coming out when voters are still in line.

CORNISH: That's Jude Joffe-Block from member station KJZZ in Phoenix.

Thank you so much.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.