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A look at the disastrous Arizona primary

People waited in line in Chandler, Ariz. to vote in the state’s presidential primary on March 22. David Kadlubowski/The Arizona Republic via AP

Arizona’s primary was an utter disaster. But was it just a big mistake, or something more nefarious?

That’s the question many of the thousands who waited for hours in the Phoenix area to vote last week are asking. Their answer largely depends on their politics and how much latitude they’re willing to give Arizona’s voting rights record.

The drama and finger-pointing about the much-maligned March 22 presidential primary in Arizona’s largest county isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. State officials are still investigating what went wrong and why it led to so much voter turmoil, and some are calling for a federal investigation. So let’s quickly go through the arguments on both sides:


It was a mistake

The woman in charge of running the election for Arizona’s Maricopa County said the decision to cut polling locations by 70 percent from 2012 was a miscalculation on her part about who would come out to vote and where.

‘‘I made a giant mistake,’’ Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell said in a heated hearing in Arizona’s State House Tuesday as she accepted blame — and peoples’ scorn — for what happened.

Purcell, a Republican, said she looked at numbers from the last contested presidential primary in 2008 and assumed many people would mail in ballots. She also blamed the legislature for not giving counties like hers enough money to properly hold elections.

The secretary of state’s office attributed the long lines partly to voter confusion: They had been trying for a year to get the word out that independents couldn’t vote in the March 22 primary since it’s technically a presidential preference election for party members only; apparently that didn’t work.

Those explanations didn’t sit well with the dozens of voters and activists who showed up Tuesday to boo election officials and demand they resign. One protester was even handcuffed. Some of the outcry has taken on a partisan nature, with Democrats saying this amounted to voter suppression and left-wing publications like Mother Jones focusing lots of coverage on the fallout.


State officials say this was a one-time mistake that they’re doing everything possible to make sure won’t happen again.

It was something more

If the botched election happened in a vacuum, perhaps the long lines might not have become such an explosive political issue. But voting rights activists who were on the ground that day say there are too many parallels to past fudged elections in Arizona not to wonder whether there’s something more sinister going on.

‘‘We don’t know if they were honest mistakes or not, but there’s certainly a pattern of mistakes,’’ said Shuya Ohno, director of the Right to Vote campaign at the nonpartisan civil rights organization Advancement Project.

Voting rights advocates say Latino voters didn’t want to mail in their ballot because many recalled the bottleneck during 2012’s heated election when controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio was on the ballot. People in minority communities waited in long lines, and eventually many had to cast provisional ballots that weren’t counted until almost a month later. That same year, the county sent out a Spanish-language announcement that had the wrong voting day on it.

Going back to March 22’s election, voting rights activists say they have evidence the poll closures were heaviest in the most disadvantaged areas of the county, like West Phoenix, which has a big minority population. They add they did not find nearly the volume of independent voters officials said there were.


This is the first national election since a 2013 Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act meant that Arizona no longer has to have its changes to polling locations reviewed by the Department of Justice. Some wonder if this would have happened if the federal government had a chance to intervene.

The bottom line

Stepping back from the rhetoric, it’s unclear what county and state officials would have to gain from trying to disenfranchise Phoenix-area voters. They or their colleagues weren’t on the ballot, and you could argue that cutting polling locations by 70 percent would have been a pretty brash and conspicuous way to go about using this election for political gain.

It was also a primary, meaning disenfranchising certain voter groups like Latinos wouldn’t necessarily have accrued to Republicans’ benefit.

But suspicion will remain until Arizona officials give more definitive answers about what happened. Right now, there’s not one person or action that frustrated voters can point to to explain what went wrong. The uncertainty only fuels partisan theories. Plus, there’s still the fact that in the United States of America in 2016, thousands of people had to wait in line for hours to vote.

The nation’s eyes will likely stay on Arizona for the near future, and not just on the potential legal and political fallout from Maricopa County’s botched election: The state still has three more statewide elections to pull off this year.