Election Day issues: Foreclosure, technology glitches, running out of ballots

November 6, 2018 | Arizona Republic

Computer shutdowns, printing problems and long lines plagued voters at polling stations across Maricopa County on Tuesday.

Complaints spiked around noon, with some voters saying they were turned away from multiple polling stations and forced to cast provisional ballots if they wanted to vote at all.

Election officials, who were flustered as computers systems malfunctioned and electronic backups failed, surmounted many of the issues by the afternoon. They avoided a repeat of the widespread turmoil experienced in August's primary election.

As the polls closed, complaints had ebbed. But there were still long lines at some polling stations, including one at Arizona State University in Tempe where people expected to be waiting until 11 pm. 

“I don’t think anybody thought this many voters would turn out,” Jaime Ingrisano, ASU Associated Students coordinator, said.

Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes minimized problems on Tuesday, saying: “I think we’re in good shape today.”

That was little solace for some voters who left polls wrung out and worried if their votes would count.

"I am extremely upset," Angelina Zehrbach of Glendale said Tuesday after being directed to four different polling stations. "It’s the whole reason I don’t do an early ballot. I feel there’s pride in going to vote on election day and seeing your vote counted. I tried four times to make that happen."

Zehrbach said her assigned precinct polling place, Dove of the Desert United Methodist Church, was closed because printers were down.

Officials there directed her to Glendale Elementary School District, which was supposed to serve as a neighborhood vote center, a triage center where any registered county voter could show up and vote. But it also was closed.

Zehrbach was told to try another voting center at Cartwright School District, where she was handed a provisional ballot. She refused to fill it out, fearing her vote wouldn't count. Instead of voting, she went to work.

"This is absolutely ridiculous," she said. "It shouldn’t be this hard to cast a vote."

At lunchtime, Zehrbach was back at the Glendale school district office and filled out a provisional ballot.

"I didn’t want to, but I was frustrated with the whole process," she said. ”I’m going to be checking back on it."

Zehrbach was not alone in her concerns about the so-called provisional ballots cast at vote centers throughout the county.

Fontes has tried to reassure residents that ballots at vote centers will count like any other, even if they are labeled as provisional.

Just before 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Fontes said the county was "doing pretty good" at handling large numbers of returns. But he acknowledged the day "was not without hiccups."

He said software problems required computer updates that were accomplished seamlessly. 

“I think one of the things we’re really focusing on was not expecting perfection but preparing for the unexpected,” he said. "We did have some circumstances we would have preferred not to have. There were some voters who were not totally satisfied.”

He said one critical difference between Tuesday and the August primary was staffing.

“We had a lot more folks out there, we had a lot more coordination, we cleaned up our lines of communication," he said. “I think we’re doing pretty good. We’re getting a very very large volume of voters through all of our polling places. Much higher than we had in August.”

The polls open, Nov. 6, 2018, at the Burton Barr Library, 1221 N. Central Ave. in Phoenix. Mark Henle, The Republic

Countywide problems

The entire Maricopa County computer system, which is needed for voters to check in at the polls, went offline around 11:30 a.m. Tuesday. 

Fontes confirmed around noon that the system had a 20 to 25-minute "slowdown" during the 11 a.m. hour, and the system was entirely down for five minutes.

An email from Chief Deputy Recorder Keely Varvel to county employees further clarified the technical issues that plagued polling places Tuesday morning.

Varvel said the “Ballot-on-Demand" printers at vote centers, which print custom ballots according to a voter’s precinct, were “not functioning properly for a few hours.” Information technology troubleshooters initiated “patch repairs,” which resolved the issues.

She also said the countywide computer system outage, which affected all voter check-in machines, lasted about 20 minutes and was caused by “an internal database transaction.”

Fontes said the "slowdown," as he called it, didn't result in major voter impact. 

Tales from voters painted a different picture. 

Terry Choate said he tried to vote at Mountain View School in Phoenix but he’s not sure if his vote will count.

The ballot tabulator was not working, so poll workers had voters place their ballots in a box and told them they would count them later when the machine was repaired, he said.

“They're just throwing the ballots in the box and I don't know what they're going to do with them,” Choate said.

Bob McNish said he waited for more than two hours at Mountain View and the machine broke down just before he stepped in to vote.

"It should not be this hard to vote," he said in an email Tuesday. "Screw the technology, never had this many issues when we used paper ballots. Unbelievable!"

Sarah Kent, 38, showed up to her northwest Mesa polling place and found about 20 people in a line that wasn’t moving.

“There were people standing, filling out ballots, but the people filling out computers to check in were just sitting there,” she said.

She heard a poll worker say that an update had been sent to their computers, and there was nothing they could do. “It made everything go screwy,” Kent said. Eventually “somebody with a badge” arrived and said that if the computers didn’t come back, they would have to use provisional ballots.

But Kent couldn’t wait all afternoon. She walked out and went home, along with half the line.  

“Half had to leave,” she said. “People were still showing up when I had to leave. Other people were grabbing chairs to sit down in line.”

As she left, she said, somebody told her to come back in an hour.

Carrie Delasco, 42, ran into some confusion at Deer Valley Airport this morning. She arrived to vote at 6:30 a.m. and was told there were no ballots for precinct 447, even though it was her official polling station. Victor Ren, azcentral

Lines, lines and more lines

People were standing in lines long after polls closed, most waiting patiently but asking why the county seemed unprepared for the big turnout.

Lines at ASU formed early in the day and continued growing until the polls closed, leaving voters with hours to go before they could cast ballots. 

For senior Cali Trammell, a geology major, the ballot boxes were finally in sight at 7:45 p.m. after a wait of nearly two hours. Behind Trammell, the line of voters snaked back for what some estimate would be another three hours.

Volunteers passed out food and water as music blared from speakers in the quad. 

“It isn’t ideal, but it’s definitely worth it,” Trammell said about the long wait. “They’re making it fun.”

“It would be a way to wimp out if I didn’t see it to the end.”

Jeanne Fredericy, voter

Alex Gulotta, Arizona director for the non-profit, non-partisan All Voting is Local, said he was concerned voters wouldn't wait after polls closed.

"It is critical that people stay in line," he said. "They need to stay in line."

Gulotta said 150 poll monitors in Maricopa County were tracking problems throughout the day and staying in contact with elections officials. He said there were at least three polling places where voters expected to be in line past 8 pm.

One of those was Faith Lutheran Church on Camelback Road in Phoenix.

Jeanne Fredericy left there after casting her ballot at 7:46 p.m.

“It was a long, long wait,” she said. “Cars and people just kept pouring in and I got here at 6:30.”

Fredericy got in line and didn’t enter the church until about 7:15 p.m. but she said the wait was worth it for an important election.

“It would be a way to wimp out if I didn’t see it to the end,” she said.

Lines at the Faith Lutheran Church polling station on Camelback Road near Seventh Street on election night, Nov. 6, 2018.

Lines at the Faith Lutheran Church polling station on Camelback Road near Seventh Street on election night, Nov. 6, 2018. (Photo: Austin Westfall/The Republic)

Fontes lauds voter turnout

Despite a polling-place foreclosure, malfunctioning ballot printers and complaints of long voting lines, Fontes said Tuesday morning had been "a typical election day with typical, run-of-the-mill problems." 

He acknowledged that some of the county's 503 polling places had "our typical very long lines," but said the county's elections operations had experienced only minor problems and blamed the delays on massive turnout.

"The question of long lines," he added, "is really relative." At many polling places, he said, it took less than a minute to check in each voter — four times faster than before. And most American voters, he said, expected to wait between 20 and 30 minutes, anyway. 

"Right now, at one of the sites we heard was having long lines, what we realized was that the long lines were not for checking in, but for the booths," Fontes said. "Because we’re issuing ballots so quickly, folks aren’t voting them as fast as we’re issuing them. So that’s where the lines are forming in some places." 

As of 1 p.m., Varvel wrote in her memo, 133,174 ballots had been cast at precinct polling places, 4,701 ballots were cast at vote centers and 6,627 ballots have been cast provisionally.  

But the system stumbled out of the early-morning hours. Five polling places weren't ready to go when voting began at 6 a.m., Fontes said. Most were up and running soon after, but voters across the Valley  reported ballot-box glitches: Printers that wouldn’t print, precincts that ran out of ballots and voters who stood in motionless lines, only to be told to come back later.

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Before polls even opened, Fontes had to call in the sheriff. 

Poll workers arrived at the Golf Academy of America, a designated polling place in northern Chandler, around 5 a.m. Everything was ready for voting. Election machines were hooked up and ballots sat waiting.

But poll workers couldn’t get inside. The doors were locked.

Overnight, the building had been foreclosed.

The troubles at the Chandler polling place had roots in a judicial opinion filed Monday in an Alabama federal court.

Education Corporation of America, the parent company of the Golf Academy of America asked the court for time to restructure financially while still participating in federal financial aid programs.

The corporation said it faced lawsuits and at least two pending evictions.

A judge denied its request.

Around 5:30 a.m., Fontes tweeted an advisory directing affected Chandler voters to a vote center at Chandler City Hall.

But things were no better there.

“Apparently there’s an issue with the ballots,” Brian Murray, 43, said as he stood in a growing crowd at City Hall. He arrived around 6:15 a.m. and took his place in line. But it didn’t move. Instead, he watched as a poll worker came out every few minutes and announced that the printers weren’t working.

Soon after, a wave of voters arrived from the closed golf shop.

“So we’re getting that overflow, too,” Murray said.

Fontes called the sheriff and worked on getting a court order to forcibly open the location for voting. In the meantime, poll workers set up a temporary polling place in the golf academy's parking lot. 

The building finally opened just after 9 a.m., but it took another 90 minutes for voting to begin. The site's first voter, who identified himself only as Mike B., said he waited for more than four hours.  

Armani Davis, 27, said he had an easy experience voting at Latter-Day Saints Church in Goodyear and supported many of the Democrats on the ballot. Victor Ren, azcentral

Technology failures

The source of most of the problems: ballot printers that wouldn’t print.

Fontes said he was aware of an issue with the system for vote centers' on-demand ballot printers, but wasn't sure what it was. 

Just after voting began, Queen Creek Councilman Jeff Brown saw a social media post about problems at the local library. Though he had already voted with an early ballot, Brown made the short drive to see for himself.

He found friends standing in line. Poll workers, they told him, had announced that only one voting kiosk and one printer were working. The line grew, and the library filled with waiting voters. Others started to leave.

Brown followed them outside. Making sure to stand outside the 75-foot electioneering radius, he asked passing people if they were able to cast a ballot.

ALSO: Maricopa County Recorder answers some questions about election issues

“About two-thirds of them had not,” he said. Some of those potential voters said that poll workers had taken their phone numbers and promised to call or text whenever their ballot was ready.

Printer problems appeared to have struck across the county. Voters from Deer Valley to downtown Phoenix to eastern Mesa reported long lines that poll workers blamed on the printers. At a polling place in Deer Valley, voters were told there were no ballots at all for Precinct 447. And at least one site, in north Phoenix, simply ran out of ballots.

“They said they're out of ballots, and they're sorry.”

Gabriel Preminger, north Phoenix voter

"They said they're out of ballots, and they're sorry," said Gabriel Preminger, who stopped by the North Valley Church of Christ around 8:30 a.m. He said poll workers there asked him to point on a map to where he lived, then told him they didn't have enough ballots. He heard one mention something about having too many Spanish-language ballots.

“I was going to go back in there and try," he said, "but people were flipping out when they were telling them.”

In Ahwatukee Foothills, one voter said, poll workers simply told people to come back later.

“They did about 25 minutes of voting until they said that they couldn’t print anything,” said Evan English, who arrived at the Ahwatukee Recreation Center just after 6 a.m. He said the line started flowing, then suddenly stopped. Poll workers then started asking voters to come back later.

Inspector Eileen Wendt looks at a sign from the landlord that says the tenant did not pay rent and the locks have been changed preventing access to the Gila polling place in Chandler, Nov. 6, 2018.

Inspector Eileen Wendt looks at a sign from the landlord that says the tenant did not pay rent and the locks have been changed preventing access to the Gila polling place in Chandler, Nov. 6, 2018. (Photo: Cheryl Evans/The Republic)

In Tempe, Sydney Steer woke up early and got to her assigned polling place, the Tempe Historical Museum, just after 6 a.m. For the next 40 minutes, she waited in line, working her way toward the front, until a poll worker told her she was in the wrong place.

Turned away, she double-checked her voting location. It listed the same address, but for a building across the parking lot.

“There was no voting, nothing happening at that building,” she said. “The building wasn’t even open.”

She went back to the museum but ran into the same problem.

“I’m feeling super weird about it,” she said. “I’m going to go there after school. I just hope it’s all figured out by then.”

Repeat offenders

One polling place — located just west of Interstate 10 in Ahwatukee Foothills — experienced technology problems in the much-maligned August primary election. A poll observer for that primary said he didn’t see any voters enter the building for more than three hours.

That August primary quickly fell into chaos. At least one-third of the county’s polling places were understaffed, according to data from the Recorder's Office. When polls opened at 6 a.m., 62 voting locations weren’t ready to go. Voter ID machines hadn’t been hooked up. One station didn’t start checking in voters until 11:33 a.m.

It marked the fourth straight election cycle in which Maricopa County struggled with voting problems.

Massive lines for the 2016 presidential preference election led more than 100,000 voters to walk away without casting a ballot. And in both 2014 and 2012, problems counting early and provisional ballots delayed results.

Fontes said the county’s November preparations focused on recruiting poll workers and building back-up plans into the system.

In the months leading up to this election, Fontes insisted the county had smoothed out its ballot-box problems but stopped short of a guarantee.

“The reason I’m not going to say I guarantee it is because if we have one polling place that opens up five or 10 minutes late, we’ve got a problem,” he said in a September press conference. “If we have a flood, plumbing damage or a fire at one of our locations, then suddenly I’ve broken a promise.

“And we’ll all have fun with that one.”


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