'Every county official is embarrassed': Ballot shortages possibly prevented hundreds in Pinal County from voting

·9 min read

Corrections & Clarifications: An earlier version of this article gave the incorrect number of precincts affected by ballot shortages.

It's impossible to know how many people were prevented from voting in Pinal County's primary after polling stations ran out of ballots and at least one failed to open for hours.

In the midst of calls to nullify the results from one candidate and angry questions from others, county officials on Wednesday conceded they botched the primary election — again.

Officials promised to immediately restructure the county's Elections Department to ensure the same mistakes are not repeated when early ballots for November's election go out in about three weeks.

And on Thursday officials terminated Elections Director David Frisk after just three months on the job to restore public confidence.

"This county made a mistake," County Attorney Kent Volkmer said at a news conference in Florence. "Every county official is embarrassed about what happened."

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Pinal became the poster child for election day problems in Arizona, as only a smattering of problems were reported throughout the state, including a ballot shortage at one precinct in Pima County and ink-smeared ballots in Maricopa County.

Volkmer said up to 750 people were affected by delays in Pinal County, but he could not estimate how many left polling places without casting votes.

About 25% of the county's 95 precincts reported running out of ballots or running low and needing help.

The shortages come soon after an error last month that caused Pinal County to send out nearly 63,000 erroneous ballots to voters, leaving officials scrambling to come up with a legal solution before the primary.

They settled on a plan that allowed affected voters to augment their original ballots with supplemental ones that they could cast in person or by mail. The erroneous ballots only affected municipal races.

More:County-issued pens smeared some ballots, but details won't be known for awhile

Issues could impact municipal races

With only a handful of ballots separating some municipal elections in the county, officials couldn't promise the outcomes weren't affected by the ballot shortages.

Officials blamed the shortfall on human error.

"Quite frankly we underestimated ... We didn't order enough ballots," Volkmer said. "There were more people that showed up than we thought were going to show up,"

A contributing factor was an unanticipated number of independent voters who came to polling stations in person Tuesday and requested a Republican ballot, Volkmer said. Another was a 10% population increase in the county since the last election.

Volkmer said the county's response also was hindered by an inability to quickly print new ballots. He said the county had to rely on two old printers that only were capable of printing one new ballot every three minutes.

Frisk, who started working for the county in March and was officially appointed to the job in May, did not attend the news conference. County officials announced Thursday he was terminated.

Frisk could not be reached for comment Thursday. He will be replaced by Pinal County Recorder Virginia Ross.

"Recorder Virginia Ross has resigned from her elected office and has been appointed elections director effective immediately," the county said in a statement.

Pinal County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeffrey McClure said election experts are being sought to review election procedures and operations.

"We are looking at restructuring the way we do our Elections Department," he said, adding he did not believe the errors were intentional. "I have not seen any evidence of a nefarious act. I have seen mistakes made on a grand scale."

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Candidates, voters outraged

Voters and candidates who attended the news conference at Pinal County Superior Court in Florence demanded accountability.

"It's unacceptable what went on," said Bryan Soller, a candidate for City Council in Apache Junction and a lieutenant in the Mesa Police Department.

Holly Klingensmith, a poll observer at the Moose Lodge in Apache Junction, left the courthouse shaking her head and whispering, "Lies, lies, lies."

She said poll workers at the lodge got to a point where they only had 25 ballots left, and when extras were delivered, they received only 50 more.

She said she anticipated shortages and asked: "Why couldn't they?"

State Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Apache Junction, who lost a race for reelection, said she wanted to ensure ballots were handled properly by the county and urged transparency.

On Twitter, however, Townsend called for a do-over of the county election.

"Apparently voters were turned away as early as 1 PM and ballots didn’t get brought until later in the evening so the afternoon voters have been disenfranchised," she said in a post. "I am calling on the @PinalCounty supervisors to nullify the election and repeat it."

Townsend said she was prepared to file an injunction to prevent certification if the supervisors didn't act.

"I am doing this not for my race, but the municipal & local races that were flawed beyond repair," she said in another post.

Volkmer said county supervisors cannot nullify an election without court intervention. Even if they could, he said the county doesn't certify municipal elections; only cities do.

Some voters told to come back later

Anyone who was in line by 7 p.m. at a polling station had the chance to vote, Volkmer said. But he acknowledged some voters were turned away and asked to come back due to ballot shortages. He didn't know if any of them did.

A voting rights group on Tuesday called Pinal County's refusal to keep polls open longer to offset the shutdown undemocratic and filed an emergency action in Pinal County Superior Court.

The Arizona Democracy Resource Center focused on the Hidden Valley precinct, saying the polling station opened four hours late, according to the complaint.

"Voters seeking to cast their ballots before their work days, before assuming their childcare obligations, and before meeting the other demands that ordinary people encounter, were denied their right to vote," the organization said in a statement.

Smeared ink, pilfered pens, ballot shortage: Scattered issues dot election day 

The court rejected the argument and ruled the county did not have to keep the poll open later.

“Four fewer hours of voting at a Pinal County precinct is not merely an inconvenience, but an infringement of our most basic tenet of democracy," M. Teresa Mabry, the organization's co-executive director, said in a statement. "Hidden Valley precinct’s delayed opening was only one of many issues that took place in Pinal County."

Officials said county staff worked through the night to count ballots, and by 1:30 p.m. Wednesday about 8,000 were outstanding.

Volkmer assured the public that the county would be ready for November. How will the county win back the public's trust?

"Watch us," he said. "Judge us on our actions, not by what I say here."

Ballot woes for Pima and Maricopa

Pima County was not immune to the ballot shortages that plagued Pinal, although on a much smaller scale.

County Communications Director Mark Evans said one voting center ran out of ballot paper, causing several people to have to wait for about an hour to vote.

He blamed the situation on a worldwide paper shortage and said elections officials underestimated the number of ballots needed at some polling stations.

He said the county had a low turnout, with about 30,000 voting on Tuesday, an average of 232 voters for each of the 129 voting centers.

Some voters were delayed because of missing envelopes for provisional ballots. Evans said there were plenty of provisional ballots on hand, but elections officials forgot to deliver envelopes for them.

By 8:30 a.m., he said, the envelopes were delivered.

Evans described the delays as road bumps. But a controversy emerged when a poll worker told a voter that Matt Salmon had dropped out of the governor's race even though Salmon's name was still on the ballot.

The conversation was reported by conservative radio host Garret Lewis of KNST in Tucson, who described what happened on Twitter and called it "electioneering."

Poll workers are prohibited from discussing candidates with voters. Lewis said on Twitter that poll workers were deliberately attempting to steer votes away from Kari Lake.

"That was the only thing that attracted a lot of attention here," Evans said.

Meanwhile, Maricopa County officials faced questions about government-issued pens smearing ballots with ink.

Officials conceded Wednesday that smears occurred in limited instances but could not provide details about how many times or where. The Arizona Republic on Tuesday first reported problems with the pens at polling stations.

Officials said no ballots were lost and no one was prevented from voting.

Multiple poll workers, including a polling station judge and an inspector, reported the smeared ink on ballots. They said they had to run some ballots multiple times to get the tabulation machines to process them.

The reports came hours after the Maricopa County Attorney's Office hit a Republican candidate with an order to cease-and-desist telling social media followers to replace the county's pens with their own.

Gail Golec, who lost her bid for a seat on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Tuesday, told followers that ink from the county pens could not be trusted. Her post was followed by reports of pen thefts at two polling stations.

Golec made no apologies for the post, saying she was trying to protect elections from fraud.

Robert Anglen is an investigative reporter for The Republic. Reach him at robert.anglen@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-8694. Follow him on Twitter @robertanglen.

Reach breaking news reporter Sam Burdette at sburdette@gannett.com or on Twitter @SuperSafetySam.

Reach Maricopa County reporter Sasha Hupka at sasha.hupka@arizonarepublic.com. Follow her on Twitter @SashaHupka.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Problems plague Pinal County primary; hundreds likely kept from voting