Pinal Elections Dept. works to regain voters’ trust in Nov. 8 General Election

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Primary 2020 Maricopa Wells
Polls are open until 7 p.m. today for the General Election. [file photo]

There was no announced count of the eggs that soiled faces of Pinal County elections officials after what even they acknowledge was “a major screw-up” in the August primary.

There wouldn’t have been much faith in the count, anyway, not after their Laurel and Hardy-like performance.

Some precincts opened an hour or two late on Election Day. More than 20 polling places ran out of ballots. Many voters waited hours while more ballots were printed on two old machines that could spit out only 20 ballots an hour. Those then had to be trucked to voting sites across Arizona’s third-largest county.

Some in line gave up and left without voting.

This came after more than 63,000 mailed early ballots omitted local races, including those in Maricopa. Elections officials scrambled to get out supplementary ballots with the missing races.

Poll workers, many in their first election, later said they weren’t sufficiently trained or equipped to do their jobs.

“‘Embarrassing’ is probably the best word for it,” said Jeffrey McClure, chairman of the Pinal County Board of Supervisors.

Contrite, the supervisors voted unanimously to refund more than $100,000 to cities for costs of elections the county was contracted to run.

Virginia Ross, Pinal County elections director. [Bryan Mordt]
General Election Day is tomorrow.

So, can Pinal County voters expect a competently run election? Here’s what the county has done to restore voters’ confidence in the process:

  • Brad Nelson, a former elections director in Pima and Mohave counties, was commissioned by the Pinal supervisors to perform an investigative review of the county’s performance in the August primary. His report indicated the county’s retooled Elections Department is now on the right path.
  • County Elections Director David Frisk and a staffer were fired days after the election, replaced by Recorder Virginia Ross, who ran previous elections in Pinal County.
  • Dana Lewis, who was trained by Ross, stepped into the recorder position. Their communication and familiarity are vital to improving the election, Lewis says.
  • Staffing, resources and poll-worker training have been beefed up. There will be nearly 1,000 elections workers at 97 polling sites across the county. Ross said despite negative publicity, she experienced positive response from those who want to join the team and improve the outcome.

McClure understands the state will be watching Pinal County closely.

“And beyond,” McClure said, acknowledging national reports of the August debacle.

For those who still doubt Pinal can conduct a competent election, McClure says, “Don’t just listen to what we say, watch what we do. It will show that we have changed a lot.”

Nelson found no crime or fraud, but gross incompetence.

“Our problem is growth,” McClure said. “Virginia, when she was recorder in 2012 when we had like 70,000 voters, had the same number of people we have now with 257,000. It’s not that the process has changed, but the volume has changed and needs have changed. And now we need to beef it up and that has been taken care of. Our Elections Department org chart now looks like a corporation org chart.”

Ross to the rescue?
Ross was persuaded in August to leave her elected job as county recorder after 12 years to head the Elections Department, handling operations that include polling places and ballot counting.

“When they looked around and didn’t see anyone else with the depth of election experience or even a certified elections officer who could step up, I thought about it and decided it is important enough to go ahead,” Ross said. “Pinal County deserves to have a credible election without problems.”

Ross, who will retire at the end of the year, was assured she’d be given the necessary resources.

“I was able to hire the people I wanted,” she said. “It’s important that I know their work ethic and I trust them. Some worked for me in the recorder’s office.”

Among Ross’ staffing additions is Geraldine Roll, a member of the County Attorney’s Office, who has experience with the Elections Department.

“I had to think about, can it even be done?” Ross said. “I told them I can do the work but I’m going to need a lot of people and resources to pull this off because even though we have increased staff, they don’t (all) have elections experience.”

While recorder, Ross ran elections for five years with no major problems before the county took those duties from the recorder and created a separate Elections Department in 2017.

A county accused of administering previous elections on the cheap backed its commitment to improvement by giving Ross a four-month contract for $175,000 with a $25,000 bonus if the election goes off smoothly.

Chairman Jeffrey McClure, Board of Supervisors [Bryan Mordt]
To get the bonus, Ross must have sufficient ballots accurately and properly formatted and delivered to precincts; open polling locations on time with properly trained workers, operate equipment that passes logic-and-accuracy tests; conduct reports as required by law; coordinate with city and town clerks in all jurisdictions; and have election results accepted, or canvassed, by the Board of Supervisors.

“We took the poll-worker manual and essentially rewrote it,” Ross said. “We’ve gone through several rehearsals, and then talked to poll workers. We’re getting very positive feedback from every training class. It’s much, much better.”

Lewis succeeded Ross as recorder, handling voter rolls and mail-in ballots. A retired Air Force staff sergeant, she is a certified election official for the state.

“One of the key things now is the relationship between the Elections Department and the recorder,” Lewis said. “Virginia and I have a great relationship. We speak daily. We’re able to improve our workflows and processes. Communication is key. That did not occur the way it needed to during the last election. We tried our best from the recorder’s office to communicate concerns and hurdles we’d identified, making sure enough staff was on hand, that we had the resources we need to execute our duties.

“I think we are going to be more than effective going into the general election.”

Ross’ retooled department now has 11 staffers.

So far, so good. Early ballots went out on time with no major problems reported. Recently, a mock election conducted with four standard polling places went smoothly. Procedures are in place to assure multiple sets of eyes proofing early ballots for completeness and accuracy.

“Of course, there’s a million things with a lot of little details when you have a thousand poll workers,” Ross said. “But I’m a detail-oriented person and I’m working every single day, all day, making sure we go through everything as thoroughly as possible.

“I told the board I’m not a miracle worker, but I am a hard worker. I’m going to do everything I possibly can to demonstrate that, yes, we can have an election, properly held, according to statute and procedures so people have confidence their vote will be counted.”

After national scrutiny over the August disaster, Pinal officials understand they’re under intense pressure to get it right this time. Reporters from every major news organization in the country are in Arizona, and they’re watching Pinal County.

While the finger was pointed at Frisk, the county manager and Board of Supervisors must also be scrutinized, too, County Attorney Kent Volkmer told the board. The county has been criticized for running too lean of an elections operation to contain costs, in turn depriving the Elections Department of sufficient people and resources.

Frisk, who had been on the job only five months and had a staff of two, did not follow Arizona statute for ballot ordering: 101% of registered voters in each precinct. For November, 110% have been ordered, Ross said.

“I am confident in the process this time, yes, because of the people Virginia has in place,” McClure said. “It’s just like a play. You don’t rehearse it one time, you do it three, four, five, maybe six times. It’s the same thing here, making sure the procedure manual is correct, making sure what we’re training poll workers to do is correct and processes are followed, which I don’t believe happened last time.”

Lewis reminds voters it is a two-card ballot, with issues on the front and back of both cards.

“I think this team has it. I think we’re good,” Lewis said. “I would have never thought what happened during the primary election could have happened. When you have a formidable team that’s educated, deeply vested in our county and our processes, wants to do nothing more than accomplish a stellar election with the right people in the right places, there’s reason to have hope for success.

“They understand in no uncertain terms the task at hand and they’re willing to execute as accurately as can be expected of them.”

This content was first published in the November edition of InMaricopa magazine.