By Valeria Fernández
PHOENIX, Ariz. -- The agency that administers elections in Maricopa County confirmed Wednesday evening that it had more than 400,000 ballots yet to be counted. The announcement confirmed claims by activists here who had been protesting outside the Maricopa County Recorders Office, saying Latino voters in the county had had trouble casting their ballots on Tuesday.
Opponents of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the controversial figure known for his hard stance on illegal immigration, who is running for his sixth term as sheriff, are hoping that the uncounted ballots could swing the election in their favor. As of Wednesday evening, election results showed Arpaio leading his Democratic challenger Paul Penzone by more than 88,000 votes.
Of the 400,000 ballots yet to be counted, about 300,000 are early ballots that could have been turned in on Election Day or a few days before; and more than 115,000 are provisional ballots, according to a press release issued by the recorders office late Wednesday.
Statewide, the number of uncounted ballots is 600,000 according to the Arizona Secretary of State. That means that two-thirds of these are in Maricopa County.
The high number of uncounted ballots surpassed the expectations of county officials based on past presidential elections and has caused an uproar from voter mobilization groups that are part of a campaign to oust Arpaio.
“We want to make sure that every vote is counted,” said Petra Falcón, director of the organization Promise Arizona that together with the Campaign for Arizona’s Future spearheaded the Adios Arpaio initiative.
The initiative registered more than 35,000 new Latino voters, many of them into a Permanent Early Voting List.
On Election Day, volunteers from the Adios Arpaio initiative reported a number of problems, including that voters did not get their ballots to vote by mail and decided to do it in person, casting a provisional ballot.
“I don’t pretend to know what the reason is for this. This is an election in which the county recorder gave on multiple occasions the wrong date,” said Brendan Walsh, political director with Unite Here and part of the Adios Arpaio campaign.
The Maricopa County Recorders Office mailed out Spanish-language voting materials that had the wrong election date. They later apologized and invested in an outreach campaign to make sure that Latinos got the right information. “Now we have a massive number of ballots that have not been counted yet.”
Walsh said that there are “concerns with the process, coordination, and accuracy that is so far disproportionately affecting Latino members of the community.”
“Late” early voting surpasses expectations
“We are aware that there is a large interest in the final outcome of some races. However, our office cannot sacrifice accuracy for speed. Today we’ve tabulated 44,455 early ballots,” County Recorder Helen Purcell said in a press release on Wednesday.
The canvass of elections, which will make the results official, is scheduled for Nov. 26.
On Election Day, Purcell had said she predicted they would have about 100,000 early ballots dropped at the polling places and 75,000 provisional from Election Day. She based those estimates on numbers from previous elections.
Provisional ballots, she said, can take a bit longer to check.
“We have to make sure that in fact they’re a registered voter, they were in the right precinct, and they didn’t vote an early ballot,” Purcell explained on election night.
Provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct are not counted.
Rodolfo Espino, a political science professor at Arizona State University, said the unprecedented number of early and provisional ballots could be due to a combination of factors, including lack of proper training by poll workers and a massive number of new voters going to the polls to drop off their vote-by-mail ballots.
One factor that could be at play "is that the voter registration efforts, especially by a lot of the civil rights Hispanic organizations were very successful,” he said.
“Perhaps the recorders office did not anticipate that there would be that flood of early ballots being cast, because a lot of these organizations were not just going and signing up Latino voters; they were telling them about a process to vote by mail,” said Espino.
Volunteers from Citizens for a Better Arizona (CBA), spearheaded by activist Randy Parraz, and other groups are calling on Democrat Paul Penzone to retract his concession that Arpaio won the sheriff’s race until all votes are counted.
Penzone conceded to Arpaio’s sixth-term re-election on Tuesday night. On Wednesday evening the margin of difference between both candidates was over 88,000 votes. Arpaio received 52 percent of the vote, and Penzone 43 percent. A third candidate, Michael Stauffer, who ran as an Independent, got 4 percent of the vote.
Espino said he didn't expect the outcome of the sheriff’s race to change, regardless of the uncounted ballots, unless a majority of these voters were Democrats and Latinos -- unlike the voters whose ballots have already been counted.
He emphasized that there's a possibility that the margin of votes separating Arpaio and Penzone may change, causing the "post-election analysis by the media having to be updated and re-written" regarding the role played by Latino voters in the race.