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Arizona ballots finally counted; Latinos wonder what took so long

By Cindy Carcamo, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — Two weeks after the election, the ballots are finally counted in Arizona. The delay — more than half a million were uncounted on Election Day — has left community organizers who registered a record number of Latino voters in Arizona reeling with frustration and suspicion.

A crush of hundreds of thousands of early mail-in ballots received a few days before Election Day is partly to blame for the delay, election officials said. For Instance, Maricopa County recorder’s officials were inundated with 200,000 early mail-in ballots just on Election Day. Statewide, more than 600,000 ballots were left uncounted that day — out of about 2.2 million Arizona ballots cast during this year’s election.

Still, Latino advocates and leaders remain suspicious and contend election officials should have been prepared for the onslaught. They said they still don’t have a clear picture as to why counting took so long and said the delay feeds a perception of discrimination against Latino voters given Arizona’s history of intentional voter suppression of minorities. For example, literacy tests were once used to keep Spanish-speakers and Navajos from voting.

“It creates this sense of illegitimacy,” said Rodolfo Espino, assistant professor of political science at Arizona State University. “It could be something really innocent going on here, or something really egregious going on here. Regardless, it’s a problem that needs to be addressed.”

The major source of contention is with the 172,000 provisional ballots cast in this year’s election. Most — 122,000 — originated from Maricopa County, the state’s largest county and home to about half its population.

Provisional ballots are given to citizens who aren’t listed in the election rolls at their polling place. Also, people who were sent a mail-in ballot but decided to vote in person had to use a provisional ballot. This is done to make sure the citizen isn’t voting twice.

This year, Latino advocacy groups made a huge push to register Latinos in Maricopa County, enrolling 34,000 who had never voted before.

Many were registered as early mail-in voters.

Other groups also signed up thousands of eligible Latinos to become permanent early voters, meaning they would be sent a mail-in ballot automatically in each election. In 2008, 90,000 Latinos were on the early voting list. This year, it increased to a record 225,000, according to Francisco Heredia, state director for Mi Familia Vota in Arizona.

Now, Latino advocates wonder how many Latinos who received early mail-in ballots were forced to cast provisional ballots, which take longer to verify and tally. Specifically, they want to know how many provisional ballots were given out to voters in precincts in predominantly Latino neighborhoods.

While Secretary of State Ken Bennett said he had met with Latino advocates and planned to gather with other officials to re-evaluate the vote-counting system delays, he said that there was no indication that a certain demographic was treated differently at precincts.

Bennett and Maricopa County recorder’s office spokeswoman Yvonne Reed said this year’s situation of prolonged vote-counting is normal and no different than the last presidential election, when they said it took a similar amount of time for election officials to count ballots.

Reed said county officials have tried to get the word out to voters to turn in their ballots as early as possible.

“We can’t anticipate if it’s going to be a big turnout or low turnout,” she said.

County officials, she said, will meet to review the vote-counting process, a routine practice after each election. Bennett also called for a review of the process, stating that there was always room for improvement. Bennett’s spokesman, Matthew Roberts, said earlier reports that had the secretary calling for an overhaul of the system were inaccurate.

Reed said the agency was surprised by the criticism. “We just don’t understand it,” she said.

Pre-election missteps by county election officials, however, exacerbated the mistrust of some Latinos with the voting system, said Brendan Walsh, chairman of Campaign for Arizona’s Future. The group is a political action committee that is part of the Adios Arpaio campaign, which unsuccessfully tried to unseat Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Walsh pointed to October when Maricopa County election officials printed the wrong date for Election Day in Spanish-language literature distributed to Latino households. Although the date was correct in English, the Spanish version carried the date of Nov. 8. Election officials blamed the mistake on a clerical error and revised the literature. But soon after, they discovered different election material with the wrong date in Spanish.

“So we cannot give them the benefit of the doubt when they made serious errors that show that they were not as attentive as they need to be in ways to include Latino voters and to count the Latino vote,” Walsh said. “There are certain mistakes that are inexcusable.”

The vote-counting delay sparked hundreds of Latino youth to picket daily in front of the Maricopa County recorder’s office last week, demanding results and transparency.

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