Republicans question Fontes decisions on emergency voting centers

By: - November 15, 2018 4:54 pm

Republicans are crying foul over Democratic Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes’s decision to open five emergency voting centers in the days leading up to the general election, and at least one GOP lawmaker hopes to impose new restrictions on the practice.

State law says in-person early voting ends at 5 p.m. on the Friday before Election Day. After that, voting is permitted for people who can’t vote on Election Day because of an emergency, which statute defines as an “unforeseen circumstances that would prevent the elector from voting at the polls.”

Fontes has taken a far more expansive approach to emergency voting than his predecessor, opening four emergency voting centers during the August primary election and five for the general election in November. He expressed little concern for whether voters who cast ballots at those centers were doing so due to bona fide emergencies, saying he simply wants to let as many people vote as possible.

Nearly 3,000 voters cast ballots for the general election at the emergency voting centers, according to the recorder’s office.

“The intent of the law is to make sure people who want to vote can vote,” Fontes said. “All I’m trying to do is let people vote.”

That isn’t sitting well with many Republicans, who believe Fontes is violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. On Nov. 5, the day before the election, Steve Chucri, the chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, sent an email to the county recorder’s and attorney’s offices questioning Fontes’s legal authority to open the centers and asking him to set aside all ballots cast at those centers.

A day prior, Arizona Republican Party Chairman Jonathan Lines made a similar request to all 15 counties. Lines questioned the legality of the emergency voting centers, but did not follow through on a threat to sue over them.

Fontes did not segregate the ballots in question, and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office told Arizona Mirror he was under no legal obligation to do so.

Chucri said people should have a legitimate emergency if they’re going to cast ballots through emergency voting.

“I just didn’t think that that conformed with the intent of why the emergency voting centers were established, not only in statute but in the elections manual,” Chucri said, referring to the elections procedures manual issued by the Secretary of State’s Office.

The GOP’s concerns with emergency voting appears to have been prompted by Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema urging people to vote in person at the centers. Some Republicans have accused Fontes, a Democrat, of providing inside information to Sinema, though none have offered any evidence to back up the allegations.

The Arizona Republican Party filed a records request with the recorder’s office on Nov. 10 seeking all communications that it had about the centers with the Sinema campaign and other Democratic organizations, including financier and Democratic mega-donor George Soros.  

Republicans are also questioning the locations of the early voting centers. Specifically, they’re leery of Fontes’s decision to open a fifth emergency voting center in the predominantly Democratic city of Tolleson, just miles from another center in Avondale, while large swaths of the Valley, including predominantly Republican areas in the northern and western parts of the Phoenix metro area, had none. Fontes said he opened the center at the request of Steve Gallardo, the Board of Supervisors’ lone Democratic member, and Anna Tovar, the Democratic mayor of Tolleson.

Fontes said the City of Tolleson offered its parks and recreation center for emergency voting, so he found the people to staff it. The lack of centers in other parts of the county was simply due to a lack of resources, he said.

“If it was up to me and I had enough people available, we would’ve had all 40 of the vote centers open all weekend long,” he said.

Chucri said the location of the centers was another concern from him, and he’s heard from constituents about it, as well. But the Board of Supervisors has no authority to dictate the location of the centers, he said.

Ultimately, Chucri said there is a lot of gray area in state law on emergency voting centers. He said it will take legislation to sort out issues such as when emergency voting can be used.

Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, plans to run several bills in the 2019 session to address election and voting issues, especially those that arose during this year’s elections.

One of those bills will deal with emergency voting. Ugenti-Rita said she wants to give county boards of supervisors the authority to determine whether emergency voting centers should operate and where they should be located.

And she wants to limit emergency voting to people who have genuine emergencies, which she said should something severe, unexpected, out of a person’s control and difficult to mitigate.

Ugenti-Rita said Fontes is stretching the law on emergency voting.

“Is that the intent of the emergency voting center? Clearly, we’ve got statute addressing early voting and an emergency voting center,” she said. “They’re being misused if they’re just being used to accommodate inconveniences.”

Ugenti-Rita said another possibility is to simply extend early voting through the Monday before the election, which would eliminate the need for emergency voting.

Though Chucri hopes to see a legislative solution, he was wary of Ugenti-Rita’s plans. He accused her of political posturing, citing recent tweets criticizing the Board of Supervisors’ oversight of elections and a 2016 legislative hearing she held over then-Recorder Helen Purcell’s handling of that year’s presidential preference election, in which a shortage of polling places led to hours-long waits in some areas.

“I think (Ugenti-Rita’s) approach is probably misguided. I think it’s more about grandstanding than getting to the root of the problem. It’s going to be important that it gets done the right way. If legislators are trying to do this as a hot topic du jour to try and bring up their recognition as a legislator, that’s not the way to do it,” he said.

Ugenti-Rita fired back at Chucri, and said he’s neglected his statutory duties regarding elections. She said she has a strong record of fighting for election integrity, and if Chucri isn’t interested in providing meaningful ideas, he should get out of the way and let others get the work done.

“If he spent half the time worrying about elections as he does attacking me, we probably wouldn’t be in this mess,” she said. “He’s avoiding accountability by blaming me and accusing me of grandstanding. If he cared about the issue, he would offer solutions. Instead, again, he’s focused on me. He has abdicated his responsibility to an office that has repeatedly failed.”

Emergency voting centers were new to Maricopa County in 2018, but didn’t make their debut in the general election. Fontes used four in the primary election, with the downtown Phoenix, Mesa and Avondale locations being used in both elections. Fontes opened a center at the Indian Bend Wash Visitor’s Center in southern Scottsdale because the Paradise Valley Community College location in north Phoenix was unavailable.

No county supervisors raised any objections during the primary, nor did the Arizona Republican Party.

Chucri said he was unaware at the time that Fontes was allowing people to cast emergency ballots without providing reasons for doing so. He noted that the Board of Supervisors was also dealing with other major election problems at the time. Sixty-two polling places didn’t open on time for the primary election, and an audit commissioned by Maricopa County blamed Fontes for many of the problems.

Purcell, Fontes’s Republican predecessor whom he defeated in 2016, said she disagreed with his use of emergency voting centers this year. Purcell, who served as recorder for 28 years, always held emergency voting at the recorder’s office, but never expanded it to other locations. And she said she required anyone voting at those centers to sign affidavits affirming that they had a genuine emergency.

“What do you consider an emergency? Just because I don’t want to go to the polls on Election Day? I don’t think that’s an emergency,” she said.

On rare occasions, Purcell said she would turn away someone who didn’t have a bona fide emergency. In one instance, she even turned away a member of Congress.

Purcell wouldn’t say who the congressperson was, only that it was someone who is no longer in office, and that the incident was 10 or 15 years ago. She said the congressperson came in for emergency voting the day before an election because he or she had to be back in Washington, D.C., for a vote the following day. But the county turned that congressperson away, Purcell said, because that person had known in advance about the upcoming vote and didn’t have an actual emergency.

Other counties allow emergency voting, and Pima County also uses emergency voting centers. But most counties that allow the practice have emergency voting only at their recorder’s offices.

Yuma County Recorder Robyn Pouquette said 139 voters in her county used emergency voting. The county informed people that voting on the Monday before the election was available only for emergencies, but didn’t question people as to what those emergencies were. Pouquette said state law doesn’t give her office the authority to determine the validity of voters’ emergencies.

There were 48 people in Cochise County who cast emergency ballots, according to County Recorder David Stevens. Pinal County Recorder Virginia Ross said nearly 40 people used emergency voting in her county, which was only available on the day before the election. Stevens said some people explained what their emergencies were, though neither recorder’s office questioned people about whey they were using emergency voting.

“We’re not going to turn them away,” Ross said.

Yavapai County saw six people use emergency voting at its recorder’s office, while election officials traveled to meet eight others who required emergency voting. In La Paz County, 24 people used emergency voting the day before the election. The Coconino County Recorder’s Office offered emergency voting at its two Flagstaff offices, though it didn’t track how many ballots were cast.

Officials in Mohave and Navajo counties said those counties did not offer emergency voting.

None of the county election officials who spoke with the Arizona Mirror said they segregated any of the ballots cast in emergency voting.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”