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Maricopa County Recorder's proposal offers solutions to the 'late early' ballot problem

Some of the reforms include accelerated vote counting and altered signature verification requirements for some ballots in order to deliver results sooner

Sign saying "Vote Here" at the Tempe Sun Devil Fitness Complex on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in Tempe.

Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer released a proposal outlining several recommended changes to election procedures earlier this month, including one that would eliminate the possibility for voters to drop off early ballots on Election Day. 

The reforms come after the 2022 midterm election in Arizona left Maricopa County subject to national scrutiny. The state took nearly two weeks to finalize the results of the elections, while several major races were called in other states within hours.

This delay in results comes in large part from "late earlies," early mail-in ballots that voters held on to until the days before or the day of the election. 

Although Ilene Haber, director of communications and constituent services for the Maricopa County Recorder's Office said proposed changes did not come as a direct result of the 2022 midterms,  the attention on Maricopa County necessitated a plan to bring clarity to vote tabulation.

Richer's proposal suggests several solutions to expedite the tabulation of early and "late early" ballots. 

The first solution gets rid of the "late early" phenomenon all together, setting a deadline on the Friday before Election Day to turn in early ballots. Early ballots sent by mail would still be accepted through Election Day. Anyone who missed the deadline to drop ballots in person could still do so at select drop-off locations. 

According to the recorder's proposal, this would allow Arizona to have 95% of results within the first 24 hours of the election.

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Larry Garber, an adjunct faculty at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law and board member on the Election Reformers Network, said despite potential changes, the American voter has proven to be adaptive to adjustments in voting procedure.

"The one thing that I would maybe disagree with (Richer) on is his sense that voters are likely to be confused," he said. "The last two elections have shown that voters in the United States can respond to changes in the voting system."

About 290,000 early ballots in Maricopa County were dropped off on Election Day. This caused a bottleneck of ballot verification and curing, further delaying results.

READ MORE: Here are the results for the propositions from the 2022 Arizona midterm elections

When an early ballot is received during the early voting period, in the 27 days leading up to the election, the recorder's office has adequate time to verify signatures and process the ballot. But existing laws stipulate that early ballots received on Election Day cannot begin to be counted until the polls close.

"The way it works now, is that those 'late earlies' cannot be tabulated with regular election results. They have to be tabulated as early ballots, the early ballot process is much longer," said Isaac Humrich, a sophomore studying political science and the president of College Republicans at ASU. 

Because 19% of all ballots cast in Maricopa County fell under the category of "late early," results for major legislative and executive races were not finalized for days or weeks. Humrich says this delays important processes relating to government leadership, though there's always a lengthy transition process.

"For example, your lobbyists don't know who (they are) going to be working with in the state Legislature, who's going to be getting leadership positions, and that affects, of course, who gets committee seats," he said. "That kind of stuff is important for the working of our state, and when that kind of thing gets thrown up in flux, there are a lot of people running around freaking out."

Another solution includes removing the need for signature verification on early ballots dropped off on Election Day. Instead, voters would go through the day-of voting identification process while dropping off their early ballot.  

Kate Oster, an Arizona native and freshman studying popular music and fashion, said she appreciates the option to vote early without the need for an excuse, an option introduced by the Legislature in 1991. 

"If I don't do it early, I think I'll forget about it," she said.

Oster was not alone in requesting an early ballot. In advance of the 2022 Arizona midterms, almost two million early ballots were mailed to Arizonans.

"The introduction of various forms of what we call convenience voting, that is early voting before Election Day or voting by mail, requires various steps to ensure the integrity of the process, and depending how those steps are structured by state law could delay the formal announcement of the results," said Garber.

The proposal includes a streamlining of the convoluted adjudication process for ballots. It also mentions bringing more transparency to the distinct and separate responsibilities of the Recorder's Office and the County Board of Supervisors — something Haber said— is crucial to voter education. 

The county recorder is responsible for voter registration, early voting and provisional ballots. Those on the Board of Supervisors are responsible for emergency voting, facilitating Election Day and tabulation, according to Richer's proposal.

Edited by Shane Brennan, Piper Hansen and Anusha Natarajan.

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