Arizonans could get faster election results, but at what cost?
Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer says Arizona election officials are caught between a rock and a hard place.
Arizona offers no-excuse mail voting and in-person voting on Election Day and has lenient rules for hand-delivering early ballots to the polls. "You have a very voter-friendly system that accommodates dropping off your early ballot on Election Day up until 7 p.m.," Richer said in December.
"But simultaneously," he added, "you have a whole host of people who want to be able to call the results of a close election within the first 24 hours."
In 2022, with close statewide contests, that proved impossible for Maricopa, Arizona's largest county. That was due in part to the approximately 290,000 early ballots that were dropped off on Election Day — a record-smashing figure.
Richer and his team spent days after Election Day verifying signatures on those early ballot envelopes, a process required by law before the ballot can be counted.
"So then just everyone gets mad," Richer said. "And it's real pleasant."
Richer has some ideas to make the process more pleasant for all, he says — election workers, county staff and the voters demanding results in a timely fashion.
But there's a natural give and take. If voters want to get election results earlier, they'd have to be willing to give up some voting options so many now enjoy, Richer says.
Earlier this month the county recorder released a 28-page memo laying out a series of problems with Arizona elections and possible solutions to them. Chief among the solutions is a proposal to eliminate Arizona's so-called "late-early ballots." Richer defines those as early ballots — ballots that were mailed to voters — dropped off at polling places on, or in the days immediately before, Election Day.
For his solution, Richer looked east to Florida and Georgia, which offer early voting options but also "have a higher percentage of results available within the first 24 hours," Richer told KJZZ News this month. "And so I looked at those states and those states prohibit you from dropping off your early ballot on Election Day."
The cleanest solution, Richer says, is a 5 p.m. deadline on the Friday before Election Day to return early ballots. In his memo, Richer acknowledges that returning early ballots on, or close to, Election Day is an increasingly popular voting method in Arizona that could leave many "surprised, confused and angered by a prohibition of this practice.”
To offset the frustration, he proposes expanding Election Day operations to Saturday through Tuesday, as well as expanding the early voting period from 27 to 32 days.
But election experts and advocates are wary of scaling back such a popular voting method, all in the name of faster results.
"I don't see having more than a quarter of a million people voting on Election Day in the way that they choose as a problem," said Alex Gulotta, Arizona state director of All Voting is Local.
"[Richer] sees more people voting and the way that they choose as being a problem as an election official, maybe as a person under pressure to produce results, and get results out quicker," Gulotta added. "And I think that needs to be balanced against the needs of voters."
What voters have shown over the years is an increasing desire to receive an early ballot by mail, study it and wait to drop it off until closer to Election Day, says Tammy Patrick, a former Maricopa County election official and now CEO for programs at the National Association of Election Officials.
"We need to make sure that policies are aligning with what the voters are asking for and what the voters do, in fact, in the course of their standard voting process," she said.
Newly elected Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, is also no fan of the proposal; she spoke out against it while she served as secretary of state, and worries removing an increasingly popular voting method could lead to confusion and rejected ballots.
Patrick also warns that eliminating late-early ballots wouldn't be a silver bullet that fixes what Richer is trying to solve — faster projections of winners by the media.
"The truth of the matter is that there's never an official result for days, and in some cases a few weeks after the election," she said. "It's when those elections are close that people get antsy and want the immediacy of finality of that contest and knowing who is the projected winner."
There's a new bill before the Arizona Legislature to accomplish Richer's proposal. The Arizona Association of Counties, which in part represents county election officials, has taken no official position on Richer's idea
At this point, Richer says he's just trying to start a conversation.
"And I wanted these conversations to be departing at least from a place of facts and a place of understanding as to how elections actually work," he said. "That's productive."
What's not productive, Richer said, "is just making this up or accusing people of breaking the law, or all these conjectures and conspiracy theories. I didn't want to spend another two years doing that."
Richer's hopes for a fact-based policy discussion may be dashed by the gatekeepers at the Arizona legislature, many of whom are part of a community of election deniers still hung up on the 2020 presidential election, let alone the results from 2022.
In the Senate, fact-based ideas will have to get past northern Arizona Sen. Wendy Rogers, who as recently as Saturday still claimed the past two elections were rigged.
"Kari Lake won," Rogers said — falsely — to raucous applause at a meeting of Maricopa County Republicans over the weekend. "Donald Trump won!"
In the House, GOP lawmakers like Liz Harris, a newly elected state representative, have sponsored bills to simply eliminate early voting entirely.
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story said that no state legislation had been introduced to accomplish Richer's proposal. A bill was introduced this week. This story has also been modified to update Tammy Patrick’s position.