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With High Numbers Of Newly Registered Voters, Are Polls Ready For Election Day?

Aida Penuelas
(Photo by Lauren Gilger - KJZZ)
Aida Penuelas talks to a registered voter in Phoenix while canvassing for One Arizona, a coalition of organizations working to register Latinos to vote.

About a dozen young teenagers are sitting around a table at Neighborhood Ministries in west Phoenix, getting their clipboards and directions so they can hit the streets.

“If you are walking Issac today, please go with Victor,” the leader of their group said, “and if you’re Capitol, you’ll go with Liss and myself.”

And then, they’re off, teamed up and ready to spread out around the city and knock on doors, canvassing for One Arizona, a coalition of advocacy groups dedicated to registering Latino voters.

Aida Penuelas is one of the canvassers, a high-school senior who says she’s neither old enough to vote in this election nor a citizen of the country.

“This is my way of getting my voice heard,” she said. On this day, she made a second trip to registered voters houses near 19th Avenue and Van Buren, doing what’s politicos call Get Out The Vote.

Most people aren’t home when she knocks on their door, but, when one young man answered, she is ready.

“Can I ask you, how do you plan on voting this election?” she asked. “Are you voting through mail? Are you going to the polling location?”

But, he, like many new voters, wasn’t sure how to vote at all.

“Did you get like a yellow envelope through the mail?” she asked him. “And in the yellow envelope was there a green envelope too?”

That’s your early ballot, Penuelas told him.

“You can either go to your polling location on Nov. 8th or you can fill it out and just turn it into your mailbox and your mailman will get it and that’s — that’s your vote!” she said.

One Arizona deployed hundreds of young people like Penuelas over the last several months and registered more than 150,000 new voters, which Communications Director Pita Juarez said are predominantly Latino.

“And now we move on, and we move on with Get Out The Vote,” Juarez said.

And that’s what both Democratic and Republican parties in Arizona are focusing on now.

For Robert Graham, chairman of the Arizona Republic Party, “it’s knocking on doors, it’s phone calls, it’s delivering literature to doors, it’s putting up yard signs, it’s doing a number of things.”

Steven Slugocki, chairman of the Maricopa County Democratic Party, said their efforts to turn out the vote are far ahead of where they were this time during the last presidential election.

“We’ve knocked on over 304,000 doors and made over 560,000 phone calls to voters,” he said. “So we are greatly outpacing everything that we’ve done four years ago, and I think the early returns are showing our efforts.”

And, Graham says the Arizona Republicans have 21 active field offices and they have more than 12,000 volunteers on their volunteer list.

“We’ve never had anything like this before in the past,” he said.

The Secretary of State’s Office reports that almost 190,000 new voters in the state have registered this election cycle — more than 90,000 of those are in Maricopa County.

And that’s a phenomenon that Graham attributes to Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump.  

“Donald Trump has created an interesting wave of registrations on the Republican side,” he said. “So, where we registered lots of people the last cycle, organically, the party has grown because of the support for Donald Trump.”

But to Samantha Pstross, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, a nonpartisan organization that works for fair elections, that large number of new voters is also cause for concern.

“There’s a ton of new registered voters, which is great, but I think there’s a lot of room for voter disenfranchisement and even voter intimidation,” she said.

Why? Pstross said this is the first presidential election in which local elections officials will not be required to get pre-clearance on polling locations from the U.S. Department Justice to ensure a fair election for minorities.

“We don’t have the oversight we usually do and as we’ve seen this year already we’ve just had problem after problem,” she said.

Problems like the long lines voters in Maricopa County experienced during the President Preference Election in March. Elizabeth Bartholomew, spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office, said that they have 724 polling places this election. and up to four electronic poll books at every single one of them.

“So, we are very confident that if there are any lines that voters will not be waiting in line any longer than 30 minutes,” she said.

But Pstross said that some of those 724 polling places are in the same location, which can create problems. And she’s worried about lines.

“We’ve already identified a number of polling locations that we think are going to have problems,” she said. “These are polling locations where there are a lot of new voters in the precinct, where they have traditionally had problems, and where there’s a high number of voters who are people of color.”

The Arizona Advocacy Network will have volunteers staffing those polling locations on Election Day.

But, Bartholomew said the Recorder’s Office sent out 1.5 million early ballots and they’ve already gotten back over 900,000 of them.

“Even though, yes, the numbers of registered voters have increased, so have those numbers of the Permanent Early Voting List, so those are individuals who would not be going to the polls on Election Day,” she said.

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.