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Maricopa County's New Election Director: The Head Chef It Needs, Or Just Another 'Cook In The Kitchen?'

The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors took its biggest step yet in responding to a rocky primary election last August. 

At its meeting on Wednesday, the board created a new position to oversee Election Day. Now, one person will run early voting and report to the county recorder, and a second person, who reports to both the recorder and the Board, will handle Election Day. 

There’s bipartisan support for the change, but also skepticism this will actually make elections better.

State law gives county boards of supervisors specific election duties, including training poll workers and operating polling locations on Election Day. But since 1978, the Maricopa County’s  supervisors have assigned those duties to the recorder’s office. 

The move to change that arrangement comes after last August’s primary day saw 62 polling sites unopened at 6 a.m. 

Board Chairman Bill Gates said the new position gives the board a more direct role in running the election. “So now you’ve got six elected officials,” he said, referring to the five supervisors and the recorder, “specifically all involved in those operations.”

The Right Move?

Alex Gulotta is Arizona director for All Voting is Local, a coalition of advocacy groups working to improve elections in certain states. He’s unimpressed with what he calls a bureaucratic change.

“It seems to me it’s a missed opportunity,” he said. “There were problems in the last elections, both in August and in November. And instead of focusing on how to fix those, it looks like what they focused on is who gets to control.”

Gulotta would have preferred the board focus on specific and familiar issues that pop up on Election Day. One example is the supervisors’ choice whether or not to ask the court to extend voting time when a precinct has a delayed opening.

Gulotta said while this is a politically fraught question on Election Day, “we could agree on some standards ahead of time that says, ‘if there’s going to be a delay of this amount of time, we’re going to agree [to], together, agree to keep the polls open longer.’”

Gulotta said the Board of Supervisors could have used these past six months to work on this kind of policy. Now, there’s even less time available. 

Gates said they can still address those things before next year’s elections.

Too Many Cooks?

The true test for the system of two election directors will be when large numbers of Arizonans physically go to the polls. The state’s Presidential Preference Election is March 17, less than nine months away.

Tammy Patrick, an elections expert at the Democracy Fund, said any kind of organizational structure can work, although adding voices comes with risks.

“The more cooks you have in the kitchen, the more possibility that there can be some misunderstanding,” she said, although “as long as the recipe is really clear and everyone’s using the same measuring spoons, then everything should be fine.” 

The danger comes when it’s unclear who is responsible for something, leading to an unnecessary duplication of work or duties falling through the cracks. 

The Maricopa County Recorder’s office said a memorandum of understanding will describe which elections director does what, and they will share staff and expertise with the new director. 

Gates argued the new system could be more efficient. "You can have the director under the recorder focused on that early voting, and then while that's going on, you've got the director under the board of supervisors getting ready for Election Day," he said. "Obviously, they have to be cooperating, but there's actually an argument that that's more efficient in that they're able to kind of focus on their lanes."

At Least Five Elections In 2020

For any new elections director, it will be a busy year. 

Aside from the Presidential Preference Election, there will be at least four others in Maricopa County in 2020.

Recorder Adrian Fontes, who is himself up for re-election in 2020, said they have been working on election improvements even while contributing to the Supervisors’ task force that developed the proposal for the two election directors.

Also on Wednesday, the Board approved $6.1 million for leasing new tabulation machines, which they expect will hasten the counting of ballots.

The Public Trust

Gates said because this new management change is bipartisan, it will increase public trust in elections. Four of the supervisors are Republicans. The fifth, Steve Gallardo, is a Democrat, as is Fontes. 

“It’s important that there’s a perception of integrity out in the community. And all six of us are committed to that,” Gates said.

Voters will certainly be expecting an improvement over the 2016 Presidential Preference Election, with very long lines and only 60 voting sites, or the 2018 primary.

Maricopa County resident Susan Penner attended Wednesday’s Board of Supervisors’ meeting.

“I hope that they can do what they say they’re gonna do,” she said.

Bret Jaspers was previously the managing editor for news at WSKG in upstate New York. Before that, he was a producer at WYPR in Baltimore and at Wisconsin Public Radio.His stories have aired on NPR’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, and Here & Now, and also the BBC and Marketplace. Way back when, he started as an intern and fill-in producer at WNYC’s On the Media, and then helped out on The Brian Lehrer Show and Soundcheck.When he's not covering the news, he's probably running, reading, or eating. Jaspers is also a member of Actors' Equity Association, the union for professional stage actors.