Some Arizona Counties Still Counting Ballots

The wheels of democracy turn slowly in Arizona. The state is still counting ballots from Election Day in a number of counties — and a number of races hang in the balance.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In this part of the program, we're going to talk voting. It's been a week since Election Day. And it's clear that while the nation has come a long way since the hanging chads of 2000, we have a long way yet to go. In a moment, we'll look across the country where voting went well, where it didn't and why.

CORNISH: But we begin with a story out of Arizona. It will likely take until next week to finish counting more than 300,000 ballots there. At least one congressional race remains undecided along with some ballot propositions. Election officials say the biggest reason for the delay, ironically, is a law designed to make voting easier.

Here's NPR's Ted Robbins.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: If you stayed up late on election night, you got nothing on the 50 people inside a windowless room at the Pima County Election Center. All you have to do is step up to one of the tables and you can see what's taking so long.

JUDY NELSON: Romney.

ROSEMARIE JOHNSON: Romney, yes.

NELSON: Flake and McSally.

ROBBINS: Judy Nelson and Rosemarie Johnson are filling in duplicate ballots by hand. Arizona counties use the kind of the ballot where voters fill in the bubble next to a candidate's name. The voting machines can't read it when the original ballot has a smudge, a tear, a coffee stain or, in this case, a check mark next to a name instead of the bubble filled in with black ink. And this step comes after other workers verify the signature on the ballot.

Why wasn't this done at the polling place last Tuesday? Because two-thirds of Arizona voters use early ballots. But here's the rub: County elections director Brad Nelson says they don't send them in early.

BRAD NELSON: I think a lot of people held onto their early ballots until that very, very last minute. And now we have this volume of ballots that are still good ballots, but they have to go through a verification process.

ROBBINS: In other words, this year a huge number of voters either mailed ballots at the last minute or dropped them off at polling places on Election Day. Then there are tens of thousands of provisional ballots, like those cast by voters who went to the wrong polling place. Again, election workers have to check the ballot's validity. Finally, thousands of votes are still coming in from servicemen and women who mailed ballots from overseas.

BRENDAN WALSH: In terms of encouraging people to vote by mail, Arizona is way out in front of other states, but they certainly have not built an apparatus that then allows them to count those votes as they come in.

ROBBINS: Brendan Walsh is part of One Arizona, a coalition of groups which led Latino and labor voter registration drives, and which are now concerned about the length of time it's taking to count votes.

Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, the state's top election official, says it's not reasonable to expect a quicker count.

KEN BENNETT: County election departments, they can't staff full-time people for the number of man-hours that are needed in this one or two weeks after the election. You know, you have to pull in temps; you've got to train them.

ROBBINS: Why not hire more temps? Bennett defends the way it's done now.

BENNETT: There's nothing unusual that's happening this time that doesn't happen in every presidential election.

ROBBINS: What's causing attention, says the secretary of state, are the close races: one congressional race not called until yesterday, another still only separated by a few hundred votes. That's the seat once held by Democrat Gabby Giffords.

One Arizona's Brendan Walsh isn't soothed.

WALSH: For us, it's very worrisome when we have campaigns and media calling elections the night of the election, but there's still a third of the ballot that needs to be counted.

ROBBINS: In 2012, people expect all the ballots to be counted election night or soon after. In Arizona, the voting apparatus just isn't set up to do that.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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