Reports of Arizona voters waiting for as long as fives hours to cast their ballots is bringing intense scrutiny on local elections officials as well as renewed criticism of the 2013 Supreme Court decision that allowed them to make major changes to polling plans without the approval of the federal government. Most of the coverage since Tuesday’s voting problems has focused on two things: First, Maricopa County, Arizona’s most populated region, reduced polling places from 200 to 60 in an effort to save money; and second, that’s the kind of change in the voting regimen that federal officials would have blocked until the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. But the picture is more complicated, voting rights experts and former Justice Department officials tell TPM. One key point that some early reports bashing Maricopa County failed to make was it did not simply reduce the number of polling places. Rather it was a transformation to a vote centers system, which if done correctly, brings some perks voting rights advocates generally favor.
Under the vote center system, instead of being assigned to vote at a single polling place, voters could vote at any of the 60 centers. While vote centers can save counties money, they bring their own set of benefits. The physical act of voting is no longer tied to where you live, which can make voting easier for people who work far from home. And since there are fewer sites to staff, those working at the vote centers tend to be the cream-of-the-crop, one expert told TPM.
Bipartisan Policy Center advisor Tammy Patrick, who used to submit Maricopa’s elections changes to the Justice Department for pre-clearance under the Voting Rights Act, acknowledged that 60 vote centers was a “light” number for the state’s first go-around trying the system. But, she argued, she thought “pre-clearing moving to vote centers would not have been an issue.”
“Herein lies the challenge for an election’s administrator. They had been pressured for years, because so many voters go to the wrong polling place,” Patrick said. “They were trying to look for ways to remedy that and a vote center does that.”