August 29, 2018 / Modified aug 29, 2018 4:25 p.m.

Hackers? No, Human Error Plagues Arizona Primary Voting

Dozens of polling places in Maricopa County opened late for Tuesday's primary, as equipment had not been set up in time.

Maricopa county vote Some voters and media outlets reported problems at the Burton Barr Central Library polling place in Phoenix, in addition to other locations, during the Aug. 28 primary election. (PHOTO: Celisse Jones, Cronkite News)

PHOENIX — For all the worries about Russian hackers and other cyber-vandals, voting problems this week in Arizona served as a reminder that one of the biggest threats to fair elections is plain old human error.

That appeared to be the case during Tuesday's primary, when dozens of polling places in the state's most populous county opened late because the voter verification machinery had not been set up.

The Maricopa County recorder, the official in charge of running elections in and around Phoenix, said the contractor hired to connect the tablet-like devices didn't send enough workers to complete the job on time. The contractor insisted it dispatched more people than the county requested.

Either way, 62 of the county's 750 or so polling locations did not open first thing in the morning, though all were up and running before noon. Election officials gave no estimate of how many people were unable to cast ballots because of the foul-up.

The confusion in the state where over a million voters cast ballots came two years after Phoenix-area residents ended up waiting for hours in the heat to vote because a previous election chief drastically reduced the number of polling places.

Over the past two years, much of the national conversation about elections has been focused on cybersecurity and the threat of meddling by Russian hackers.

Since the 2016 presidential election, state and local election authorities have been scrambling to improve their cyber-defenses, upgrade voting systems and train election officials.

Officials say Russian hackers targeted election systems in at least 21 states in the months leading up to the 2016 vote. There has been no indication any vote tallies were changed.

But security is not the only concern. Machine breakdowns, software glitches and other more ordinary problems have disrupted voting.

In California's June primary, nearly 120,000 voters in Los Angeles County were left off printed voter rolls because of a software error. About 12,000 of the affected voters cast provisional ballots and their votes were counted, but it's unknown how many might have walked away because of the hassle and delay.

In South Dakota in June, officials had to use provisional ballots when their equipment couldn't connect to the internet.

In Arizona, Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes said Tuesday that he learned a day before the election that not all of the equipment had been hooked up yet, and he sent out staff members to try to fix the problem.

But he made no mention of the delayed openings during a Facebook Live event on Election Day. Nor did he alert the county Board of Supervisors until Tuesday afternoon, when he asked it to keep polls open past the 7 p.m. closing time.

The board turned down the request, saying Fontes had been given enough resources to run a successful election.


Adrian Fontes Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes, April 2017. (PHOTO: Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

The contractor involved, Tempe-based Insight, said that it provided more staff than it was required to and that only 43 of the locations that didn't open on time were late because the machinery hadn't been connected.

"Insight shares the frustration that voters felt Tuesday and has been working diligently to help the county resolve technical issues as they arise. Insight is committed to working with the county to ensure that disruptions to the voting process do not continue in future elections," spokesman Scott Walters said in a statement.

Criticism came down hard on Fontes, a Democrat who unseated his predecessor, a Republican who had held office for nearly three decades before the long lines of the 2016 primary cost her her job.

By Wednesday morning, Republicans had released a TV ad attacking Fontes, who isn't up for re-election until 2020.

"Adrian Fontes promised a lot in 2016. But today, he failed Arizona again," the ad said.

Fontes said in a statement that he takes full responsibility and will not let such a mistake happen again.

Phoenix voter Brent Kleinman said he went to his local polling place twice, at 7 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., and was turned away both times. He ended up at a library, casting a provisional ballot, which is given out when a person's eligibility to vote is unknown.

Kleinman was one of the hundreds of voters who waited in long lines two years ago. He said he voted for Fontes in 2016 in the hope a new leader would reform the election system.

"You would think after the bad things that happened in that 2016 that the county and state would create processes that would prevent things like this from happening," Kleinman said.


Christina Almeida Cassidy in Atlanta contributed.

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