It might feel like the best way to make sure your vote is counted is to cast your ballot in person. But obstacles at the polls, like long lines and voting machine foul-ups, can keep untold ballots from making it over the finish line. Just ask Arizona’s voters.
Arizona is one of a handful of states that gives voters the option to sign up to permanently vote absentee each year (they call it the Permanent Early Voting List). This and other voter-friendly policies earned Arizona a B grade from Sightline for safe and secure voting by mail. It’s a convenient, accessible system that most Arizonans take advantage of—all along the political spectrum.
But the state’s been less successful at implementing accessible in-person polling places. In the 2016 primary election, the state made national headlines when thousands of voters waited hours to vote, some for as long as five hours. The long lines happened after Phoenix’s Maricopa County election officials reduced the number of polling places from 200 to 60. Some places ran out of ballots, while others experienced technical difficulties with voting machines that exacerbated the long waits. Some people stayed in line for hours just to get turned away without voting.
Arizona voters have opted to use mail-in ballots for decades. It’s proven to be a reliable way to get their votes to count.
Arizona voters have opted to use mail-in ballots for decades. It’s proven to be a reliable way to get their votes to count. More than three out of four voters in Arizona used vote by mail in the 2018 midterm election—a total of 1.9 million ballots. Arizona’s vote by mail rejection rate in the 2018 midterm was less than half a percent. The state had a record turnout that year, and those who chose to mail their ballots didn’t have to wait in line with no guarantee they could cast their vote by the end of the day. That was long before the coronavirus pandemic, an added risk to appearing in person at a crowded polling location.
This year’s August primary in Arizona showed similar results. The vast majority—88 percent—of voters cast their ballots early, and most of them by mail. The state’s election officials reported no problems with mail-in ballots.
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As many states ramp up systems to accommodate more absentee voting due to coronavirus concerns, we hear far more often about the small share of mail-in ballots that are typically rejected than we hear about the in-person votes that were never cast at all—because voters were turned away or ran out of time or met with technical glitches at the voting machine. Those uncounted ballots remain, well, uncounted.
Sightline is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and does not support, endorse, or oppose any candidate or political party.
Hayat Norimine, Sightline research contributor, is a freelance writer who grew up in Washington on the border of Idaho. She previously covered city halls and politics for The Dallas Morning News, Seattle Met magazine, and The Daily News in Longview, Washington. She has an MA in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism and a BA in English from the University of Washington. For Sightline, she researches and writes about elections and democracy reform and reports on fossil fuel proposals along the Thin Green Line.