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Advocacy group's report faulty elections in Yuma, Coconino, Pinal counties

PHOENIX -- Yuma, Pinal and Coconino counties had Arizona's worst overall election performances in 2012, according to a report released Thursday by a progressive advocacy group.

The analysis by the Center for American Progress Action Fund ranked counties based on turnout and registration rates, provisional ballots cast and rejected, absentee ballots rejected and registered voters removed from the rolls. It examined 17 states where the margin of victory in the presidential election was 10 points or less.

"Two citizens may both live in the same state; however, they may have vastly different voting experiences based on what county they reside in," said Anna Chu, the center's policy director and one of the authors.

In Yuma County, the voter turnout rate was the lowest in Arizona at 38.6 percent, while the voter registration rate, second lowest in the state, was 81 percent. It had the state's highest absentee ballot rejection rate at 2.92 percent.

Yuma County Elections Director Sue Reynolds said the county's numbers are a reflection of its population.

"We have a lot of transient in our population," she said. "They may register to vote but by the time the election rolls around, due to seasonal agricultural work, they're in another state."

In 2012, Reynolds said it looked like the overall numbers would be higher as the county saw long lines with two- to three-hour wait times. The county also added regional voting centers, where any voter can appear, provide identification and have a ballot printed specifically for his or her precinct regardless of location.

Pinal County had the lowest voter registration rate (80.2 percent) and had the second-lowest voter turnout at 46.3 percent.

Coconino County had the second-highest rate of provisional ballots cast (30.8 percent), the second-highest rate of provisional ballots rejected (23 percent) and the second-highest rate of voters removed from the rolls (17.8 percent).

Coconino County Recorder Patty Hansen said three out of four provisional ballots rejected were for those who weren't registered to vote in the county. Many people went to the wrong polling places, she added.

Hansen said her office is looking at providing poll workers access to countywide voter registration information and, longer term, creating regional voting centers.

Robbie Sherwood, executive director of ProgressNow Arizona, said some counties' election performances could be explained by a combination of factors, many of which include moves to the state - by immigration or school - and people not feeling comfortable or permanent enough to vote.

"Students in Coconino and Pinal saw explosive growth from out-of-state with folks maybe not acclimated and really settled here to where they're registering to vote," he said in a conference call.

The report also noted that provisional ballots comprised more than 37 percent of the ballots cast in Maricopa County, 76 percent higher than the state average. Maricopa County had the third-highest rate of rejected provisional ballots: 18.6 percent.

One reason provisional ballots were rejected is because voters cast them in the wrong polling places, something that Sherwood said needs to change, starting with elections officials.

"What election officials can still do and have the ability to do is prevent these provisionals by better training their election workers to direct people to the right polling places if they're in the wrong place and not just hand them a provisional, which is sadly throwing that vote in the trash," Sherwood said.

While the problems are easily quantifiable, they persist statewide, said Sam Wercinski, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network.

"These are the type of roadblocks we see that are not just impacting Pinal and Yuma County but rather statewide," he said. "Especially, we're seeing the impact in communities of color and among youth voters and those who are in a lower economic community."

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