PHOENIX — Federal attorneys are investigating how the state’s largest county conducted the presidential primary even as the state’s top election official insisted Monday she could not have done anything different ahead of the March 22 vote.
Chris Herren, chief of the voting section of the Department of Justice, told Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell in a letter Friday that his agency trying to determine if there were violations of the federal Voting Rights Act. That law prohibits states from making changes in election procedures that discriminate against minorities.
None of that affects the state’s 14 other counties. But Secretary of State Michele Reagan, in formally announcing the results of the primary on Monday, said she was powerless to deal with the problems that resulted statewide. That includes not just long voting lines at some polling places but that thousands of voters claim they were reregistered as political independents without their consent.
Reagan said that appears to stem from situations where Republicans, Democrats and Green Party members updated their addresses on a web site linked to the state Motor Vehicle Division but did not affirmatively say they want to remain with their party.
“You would think that the system would say, ‘Well, you’re just changing your address so I’m going to keep you as a Green Party member and I’m going to keep you on PEVL,’ ‘’ she said, referring to the permanent early voting list of people who automatically get ballots by mail ahead of each election.
But Reagan said it’s not programmed that way. And the result is those who updated their addresses were reclassified as independents.
Reagan sidestepped the larger question of whether she, as the state’s chief elections officer, should have questioned Maricopa County ahead of the March 22 vote on whether they were violating the Voting Rights Act by setting up just 60 polling places.
A 2013 Supreme Court ruling eliminated the requirement of the Voting Rights Act that Arizona and a handful of other states with a history of discrimination had to get “preclearance’’ from the Department of Justice before changing election laws and procedures. That includes changing the number and location of polling places.
The underlying federal law, however, remains in place. But Reagan said she has no official authority to force counties to change their procedures.
Still, Reagan said that perhaps it is her role to at least speak up publicly.
“We, in the future, may be looking at those options,’’ she said.
In the letter to Purcell, Herren wants to know how she determined to have just 60 polling places and where they would go. Potentially more significant, he wants to know whether the county ever looked at how its decision to sharply trim the number of polling places would affect minority groups.
Four years ago, when only the Republicans had a contested race, there were more than 200 places to cast a ballot. And in 2008, when both parties had presidential primaries, there were more than 400 polling places.
The Department of Justice also wants any information Purcell has about people who believe they were incorrectly reregistered as independents.
In his complaint to the Department of Justice, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton said Phoenix, a majority-minority city, got one polling location for every 108,000 residents. But he said Anglo communities like Paradise Valley had one polling place for every 13,000 residents; the towns of Cave Creek and Carefree got one polling place for 8,500 residents.
But Stanton said this isn’t just a Maricopa County issue, saying there is a “culture of voter disenfranchisement in this state.’’
He cited the new law, pushed by Reagan, to make it a felony for volunteers to pick up and turn in someone else’s ballot. Stanton said that law “aims to suppress voter turnout.’’
On that subject, Reagan on Monday backed away from her statement on Saturday that she sent Janine Petty, her deputy elections director, to the governor’s office on election day to collect unmailed early ballots. The law making it a felony has not yet taken effect and Reagan contends she and her staff are exempt anyway.
Reagan did not dispute personally going to the governor’s office — one floor above her 7th floor office — on election day to inquire about unmailed ballots.
But Reagan now is saying she sent Petty back up to the governor’s office solely to inform people in the Executive Tower that ballots could be brought to her office. And Reagan said her comment to Capitol Media Services on Saturday that “the person who went upstairs to collect things from the 8th floor was Janine Petty’’ is now an “inoperative statement.’’
All of this came as Reagan did the one formal thing she was required to do on Monday: Announce the formal results of the presidential primary. There was no change in the order of finish announced the night of the election, with Hillary Clinton besting Bernie Sanders and a host of Democrat contenders, Donald Trump outpolling Ted Cruz and others in the GOP race, and Jill Stein winning a two-way race for the Green Party delegates.