PHOENIX – Election officials didn’t count 27,327 ballots cast by Arizona voters in the November election, rejecting more than twice the 10,457 votes that flipped the state for President-elect Joe Biden – the closest raw vote margin of any state in the nation.

The uncounted votes, which are legally rejected by officials for reasons such as a missing signature, don’t indicate fraud or election irregularities. Courts in Arizona and across the U.S. have rejected claims of widespread voter fraud, citing a lack of evidence presented by Republican groups that have sought to overturn the election outcome.

The rejected ballots show that Arizona’s election system worked as intended: Voters who were eligible to vote and followed state laws had their ballots counted. 

But election experts said some of those laws can make it harder for Arizona voters to cast a ballot and have it counted, in part because of the state’s registration deadline – nearly a month before Election Day – and by not giving voters extra time to correct a missing signature. Adding to these barriers are county-level policies that, because of limited resources in areas such as Apache County, can increase the scenarios in which voters have their ballots thrown out, according to AZCIR interviews with experts, election officials and a review of county-by-county rejected ballot data. 

The November election marked the first time a Democratic candidate won the state’s presidential ticket since 1996, and election experts said down-ballot Republican victories suggest Arizona will maintain its battleground status with the potential for narrow vote margins moving forward. This means the tens-of-thousands of ballots consistently rejected by elections officials in Arizona could make the difference between a candidate winning or losing in future races. 

“We can pretty reliably consider [Arizona] to be one of the battlegrounds or swing states in these elections,” said Matthew Weil, director of the Elections Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C. “What happens there with respect to policy, and if we’re going to see more restrictions on voting and how that affects the electorate, will certainly matter from a national perspective.” 

REJECTED BALLOTS

The rejected votes consist of provisional and early ballots. Provisional ballots are cast when a voter encounters a problem at a polling place, such as not having any identification, and are later reviewed by election officials before being counted. Early ballots are cast by Arizonans who request to vote early, are on the permanent early voting list or live abroad during election cycles.

Arizona experienced an overall decrease in the rate of rejected ballots in November despite the COVID-19 pandemic and late-changing registration deadlines ahead of the election, something  experts have called a victory. The rejected ballot rate here has trended downward since at least 2012, AZCIR’s analysis shows, following increased voter education efforts, new laws and improvements to election administration. 

“This election was a good example of what states could do to expand access,” said Thessalia Merivaki, an expert in election administration and assistant professor of American politics at Mississippi State University. “Instead of thinking about ways to restrict access they should think about positive developments this election put out and utilize them, build on them.”

State laws helped and hurt voters in November

Statewide, 63% of all votes rejected by election officials – or more than 17,200 ballots – were cast by voters who weren’t registered or had an issue with their registration, such as missing the state deadline. Voter registration problems are the most common reason ballots were rejected in each of Arizona’s three previous presidential elections. 

“On election day I went to the polling place and they told me I wasn’t registered anywhere and that I could still do a provisional ballot,” said Ermon Cosay, a Gila County voter whose ballot was rejected because he was not registered by the state’s deadline. “I thought my vote was counted all this time. I guess it was not.”

Arizona’s registration deadline changed twice ahead of the November election following court battles that involved national Republican groups, Arizona officials and two advocacy organizations, Mi Familia Vota and Arizona Coalition for Change. The advocacy groups claimed they faced difficulties registering voters because of COVID-19 restrictions and asked a court to extend the registration deadline.

The state’s deadline was originally Oct. 5, but it was extended by 18 days, to Oct. 23, following the first court’s ruling. Republican groups led an appeal to overturn the extension that was later joined by state officials, resulting in the deadline changing yet again, to Oct. 15. 

More than 35,000 people registered during the 10 day extension, according to the Arizona Secretary of State.

Voters in 19 other states have same day registration, meaning a voter can both register to vote and cast a ballot that will count on Election Day. 

“If you want to count every vote you need to make sure we have election day registration, so that if people aren’t registered, that they have the opportunity to register and vote on election day,” said Tammy Patrick, former Maricopa County election official and now a senior advisor at the Democracy Fund, a nonpartisan foundation working to improve the election process for voters.

Ongoing voter education efforts will also help decrease ballot rejections due to registration issues, according to Gina Roberts of Arizona’s Citizens Clean Elections Commission, a nonpartisan state agency dedicated to educating voters. She said more resources will help election officials reach voters with critical information, such as registration deadlines. 

“I think what we need to do is increase our resources behind voter education,” Roberts said. “You have your election officials, their budgets go toward administering the election – that’s their focus. But of course informing the voters about how to participate is equally important.”

In Maricopa County, for example, election officials texted voters if there was a problem with the signature on their ballot, such as not matching what the officials had on file. These communications helped voters fix or confirm nearly 19,000 ballots that could have otherwise been rejected. 

A 2019 change to state election law, passed with bipartisan support, also gave voters five business days after an election to fix a mismatched signature, something experts said contributed to the decrease in early ballot rejections. This change does not apply to ballots that voters forgot to sign. 

Unlike Florida, where voters have extra time to fix missing signatures after the election, Arizona automatically rejects such ballots after the state’s 7 p.m. election night deadline. Officials here rejected more than 2,000 no-signature ballots this November.

“[Florida] crafted their election administration policy procedures to reflect the fact that they knew they were going to be a very closely divided state for a very long period of time,” said Weil from the Bipartisan Policy Center. “I think that states like Arizona that are newly moving into the swing state category should look at what Florida has done and the mistakes they’ve made. They’ve tried to make sure they’ve addressed those issues and Arizona would be wise to do that as well.”

County-specific voting models affect likelihood of ballot rejections

Maricopa and La Paz counties used “vote centers” in the November election, which let voters cast ballots at any official voting location in their county of residence. In previous elections, voters had to cast their ballots at assigned voting precincts based on their home address. If a ballot was submitted in the wrong precinct, it would later be rejected by officials.

The 2020 change reduced the combined number of rejected ballots in Maricopa and La Paz counties by 2,200, when compared to the 2016 presidential election. The voting model was used successfully by Yuma, Yavapai, Cochise and Navajo counties in 2016.

Graham, Greenlee, Gila, Santa Cruz and Coconino counties used a “hybrid-model” in which voters were assigned precincts but also had vote centers available to cast a ballot.

Mohave, Pinal, Pima and Apache counties maintained the precinct-based voting system on Election Day. More than 1,400 ballots were rejected in these counties because they were cast in the wrong precinct. 

Some precinct-based counties could start using vote centers after investing in upgraded technology, such as machines that can print different ballot types based on a voter’s eligibility to cast a ballot in specific races. 

In Apache County, which contains large portions of the Navajo Nation, costly improvements to infrastructure are needed before vote centers could be considered. The county experienced the highest overall rate of rejected ballots in the state’s November election.

“There are towns on the Navajo Nation that have no internet access, not even over a cell phone because there’s not a cell tower anywhere near. Because of that we’re not able to go to full vote centers,” said Bowen Udall, the chief deputy recorder in Apache County. 

Udall believes it would cost tens-of-millions of dollars to make vote centers possible.

“Honestly, if I could get rid of every single provisional because it was out-of-precinct, I would be very happy – not only because it causes us work, but because it would make voters happier,” he said.

Sam Kmack

Sam Kmack is an investigative reporter for AZCIR, covering a range of topics across Arizona for a yearlong fellowship supported in part by the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship.