In Too Many Places, the Machinery of Our Elections Is Still Broken

In Too Many Places, the Machinery of Our Elections Is Still Broken

In Arizona, Utah and Idaho, thousands of people stood for hours in line to vote on Tuesday

Many Voters Struggled in Tuesday's Voting

Voting is one of every American’s fundamental rights; it should not be a test of our endurance or perseverance. But that’s what it turned out to be for thousands of people voting Tuesday in Arizona, Utah, and Idaho.  They faced long lines, few polling locations, a lack of ballots, and technical problems with online voting.

None of these problems are new. After more thousands stood in long lines or gave up after waiting hours to vote in 2012, President Obama created a nonpartisan commission to determine what went wrong and fix it. In January 2014, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration made 19 recommendations for states to improve the voting experience. These proposals ranged from creating accessible polling locations to instituting poll worker training standards to testing election materials for usability.

The Arizona, Idaho and Utah experiences this week reinforce conclusions that Common Cause’s Stephen Spaulding and Allegra Chapman reached in an October 2014 report, “Did We Fix That?” examining how the states responded to the commission. Their report acknowledged that some states had embraced the recommendations, but others had a long way to go. Let’s see how the elections in Arizona, Utah, and Idaho measured up.  


Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and is easily Arizona’s most populous locality, provided only 60 polling places for this year’s presidential primary, down from 200 for the 2012 primary and 700 for the last general election. As a result, voters stood in lines for upwards of two hours to cast their ballots. With so many people voting at so few locations, polling sites ran out of ballots, and many people left without voting.

One of the commission’s recommendations was for “states to expand opportunities to vote before Election Day.” Arizona did that by increasing in-person early voting and allowing voters to mail in their ballots before the primary; however, officials mistakenly thought these initiatives meant less polling places would be needed. The state also fell short on the commission’s recommendation that “jurisdictions should develop models and tools to assist them in effectively allocating resources across polling places.” Arizona failed to accommodate the large numbers of people voting by ensuring that enough ballots were available at each polling site.

Voters also faced problems with decades-old voting machines. Spare parts for these machines are no longer manufactured, so broken machines couldn’t be fixed and already long lines got longer. Fortunately, Arizona is planning to use newer machines for the general election. The President’s commission declared that “the standard-setting and certification process for voting machines must be reformed.” Arizona did not adhere to this standard in time for the primary.


Voters in Utah also faced long waits, with lines at some Republican caucus sites stretching several blocks. Many sites ran out of ballots and sent voters to stores to buy paper and photocopy ballots. The long lines also forced the parties to extend voting hours. The Utah Democratic Party had to take ballots back to its headquarters to finish counting. In addition, the Democratic Party’s website, which included addresses for caucus locations and information on required documents, crashed due to a high volume of users.

For the first time, Republican voters in Utah could vote online in the party caucus, a change that was not recommended by the President’s commission. It did not go well. Many online voters received error messages, faced delays in receiving their PIN numbers, or were confused by links that took them to other sites. Party officials reported that 25 percent of people who applied to vote online were unable to do so because their IDs couldn’t be verified. The experiment ended up backfiring on officials who thought online voting would make participation easier. Those officials also ignored concerns about cyber security, voiced by computer experts who warn of lurking viruses and note that online voters cannot know for sure that their ballots were cast as they intended or were counted at all.

Utahans voted in party-run caucuses rather than a state-run primary and neither party was obligated to adopt the commission’s recommendations. That doesn’t excuse them from responsibility for making voting easier. Both parties should consider the commission’s recommendations for allocating resources and ensuring that polling locations are accessible and lines short.


Only Democrats caucused in Idaho on Tuesday. The party attempted to handle the high voter turnout by allowing voters to check in online and not requiring ID or proof of address.

But the caucus process itself leaves many eligible voters unable to participate. It requires that voters appear at a certain time on a certain day, regardless of work or family commitments. The parties should consider the commission’s recommendations for expanding opportunities to vote before Election Day to include more potential voters.

Voters in all three of the states voting Tuesday met challenges in casting their ballots. The states and the parties need to ensure that every eligible person can vote, without spending hours in line or receiving dozens of error messages from a computer. Before the general election, we need to attack and eliminate obstacles to voting. That starts with implementing policies based on the commission’s recommendations and continues with creating strategies to deal with voting problems on a state-by-state basis.

For any problems voting in upcoming elections, contact Election Protection at 1-866-OUR-VOTE or on their website.