Earlier this month, ASD Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine spoke with Constance Hargrove, director of elections for Pima County, Arizona. Arizona recently became the first battleground state to nominate election deniers for all three top statewide offices. They discussed Arizona’s August 2nd primary and how to successfully conduct elections amid an onslaught of mis- and disinformation from candidates and others.
Listen to the full interview in the above video. Below are the key takeaways.
Mock elections can be a great tool for testing new election processes, discovering vulnerabilities, getting feedback, bolstering election security, and building trust.
In February of 2022, the Pima County Board of Supervisors voted to update the ways it administers elections, beginning with its August 2nd primary. After previously requiring voters to vote at precincts—predesignated locations assigned to voters based on their residence—the board chose to switch to voting centers and electronic pollbooks (e-pollbooks). The board’s decision made Pima County the final county in Arizona to adopt e-pollbooks and the 12th county (out of 15) to adopt voting centers.
Although election officials across the political spectrum have recommended the adoption of voting centers and e-pollbooks to improve the accessibility and security of elections, adopting such changes isn’t without challenges, particularly in the hyper-polarized atmosphere gripping Arizona and the United States.
Knowing this, Pima County conducted two mock elections to allow voters the opportunity to experience the new voting system and equipment. “There was some insecurity in people’s minds. While the change to vote centers from precincts is not that big a change in terms of process, in everyone’s mind it was an overhaul change,” Hargrove explained. “Holding the mock elections for the public was to allow them to see the equipment, to touch the equipment, and to see how the process [largely] remained the same.”
The first mock election in late June went well for many voters; although, some voters did encounter technical challenges, including problems with e-pollbooks and precinct ballots. Hargrove explained that many of these challenges stemmed from the county’s decision to use a 2018 training database instead of a live database that displays the information for currently registered voters.
“You do not want to use a live database that you are going to use on Election Day or the same ballots that you are going to use on Election Day,” Hargrove said. “[To] have that out there in the world would bring questions about the integrity of the elections” since election officials only use live ballots and databases for actual elections.
To respond to any doubts that arose during the first mock election, the county held a second one on July 1. Not only did the second election have fewer issues, but it helped prepare Pima County’s staff for the August primary. The mock election helped Pima County confirm that it needed a minimum of two ballot-on-demand printers at most voter centers, as well as many hard copies of already-printed ballots in case a voter center’s system went down. The latter conclusion likely mitigated some of the paper ballot issues Pima County had on August 2nd because it helped staff determine which vote centers were likely to see more voters on Election Day.
“The mock elections allowed the staff to actually see the new process,” Hargrove said. “I was very happy and proud of the poll workers who had very little time to learn how to use the technology to change from precincts to vote centers. They embraced it and were able to get their equipment up and operating.”
- Localities that are introducing new election technology and or procedures—or that are simply facing a skeptical public—should consider conducting mock elections. Mock elections can enable both election officials and the public to evaluate the voting process in a less charged environment, so that election officials can both identify potential vulnerabilities and solutions ahead of election day.
- For localities implementing vote centers and e-pollbooks for the first couple of elections, each vote center should ensure they have a surplus of extra ballots and e-pollbooks to reduce the likelihood of long lines at the polls, which could result in some folks choosing not to vote and erode confidence in the elections process.
When election workers make a mistake, they (or the local election office they work for) should apologize in a timely manner and offer a plan for how to remedy the error.
Just prior to the August 2nd primary, a staffer for the Pima County Elections Department, who had only been employed by the county since last March, was “corrected” after mistakenly telling temporary election workers that any voter could choose which ballot he/she wanted to vote during Arizona’s primary. This was incorrect, as only voters registered as “independent” can choose their ballot, while those registered with the Democratic, Republican, or Libertarian Party for the primary were required to cast the ballot for their registered party.
On the afternoon of July 31, an attorney for the Republican Party, Eric Spencer, contacted Hargrove to inform her of an election trainer that was issuing instructions inconsistent with Arizona law on the above matter. Spencer requested that Pima County issue supplemental instructions to its poll workers immediately.
“To mitigate the problem, the trainer actually wrote a letter explaining what happened, [and] emailed all of the inspectors prior to election day on Monday. We also sent the information out to the vote centers on election day and created a poster that they can post as well,” Hargrove explained. “We didn’t know who had heard what, so we contacted everyone.”
On Monday, August 1st, Pima County Administrator Jan Lesher sent the Board of Supervisors a memo about the situation, stating that Hargrove “has corrected the employee who led the training, emailed correct information to all of the poll workers with an email address, has sent a memorandum to all of the Voter Center inspectors with the correct information, and is placing a poster at all Vote Centers with information about which ballots are available depending on a voter’s registration.” Hargrove indicated that the party’s attorney was satisfied with these corrective measures.
To ensure that future mistakes do not happen, Hargrove expressed that more staff training would take place ahead of the midterms, particularly on the county’s newer processes. “Training our poll workers and the staff as they continue to transition and start to think about vote centers as opposed to precincts…is going to be key,” she said.
- When an election worker makes a gaffe that could impact the administration of an election, the worker (or local elections office) should own up to what went wrong as quickly as possible and communicate the steps that will be taken to mitigate this problem and ensure it is not repeated.
- Election worker training should be taught by someone with extensive experience in elections. If that is not possible, the elections office should have the elections trainer be accompanied by a more experienced elections professional to ensure that any errors are quickly corrected.