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Election issues in this Arizona county provide fodder for both political parties

Pinal County Attorney Kent Volkmer listens to complaints while addressing Election Day ballot shortages in the county.
Matt York
Pinal County Attorney Kent Volkmer listens to complaints while addressing Election Day ballot shortages in the county.

Last week's primary election in Arizona's Pinal County was marred by ballot issues, giving both Republicans and Democrats plenty of opportunity to push their respective narratives about election administration.

In Pinal — the third-largest county in the state — more than a dozen polling places ran out of ballots on Tuesday. County officials acknowledged they failed to print enough ballots to meet the demand for in-person voting on Election Day.

Candidates like Kari Lake, who won the GOP nomination for governor in Arizona, seized on the error as evidence of the nonexistent widespread fraud that was an essential talking point for many Republican campaigns, including her own.

"I think if you looked at how last night and yesterday went down, you can see there were some very serious problems," Lake said Wednesday, the day after the election, during a speech in which she prematurely declared victory. "The fact [that in] Pinal County people showed up and one hour into the polls being open, they ran out of ballots — we've seen irregularities, we're monitoring things."

It wasn't the first election issue the county has dealt with this year. In early July, thousands of voters were mailed ballots with missing or inaccurate local races.

Democrats acknowledged the issues that arose in Pinal County, southeast of Phoenix, but had a different take on the situation.

Arizona Democratic Party Chairwoman Raquel Terán issued a statement blaming Pinal County's blunders on "years of underfunding elections and the counties that run them," as well as "dangerous conspiracy theories perpetuated by the AZGOP that we cannot trust our elections." Election experts have worried that such distrust will hamper election administration and cause workers to leave the field.

Pinal County Attorney Kent Volkmer, a Republican, had a much simpler explanation for the "human error" that left some voters stranded in line or disenfranchised altogether.

"We just, we didn't order enough ballots. It was always a guess," Volkmer told reporters the day after the election. "And we didn't guess on the side of making sure we had plenty of ballots, and that's the mistake that the county made."

Volkmer estimated that hundreds of voters were affected, as roughly 2.5% of the county's various ballot styles were impacted by the shortage. The county printed about 900 different styles of ballots for the primary. (Different ballots are printed to reflect the unique races an individual may vote for, depending on where they live.)

Some voters likely didn't cast a ballot because of that error, though Volkmer defended the county's response as making the best of a bad situation.

"We did everything we could," he said. "We offered them the ability to wait as long as they were capable of waiting. Some people chose not to wait, some people chose to leave and come back, some people chose to leave and not come back. We can't control that."

County election director fired

After Volkmer issued the county's mea culpa at a Wednesday afternoon press conference, the mic was turned over to Republican candidates in Pinal County, like John Fillmore, an incumbent state representative running for reelection.

"Why the hell was the county not prepared for people showing up at the polls?" Fillmore bemoaned. "And then, to that, what do we say to our constituents who were disenfranchised?"

He later added: "Who the hell do we trust, if we can't trust you guys? And what's going to happen in November?"

County officials promised changes would be made. A day later, they delivered in one respect by firing elections director David Frisk, who had only just been hired for the job in March.

That did little to appease GOP leaders like Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and state GOP Chairwoman Kelli Ward, who had called for Frisk's firing after the county's latest error.

"The election failures observed by our joint election integrity program during Arizona's primary were unacceptable and underscore why transparency at the ballot box is so important," McDaniel and Ward said in a joint statement. "Republicans will continue to hold incompetence accountable, fight for transparency, and make it easier to vote and harder to cheat in Arizona and nationwide."

The statement did not specify what other failures occurred on Election Day — though facts haven't gotten in the way of other GOP efforts to sow doubts about elections.

For example, the executive committee of the Maricopa County Republican Party censured Stephen Richer, the GOP county recorder, for "maladministration," despite all evidence to the contrary. Unbiased observers agree that the election run a week ago in Maricopa County — famously scrutinized by Republican state senators via a discredited 2020 election review — ran smoothly.

And Lake, despite claiming victory, told her election-denying supporters that she won in spite of problems at the polls — even though she won in large part due to strong returns from Election Day voters that helped her overcome her opponents' advantage among early voters.

"We outvoted the fraud," Lake said during her victory speech, without citing specific evidence. "We didn't listen to what the fake news had to say. The MAGA movement rose up and voted like their lives depended on it."

Lake is one of several election-denying GOP candidates on the November ballot.

Copyright 2022 KJZZ

Ben Giles