On March 22, Phoenix residents headed to the polls to vote in the presidential primaries. They were greeted with pandemonium: Lines hundreds of people deep that left some waiting to vote for hours at one of just 12 polling locations available. In smaller towns in Maricopa County, there were even fewer options. In the past, the Arizona county assigned voters to one of at least 200 voting locations. This year, citizens were invited to cast their ballots where they wanted to—but they only had 60 spots to choose from.
Now, the Department of Justice is examining the incident as a possible civil rights violation.
Reuters reports that in a letter sent to the Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell on Friday, the DOJ's Civil Rights Voting Section head Chris Herren pointed to "allegations of disproportionate burden in waiting times to vote on election day in some areas with substantial racial or language minority populations."
County authorities have until April 22 to explain, specifically, why so few polling locations were available to voters this year, how their placement was determined, how many voters turned out, information on those managing the voting sites, and how the county reacted to backlash.
Karen Osborne, the county's elections director, doesn't see the request as out of the ordinary. "Throughout the years we've had other requests like this," she told the Arizona Republic, adding, "We will answer all the questions, we will answer them by April 22, and we will make the response public. That's all I know to say about it." Purcell said she plans to increase available polling locations significantly in time for the general election.
Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton called for a DOJ investigation soon after polls closed, calling the event a "fiasco."
In a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Stanton wrote that the voting conditions were "unacceptable anywhere in the United States." He added, "I'm angry that the County elections officials allowed it to happen in my city."
Stanton sees the messy vote as explicitly hampering minority votes. He wrote, "In Phoenix, a majority-minority city, County officials allocated one polling location for every 108,000 residents…The ratios were far more favorable in predominantly Anglo communities."
Maricopa officials blame a number of missteps for the confusion, like underestimating voter turnout. Here's Purcell saying she doesn't really know how the situation could have been ameliorated (and walking back blaming voters for poor voting conditions):
The reduction in voting sites has also been dubbed a cost-cutting measure.
The New York Times notes that this is the first time Arizona voters have gone to the polls since parts of the Voting Rights Act—designed to ensure that all Americans have equal access to voting ballots—was repealed in 2013. And returning Arizona to a pre-Voting Rights Act era is maybe not the best idea. From the Times:
Arizona has a long history of discrimination against minorities, preventing American Indians from voting for much of its history because they were considered “wards of the nation,” imposing English literacy tests on prospective voters and printing English-only election materials even as the state’s Spanish-speaking population grew.
GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump emerged victorious in Arizona, as did Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.