Cinematic History Elections Voting Maricopa County

"The over-30 crowd might remember 1955 as the year Marty McFly saved the day at his mom and dad’s high school dance, then hightailed it back to the future courtesy a souped-up DeLorean and a well-timed lightning strike."

The over-30 crowd might remember 1955 as the year Marty McFly saved the day at his mom and dad’s high school dance, then hightailed it back to the future courtesy a souped-up DeLorean and a well-timed lightning strike.  

But 1955 is also an important year in Maricopa County history. It was that year the Board of Supervisors signed a charter giving the county recorder control of the elections department, and with it, the authority to act on the board’s behalf in all election matters.

Marty got to go back to the future. Unfortunately, we never did.  The elections charter has remained in place, mostly untouched, ever since. In fact, it was 1985 — “present day” for the fictional Marty McFly — that the charter was last amended. All of this as we grew from a population of roughly 330,000 in 1955 to 4.5 million now.

But things are finally changing.

With a unanimous vote last month, the Board of Supervisors took the first step toward a more active role in Maricopa County elections. We are aligning our operations with what is in state statute and providing more resources to the elections department to deliver the best-in-class elections voters deserve.

How elections work in Arizona

In Arizona, counties run most elections, including elections for national offices such as president and Congress. Under state law, county recorders in Arizona are responsible for activities leading up to Election Day including voter registration and early voting. Boards of Supervisors are responsible for much of what happens on Election Day, including the location and number of polling places, the equipment to count votes, and the training and assigning of poll workers. This is what the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors gave up when they signed the 1955 charter.

Because I don’t have a DeLorean, I can’t travel back in time to see how that arrangement worked out. All I know is that things were a lot different 60 years ago and we need to evolve our structure to fit the Maricopa County of today.  

Enter the work group

In January, the Board of Supervisors directed the county manager to form a work group made up of recorder’s office leadership and county administrative leadership to offer recommendations regarding the following aspects of county elections: staffing, technology and organizational structure. The 10-member work group focused on how to improve outcomes for voters while maintaining the efficiencies of the current system. They also were mindful of how any recommended changes would impact the 2020 elections calendar. I encourage you to visit the elections project website at maricopa.gov, where you can find the work group’s report and recommendations.

What’s changing

The board is taking the following actions based on the work group’s report:

• Maricopa County will acquire new vote tabulation machines that protect the integrity and security of each vote while also allowing us to count ballots more quickly. Funding for this technology is part of the county’s fiscal year 2020 budget.

• The county will complete a staffing analysis to guide the board’s funding and recruitment of personnel required to support a successful election. Funding for 26 positions is reserved in the FY 2020 budget.

• The board and the recorder will each have a “point person” inside the elections department. Right now, the elections director reports only to the recorder. This has made effective oversight difficult for the board. That’s why we split the elections director position in two, so both the recorder and the board will have a decision maker inside the elections department. This new director-level position will be one of only four positions countywide that report directly to the board, which signifies the importance of successful elections to all of us. We expect the two directors to work together to improve accountability, transparency and service delivery across all levels of voting.

The future

The next step is crafting a new elections operations agreement that amends the current charter. With this agreement, we can envision a partnership between the Board of Supervisors and the recorder’s office that capitalizes on the institutional knowledge of elections staff and the project management skill brought to bear on our side of the house.  

The year 2020 is just around the corner. There’s no reason for us to keep going back in time. With new vote-counting machines, additional staff, and an executive structure that creates bipartisan oversight, my colleagues and I — along with the recorder — believe we are prepared not just for the present, but for the future of elections in Maricopa County.