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Arizona Latinos leery of ballot delays

| Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012, 8:08 p.m.

Two weeks after the election, the ballots are finally counted in Arizona. The delay — more than half a million were uncounted on Election Day — has left community organizers who registered a record number of Latino voters in Arizona reeling with frustration and suspicion.

A crush of hundreds of thousands of early mail-in ballots received a few days before Election Day is partly to blame for the delay, election officials said. For Instance, Maricopa County recorder's officials were inundated with 200,000 early mail-in ballots just on Election Day. Statewide, more than 600,000 ballots were left uncounted that day — out of about 2.2 million Arizona ballots cast during this year's election.

Still, Latino advocates and leaders remain suspicious and contend election officials should have been prepared for the onslaught. They said they still don't have a clear picture as to why counting took so long and said the delay feeds a perception of discrimination against Latino voters given Arizona's history of intentional voter suppression of minorities. For example, literacy tests were once used to keep Spanish-speakers and Navajos from voting.

“It creates this sense of illegitimacy,” said Rodolfo Espino, assistant professor of political science at Arizona State University. “It could be something really innocent going on here, or something really egregious going on here. Regardless, it's a problem that needs to be addressed.”

The major source of contention is with the 172,000 provisional ballots cast in this year's election. Most — 122,000 — originated from Maricopa County, the state's largest county and home to about half its population.

Provisional ballots are given to citizens who aren't listed in the election rolls at their polling place. Also, people who were sent a mail-in ballot but decided to vote in person had to use a provisional ballot. This is done to make sure the citizen isn't voting twice.

This year, Latino advocacy groups made a huge push to register Latinos in Maricopa County, enrolling 34,000 who had never voted before.

Many were registered as early mail-in voters.

Other groups also signed up thousands of eligible Latinos to become permanent early voters, meaning they would be sent a mail-in ballot automatically in each election. In 2008, 90,000 Latinos were on the early voting list. This year, it increased to a record 225,000, according to Francisco Heredia, state director for Mi Familia Vota in Arizona.

Now, Latino advocates wonder how many Latinos who received early mail-in ballots were forced to cast provisional ballots, which take longer to verify and tally. Specifically, they want to know how many provisional ballots were given out to voters in precincts in predominantly Latino neighborhoods.

While Secretary of State Ken Bennett said he had met with Latino advocates and planned to gather with other officials to re-evaluate the vote-counting system delays, he said that there was no indication that a certain demographic was treated differently at precincts.

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