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Maricopa County, Arizona, elections officials came under heavy pressure by state legislators on Monday to explain why thousands of voters waited for hours to cast ballots in the state's most populous county during last week's statewide Republican and Democratic presidential nominating contests. The special hearing to address the issue turned contentious as state representatives and angry voters lobbed accusations of voter suppression and discrimination by local elections officials.
"We are holding this hearing today to get information and to hear from our elected officials responsible in the preparation and execution of last Tuesday's election debacle," said state Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R-Scottsdale), as she opened the hearing of the House Elections Committee a week after the election. "But we're here to understand why it happened."
Ugenti-Rita turned things over to Helen Purcell, the election official responsible for Maricopa County who had decided to reduce the number of voting locations from 200 to 60. When the extent of the problem became apparent, Purcell further angered residents by saying voters were partly to blame for the long waits because they had opted to go to the polls instead of voting by mail.
"I want to begin by, again, apologizing for what took place on March 22, for the long lines, for the inconvenience of our voters," Purcell said. "As I said before, I am deeply sorry. It was my responsibility to put this election on in Maricopa County, and we obviously made some mistakes."
Ugenti-Rita, the chair of the House Elections Committee, asked Purcell to explain the decision to go from 200 polling locations to 60. Purcell said the decision was based on the estimate her office made of the total number of voters who would show up in person, a calculation based on previous elections. County voters were able to vote at any of the 60 locations within the county, as opposed to the precinct-specific system employed in past elections. Purcell also cited a lack of funding from the state legislature as part of the rationale for cutting polling places.
"We made some horrendous mistakes, and I apologize for that," Purcell said. "I can't go back and undo it. I wish that I could, but I cannot."
Many in the crowd—Republicans and Democrats alike—were not swayed by Purcell's explanation. Some people interrupting her with shouts as she spoke. Several called for her resignation during the public comment portion of the hearing. Others stood with their backs to Purcell and the committee while she gave her testimony.
"It was everybody," Stacey Champion, a community activist in Phoenix who attended the hearing, told Mother Jones. "There were Republicans, there were Democrats. It was young people, it was old people. It was everyone. People are pissed, and rightfully so."
Ugenti-Rita ended the hearing after three hours, but many angry voters who had signed up to speak during the public comment period didn't get the chance to do so. Some went to the House gallery after the hearing. One man repeatedly yelled "revote" from the gallery before troopers from the Arizona Department of Public Safety entered to restore order, according to the Arizona Capitol Times. Some troopers tried to remove a man who bystanders said had done nothing wrong. Here's a video of what happened then (courtesy of Stacey Champion):
Jonathan McRae was arrested and charged with trespassing and resisting arrest, according to the Arizona Department of Public Safety. The Phoenix New Times reports that one of the arresting troopers was "pricked" by a safety pin that was on McRae's shorts, and so he could face an additional charge of aggravated assault.
After the hearing, Ugenti-Rita said she would focus on amending the portion of the state law that calls for fewer polling places during the presidential nominating elections, according to the Arizona Republic. Ugenti-Rita also said she would like further investigation into the role that county or state policies might have played in the bungled election.