Two weeks after the election, the ballots are finally counted in Arizona. The delay -- more than half a million were uncounted on Election Day -- left community organizers who registered a record number of Latino voters in Arizona reeling with suspicion and raised questions about the integrity of the electoral process in the state.
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. 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. 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 given Arizona's history of intentional voter suppression of minority members. 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."
Results announced on or just after election night remained unchanged, although it took days for three congressional races to be decided. All of them were won by Democrats, who will replace Republicans as a majority in the state's congressional delegation come January. It was only Wednesday afternoon that one of the winners, Kyrsten Sinema, was able to find out the number of votes that put her ahead of her opponent, Vernon Parker, a Republican, in the race for Arizona's 9th District -- "10,251," she announced on Twitter. "Thank you."
Secretary of State Ken Bennett insisted "the system is not broken," saying it took just as many days to count the votes four years ago. Still, he acknowledged that the state could do better, joining a growing chorus of elected officials, civil rights advocates and community organizers calling for a faster way to tally the ballots.
"Speed is not our No. 1 goal. Accuracy is our No. 1 goal. But that doesn't mean we can't think of a way to speed up the process," Bennett said.
Ideas and plenty of criticism have been floating around since the exact number of ballots left to be counted after the polls closed -- 631,274 -- came to be known. This week, Democrats called for a bipartisan inquiry to scrutinize some of the issues raised by voters and campaigns, such as the fragmentation of the election process -- run independently by each of the state's 15 counties -- and the difficulties some voters who signed up to vote by mail seemed to have had in differentiating sample ballots from real ones.
"We need the process to be better explained to voters, especially because we had so many new voters registered ahead of the election," said Luis Heredia, the executive director of the state's Democratic Party.
The major source of contention is with the 172,000 provisional ballots that were cast. Most -- 122,000 -- originated from Maricopa County, which encompasses Phoenix. It is 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 year, advocacy groups made a 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 reached a record 225,000, said Francisco Heredia, state director for Mi Familia Vota in Arizona.
Now, advocates wonder how many Latinos who received early mail-in ballots were forced to cast provisional ballots, which take longer to verify and tally.
Bennett and Maricopa County recorder's office spokeswoman Yvonne Reed said officials have tried to get the word out to voters to turn in their ballots as early as possible. She said the agency was surprised by the criticism. "We just don't understand it," she said.
But pre-election missteps exacerbated the mistrust, said Brendan Walsh, chairman of Campaign for Arizona's Future. He pointed to leaflets and other materials printed by Maricopa County that the listed the wrong date for the election in Spanish-language literature distributed to Latino households. He said, "So we cannot give them the benefit of the doubt when they made serious errors."
The New York Times contributed to this report.