Up to 1,000 Arizona voters were mistakenly sent ballots with only federal races. Here’s why and what’s next.

Counties are mailing out correct ballots and are contacting affected voters to help them cast the right one, even if they already sent a vote in.

Two people with face masks wait outside door of polling place with green ballot envelopes in their hands.

Arizona election officials are reviewing the records of 1,000 voters who may have been mistakenly sent a ballot containing only federal races. They plan to let affected voters know they received the wrong ballot and a full ballot is on the way, with state and local races included.

The secretary of state’s office announced the error Tuesday, one week after ballots were mailed out for the November midterm election. Those mail-ballot recipients included up to 6,000 voters who were erroneously classified by the state’s voter registration system as federal-only voters.

The exact details of how the mistake occurred are still unclear. Here’s what we know so far.

What happened?

Arizona, under state law, requires voters to have proof of citizenship, such as a driver’s license, on file in order to vote in state elections.  That’s unlike most states, which typically use an honor system. If the state doesn’t have the records, the voter may only vote in federal elections and receives a special “federal-only” ballot.

When someone registers to vote, the state voter registration system is programmed to scan the Motor Vehicle Division database for proof of citizenship documents. For an undetermined period, that system was programmed incorrectly and wasn’t properly identifying all proof of citizenship documents in the MVD system. That meant the system inaccurately classified some voters as unqualified to vote in state elections. In turn, those voters were selected to receive a federal-only ballot. For the midterm election, the federal-only ballot includes just two contests, the U.S. Senate and House races.

How many voters did this happen to?

County elections officials are trying to determine that right now. Up to 6,000 voters could have been misclassified as federal-only, Kori Lorick, state elections director, told Votebeat. Of that number, 1,000 already received mail ballots.

The secretary of state’s office sent county officials the list of potentially affected voters on Monday and instructed them to individually check their voter records. County officials are starting with those who were already sent a ballot, to see whether they received a federal-only ballot in error. 

Of the 6,000 potentially misclassified voters, 3,550 live in Maricopa County, county Recorder Stephen Richer said at a news conference. And of those, 651 were already sent a ballot.

Who did this happen to?

Until the counties finish going through the records, we don’t know.

Lorick said the office could not immediately provide a political party breakdown for the 6,000 voters who may have been affected. What state officials do know, Lorick said, is many of the voters on the list are labeled in the system as inactive voters. A voter is classified as inactive when their election mail is being returned as undeliverable and they haven’t updated their address or voter registration.

The voter should already know if they were classified as a federal-only voter, Lorick said, because voters are notified by mail when this happens.

Who discovered the error?

About two weeks ago, Maricopa County’s voter registration team noticed inconsistencies when checking citizenship records, Recorder Stephen Richer said at a news conference Wednesday. His office notified the secretary of state’s office and the governor’s office, Richer said.

What happens now?

Once county officials identify a voter who incorrectly received a federal-only ballot, the secretary of state’s office has instructed them to send a letter notifying the voter of the mistake, along with a new full ballot. County officials are also supposed to reach out via any phone number or email address listed in the voter file. If, despite those efforts, the voter still returns the federal-only ballot, the office has instructed county officials to set it aside and only count it if the voter never casts the full ballot.

For affected voters who weren’t yet sent a ballot, if they go to vote early in-person and are given a federal-only ballot, the state will have time to catch the ballot before it is counted. That’s because when voting early in-person, voters do not cast their ballots directly into vote-counting machines. Instead, they put their filled-out ballot into envelopes and sign them, just as they would do if they were voting from home. The counties will have time to separate these federal-only ballots before they are counted, and were instructed to wait to see if the voter casts a new full ballot before the polls close on Election Day.

Jen Fifield is a reporter for Votebeat based in Arizona. Contact Jen at jfifield@votebeat.org.

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