Here in New York, concerns about a fair and accessible voting process in this past Tuesday’s election revolved around after effects of Superstorm Sandy, which took a severe toll on infrastructure along the mid-Atlantic coast. In the face of ongoing power outages and transportation gaps, not to mention intense personal and communal disruption, thousands of voters as well as many polling officials went to great lengths to cast and count their ballots.
Concerns of a very different sort plagued the electorate in a number of states due to the decidedly unnatural disaster of restrictive voter ID laws; nineteen states, to be exact, have passed such measures since 2011 (although some are not yet in effect). These laws’ potential unjustly to disenfranchise scores of eligible citizens was well documented during the campaign and no doubt was made actual in some places on Tuesday. While this election cycle is now over, the work of assuring free and fair elections in a country that purports to value participatory democracy is surely unfinished business.
But in fact, in some areas the use of the past tense for election results may be premature. Obama is not going anywhere, but a number of local and state positions remain contested on account of as yet unprocessed ballots. Headlines inform us that there is Florida – always Florida, always counting, and re-counting… and securing its place as the butt of all jokes electoral.
A less publicized yet more live situation is underway in Arizona. The stakes are high most specifically, I would suggest, because of the implications for the Maricopa County sheriff. With increasing vigor in recent years, opponents of five-term incumbent and infamously egotistical, stubborn, and cruel Joe Arpaio have rallied around the call, “Sheriff Joe’s got to go!” At this juncture, with a sixth term for him and the dignified treatment of millions of Latino/a residents on the line, Joe Arpaio has unfortunately not gone. Democratic candidate Paul Penzone conceded the race Tuesday night in light of what appeared to be nearly a ten-percentage point spread (a video of him discussing his concession is here).
However, this race hasn’t run its course. And plenty of Arizonans, especially Latino/a residents of Maricopa County, have taken to the streets to show that they want their own and their neighbors’ voices heard and their votes counted. Protests in front of the county recorder’s office are ongoing as the Secretary of State announced mid-week that “an estimated 602,334 early and provisional ballots statewide” have not yet been counted; this includes 344,000 early and 144,000 provisional in Maricopa County. Per the figures at the county recorder’s website, Arpaio leads Penzone by less than 86,000 votes. That math means he is not a six-term sheriff yet. Of course I am not able to predict whether the uncounted votes will alter the outcome (note that Penzone’s concession is a customary gesture, not an effective one; the votes make the election, not the speeches) and it may well be a long shot.
Arizona is no stranger to the kind of restrictive voter ID laws I mentioned above. I can only speculate, but it seems likely that the state’s legislation was at least partially the cause of the large number of provisional ballots (a petition is currently circulating which alleges such a connection, among wider procedural problems, as do several advocacy groups). A “conditional provisional ballot” is one that is collected at a polling station but, because of insufficient identification, is not deemed valid until a voter has returned to her/his county elections office with proper documentation; Arizona voters have one week to complete this step (Wednesday, Nov. 14 because of Veterans Day). If we consider the problems with the identification laws in the first place, as well as the challenges many voters face in getting to the polls, and then the added burden of yet another venture out to a county office, there is a serious compromising of the franchise. Even if the state canvassing for official election results scheduled for Dec. 3 shows Arpaio to be the winner, questions about the fairness of the election may be outstanding.
Questions about Arpaio’s fitness for the position most certainly will be. I hope those who insist “Joe’s got to go” don’t let up. They may be bolstered by a possible spike in national attention as a federal investigation into Arpaio’s racial profiling tactics continues, as do several lawsuits regarding mistreatment of inmates in jails. The ACLU keeps tabs on him and he has garnered the condemnation of human rights organizations as well. I had some firsthand encounters with how the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America” operates when I worked for a non-profit in Phoenix and taught pre-release job preparation classes in “Tent City,” one of the county jails; so called because it “houses” inmates in what are basically large tents – outdoors, all year round, in the scorching heat and cold desert nights. Inmates are made to wear striped uniforms and pink underwear, an Arpaio trademark, the indignity of which he seeks to compound through his use of male, female, and juvenile chain gangs. I had the pleasure experience of hearing him speak at a dinner once, too; I won’t say I wish I hadn’t gone, only because what I really wish is that I had made a scene and walked out.
But, somehow people keep electing him. “Tough on crime” has a tried and true legacy in the wealthy suburbs and “tough on illegal immigration” plays well in a border state. Oh, and some cash to go with that fear-mongering caché doesn’t hurt; Arpaio’s $7 million dollar campaign received donations from across the country.
So, while it may be for just a sliver of hope that Arizonans have had enough of his disgraceful behavior, I will be keeping a close watch on how this unfinished election unfolds in the next week. As citizens and non-citizens, as voters and persons, as subjects endowed with civil and human rights, the people of Maricopa County deserve better than Joe Arpaio.