U.S. Justice Department in civil rights probe of Arizona election

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DOJ stepping in asking about AZ voting nightmare

PHOENIX, April 4 (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Justice has launched an investigation into the handling of last month's presidential nominating contest in Arizona's most populous county, citing complaints of exceedingly long lines at polling places with high levels of minority voters.

The Justice Department's civil rights division has asked Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, to provide detailed information that could help authorities determine whether the March 22 primary election violated federal law, including how the number and locations of polls were decided.

The Justice Department made the request in a letter dated April 1.

SEE ALSO: Hillary Clinton takes Arizona primary, NBC News projects

The letter followed a call for a federal probe by Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, a Democrat, immediately after the election, calling the vote "a fiasco" as he cited "unacceptably disparate distribution of polling locations."

In what officials called a cost-cutting move, Maricopa County slashed its polling sites to 60, down from 200 in 2012. Voters last month waited in line for up to five hours to cast ballots and well into the night at the sharply reduced number of polls.

In its letter, the Justice Department cites reports of "a disproportional burden in waiting times ... in some areas with substantial racial or language minority populations."

See more from the Arizona primaries:

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U.S. Justice Department in civil rights probe of Arizona election
Voters wait in line to cast their ballot in Arizona's presidential primary election, Tuesday, March 22, 2016, in Gilbert, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Voters wait in line to cast their ballot in Arizona's presidential primary election, Tuesday, March 22, 2016, in Gilbert, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Voters wait in line at dawn to cast their ballot in Arizona's presidential primary election, Tuesday, March 22, 2016, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)
PROVO, UT - MARCH 22: A Ted Cruz sign sits on a table as voters line up to attend the Utah Republican caucuses at Wasatch Elementary on March 22, 2016 in Provo, Utah. The Republicans have 40 delegates and Democrats 37 delegates at stake in Utah. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
PROVO, UT - MARCH 22: Voters sign in for the Utah Republican caucuses at Wasatch Elementary on March 22, 2016 in Provo, Utah. The Republicans have 40 delegates and Democrats 37 delegates at stake in Utah. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
PROVO, UT - MARCH 22: Voters line up to attend the Utah Republican caucuses at Wasatch Elementary on March 22, 2016 in Provo, Utah. The Republicans have 40 delegates and Democrats 37 delegates at stake in Utah. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
PROVO, UT - MARCH 22: Voters look for their district on a map for the Utah Republican caucuses at Wasatch Elementary on March 22, 2016 in Provo, Utah. The Republicans have 40 delegates and Democrats 37 delegates at stake in Utah. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
PROVO, UT - MARCH 22: Voters sign up to attend the Utah Republican caucuses at Wasatch Elementary on March 22, 2016 in Provo, Utah. The Republicans have 40 delegates and Democrats 37 delegates at stake in Utah. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
PROVO, UT - MARCH 22: A voter looks on-line to see where to report for the Utah Republican caucuses at Wasatch Elementary on March 22, 2016 in Provo, Utah. The Republicans have 40 delegates and Democrats 37 delegates at stake in Utah. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
PROVO, UT - MARCH 22: A record number of voters from precinct 36 attend the Utah Republican caucuses at Wasatch Elementary on March 22, 2016 in Provo, Utah. The Republicans have 40 delegates and Democrats 37 delegates at stake in Utah. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
PROVO, UT - MARCH 22: Vern (L) and Rhonda Sanford prepare to print out a same day ballot to vote before the Utah caucuses tonight at 7pm on March 22, 2016 in Provo, Utah. The Sanfords both voted for Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
People wait in a line to vote at a Democratic caucus site at Emerson Elementary school Tuesday, March 22, 2016, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/John Locher)
A woman looks at her ballot before voting in a high school classroom at a Republican caucus site Tuesday, March 22, 2016, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/John Locher)
People vote for their presidential candidate by raising their hand in a classroom at a Republican caucus site Tuesday, March 22, 2016, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/John Locher)
A man in a Bernie Sanders shirt waits in a line to vote at a Democratic caucus site Tuesday, March 22, 2016, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/John Locher)
People wait in a line to vote at a Democratic caucus site Tuesday, March 22, 2016, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/John Locher)
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The Justice Department set an April 22 deadline for a response.

Following the election, officials said their decisions on polling places were based on recent voting patterns and an increasing number of mail-in ballots.

Karen Osborne, county elections director, denied there was any intent to rob voters of their rights and said officials would comply with the Justice Department request.

"This is a request for information," Osborne said in a brief interview on Monday with Reuters. "We are going to gather the information, and we will get it together by the 22nd, and we will make it public."

The state formally certified the election on Monday and candidates have five days to contest the results. In the Republican contest, Donald Trump won, while in the Democratic contest, Hillary Clinton won. An attorney for Democrat Bernie Sanders has said his campaign is considering a challenge.

(Reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix; Editing by Curtis Skinner and Leslie Adler)

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