Is Arizona purposely keeping minority voters from the polls?

Since 2013, new laws have made it harder to vote — particularly for certain groups.

 

In Arizona this November, voter turnout will be key to deciding who replaces retiring U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R. The race between Democrat Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Martha McSally is among a handful that could determine which party controls the Senate, and it’s one of the most competitive midterm contests in the country. Polls show McSally less than a point ahead of Sinema.

That means that every vote matters. But with new laws on the books that restrict access to the ballot, the question is whether every vote will be counted. 

Arizona has a long history of voter suppression, and a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision could free it to regress to old tactics. In 1965, when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, Arizona was one of 16 states singled out for its egregious attempts to disenfranchise minority voters. Arizona required voters to pass an English language literacy test, for instance, in an attempt to make voting harder for Spanish-speakers and Indigenous communities. That’s why the Voting Rights Act required Arizona and other offenders to get the federal government’s permission before enacting laws that would affect elections or voting rights. According to the Review of Law and Social Justice, the elimination of literacy tests after the Voting Rights Act had a “remarkable impact on minority registration.” But then, in 2013, the Supreme Court overturned a portion of the law in Shelby County v. Holder, ending strict federal oversight and allowing states like Arizona to again pass laws that some say make it harder for certain groups to vote.  

Mi Familia Vota has collected ballots to increase minority participation in elections. Here, a volunteer helps to register young voters.
Courtesy Mi Familia Vota

One such Arizona law prevents anyone who is not a relative, caregiver or household member from turning in someone else’s ballot, a practice that became known as “ballot harvesting.” The law was passed in 2016 by the state’s Republican Legislature, which claimed it was necessary to prevent voter fraud, despite the fact that there is no proof this has been an issue in past elections. Alex Gulotta, Arizona state director of the voting rights organization All Voting is Local, dubs it the “you can’t help your elderly neighbor cast her ballot” law. Anyone found knowingly handling a ballot that’s not their own faces a felony charge, up to a year in prison and a possible $150,000 fine. Gulotta says this is leading to “massive voter suppression” for minority and rural communities.

For years, groups like Mi Familia Vota and the Arizona Center of Empowerment (ACE) collected ballots to help turn out Latino voters in Arizona. The groups also helped people register to vote, drove them to the polls, and reminded them about important dates — a move that was especially important in 2012, when Maricopa County distributed Spanish-language election materials with the wrong election date. Their get-out-the-vote efforts made it easier for Latino communities and people who work long hours or multiple jobs to participate in elections. Over the years, the outreach was becoming more successful, and the groups had built a base of dedicated volunteers.

“When the ballot harvesting bill happened, it was really devastating for our organizers,” said Alejandra Gomez, co-executive director of ACE. “It sent a message that people who are out there doing what they can to get the vote out … are criminals.” Native voters are also disproportionately affected by the law. Many live on reservations where the distance to polling places is significant and rural mail service can be unreliable, making ballot collection an attractive option, said Gulotta.

Rivko Knox, an 80-year-old activist who used to collect ballots during election season, is currently challenging the ban. Her court case, which was heard by the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Oct. 3, argued that federal law permits citizens to handle other people’s mail as long as they are not compensated for it. It came on the heels of another lawsuit challenging the same law on different grounds. In that case, the 9th Circuit upheld the Arizona law, saying there wasn’t substantial evidence that it specifically impacted minority voters. One judge dissented, however, arguing that the ban’s only purpose is to keep “more African American, Hispanic and Native voters from the polls than white voters.”

Other changes have also drawn scrutiny. Arizona is the only state in the country that requires proof of citizenship in order to register to vote. Since the Shelby decision, Arizona also has closed more polling places than any other state, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a bipartisan federal agency that oversees civil rights policy. In Maricopa County, which is 31 percent Latino, the number of polling places dropped from 200 in 2012 to 60 for the 2016 primaries. The county was sued, and agreed to reopen the normal amount of polls for the presidential elections. At the time, the Arizona Republic reported that minority and low-income areas were hurt most by the closures.

More recently, the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups filed a federal lawsuit against Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan for failing to abide by the National Voter Registration Act — and won. The case argued that the Arizona Department of Transportation must update voter registrations automatically when people file a change of address. An estimated 384,000 residents could be impacted by the state’s failure to update registrations this November, with early ballots sent to the wrong address, or because they received outdated or incorrect information about where they need to vote.

These measures, taken individually, might not have a dramatic impact. Cumulatively, though, they could result in significant voter suppression, said Gulotta. “That is really where the danger is.”

Note: This article has been updated to clarify that Maricopa County closed polls for the 2016 primaries, but were sued and reopened them in time for the elections.

Jessica Kutz is an editorial fellow for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.  

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