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Bennett says Horne should’ve consulted on Voting Rights Act lawsuit

(From left) Secretary of State Ken Bennett and Attorney General Tom Horne (Photos by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett says Attorney General Tom Horne should have consulted with him before filing a lawsuit against the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act.

Bennett, who is widely anticipated to face Horne in the 2014 Republican primary in the governor’s race, said he agrees with the attorney general that Arizona should not be required to seek approval from the U.S. Department of Justice for any changes to election laws or procedures.

But as the state’s top elections official, and with the once-per-decade redistricting process underway, Bennett said Horne should have gotten more input before filing the lawsuit.

“A few more minds thinking through when and how we try to get out from under this might have been of some value,” Bennett said this week. “I haven’t had any conversations with Mr. Horne or his office, and so it would’ve been nice to have had those. We may have come to the same conclusion that they did, or we may not have.”

Bennett said he did not know how the lawsuit might affect the redistricting process, which will likely be finished well before Horne’s lawsuit reaches a conclusion.

In 2009 and 2010, the Secretary of State’s Office discussed the possibility of challenging the preclearance requirement, Bennett said, but ultimately decided that the best strategy would be to encourage and assist local jurisdictions in getting exemptions, known as bailouts, from Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

In 2007, the Goldwater Institute urged Gov. Jan Brewer, then secretary of state, to challenge preclearance in court as well. She opted against a lawsuit, but urged individual jurisdictions to seek bailouts in a policy agenda she released in January.

In order to be eligible for a bailout, a jurisdiction must go at least 10 years without any preclearance rejections or other Voting Rights Act infractions. Gila and Yavapai counties are currently seeking bailouts, and Yuma County may seek an exemption as well.

But the state as a whole may not be eligible until 2020 because DOJ sent federal observers to monitor elections in Apache and Navajo counties last year, according to a consultant working with the three counties.

Bennett said he supports Horne’s lawsuit in general and believes that Arizona no longer has the kinds of voter discrimination problems that led Congress to include the state on the preclearance list in 1975, though he said he had read the lawsuit and couldn’t say whether he felt the law was unconstitutional.

“At one time, it was probably an important step that somebody was watching states that had proven in the decades prior to that that they had a habit of violating some groups of voters’ rights. But I think those days are long, long gone in Arizona,” Bennett said.

Horne spokeswoman Amy Rezzonico had only a short response to Bennett’s complaint: “The Attorney General didn’t sue on his behalf. (He) sued in name of the state,” she said via email.

Horne’s Aug. 25 announcement that he was suing the Department of Justice caught most state officials and political observers by surprise. Several Republicans privately said Horne timed his lawsuit poorly by filing it during the redistricting process.

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