Faith Mendoza is a 17-year-old honor student from Chandler who spent hundreds of hours through the 2012 election walking the streets, registering voters and then picking up early ballots from people who otherwise might not have voted.
As she volunteered with the Adios Arpaio campaign during the hot summer months, she was transformed from a shy teenager with a who- cares attitude toward politics into an informed, vocal advocate for causes she believes in. She has talked with more voters than some candidates do, has held meetings with some of the state’s top elections officials, and on her spring break, she testified before a legislative panel.
By most accounts, she is a model citizen. But if SB1003 passes through the Legislature in its present form and is signed by the governor, continuing her volunteer work in Arizona would make her a felon.
SB1003, sponsored by Republican Sen. Michele Reagan of Scottsdale, would make it a class 6 felony for any volunteer with any group to deliver an early ballot from a voter to elections officials.
“For them to make us felons, it hurts my feelings I guess,” Mendoza said. “I mean, who do they think is picking up these ballots? I’m picking up these ballots — someone who is an honor student, who wants to go to college and wants to do better for their community and see their community grow. It’s not a criminal out on the streets picking up these ballots, it’s a student, it’s a student in high school. It’s me.”
A new tactic
Supporters say the bill is aimed at preventing voter fraud and cutting down on political groups dropping off bundles of early ballots at the last minute, which causes vote-counting delays.
But Latino political groups, the Democratic Party and others call it an attempt to silence the voices of those who have used grassroots get- out-the-vote campaigns most effectively.
As part of a relatively new tactic to increase voter turnout, the state Democratic Party tracks who is on the Permanent Early Voting List and who has and has not turned in their ballots before Election Day. During the 2012 election, the state Democratic Party — through a coordinated campaign — picked up tens of thousands of signed and sealed early ballots from voters who might not have had time to drop them off at the polls or who were too late in filling them out to put them in the mail.
Latino political groups also picked up thousands of ballots around the state during the 2012 election cycle. The state GOP does not go door to door to pick up ballots, though smaller Republican groups do, and the state GOP does pick up people and drive them to the polls.
Another bill moving through the Legislature would undo some of the work Mendoza and others like her did in registering people for the Permanent Early Voting List.
SB1261, also sponsored by Reagan, would allow county recorders to drop from the Permanent Early Voting List anyone who didn’t use their early ballot in both the primary election and the general election for the two most recent elections for federal office, dating back to the 2010 election cycle. It would apply if the voter did not respond to a request to confirm a wish to remain on the list.
Supporters, including the Secretary of State’s Office and all of the state’s 15 county recorders, said the bill would allow county recorders to drop people from the Permanent Early Voting List who don’t want to be on it and don’t use it. They said the bill would save money on printing early ballots that are never used, and would cut down on the high number of people who didn’t realize they were on the early voting list to begin with and prefer to vote in person.
Currently, people who are on the early voting list but show up to vote at the polls must file a provisional ballot. That takes more time to count and is more likely to be thrown out.
Mendoza testified before the House Judiciary Committee against SB1261 on March 14. She said that when she registered voters, she fully explained that they were adding themselves to the Permanent Early Voting List and told them that it was permanent. Many of the voters who she registered, including herself, wanted to remain on the list even if they chose not to vote for a few years, she said.
“I get to vote this year, I got to register myself last month, and say I decide not to vote the next two (elections), if I decide I don’t even like (the candidate), why should I be taken off? It’s permanent, that’s what I want, to be on it for a long time. I want to stay informed,” she said.
But Maricopa County Elections Director Karen Osborne said a lot of people don’t realize they are on the list and are upset to find out when they go to their polling place that they will have to cast a provisional ballot. She said there are already methods in place for people to get off the Permanent Early Voting List, but the bill is necessary because people don’t use it.
Reagan said that the bill would only apply if someone missed four federal elections in a row. But attorney Dan Eckstein of Perkins Coie argues that the most reasonable interpretation of the language in the bill is that if someone misses both the primary and general elections in either 2012 or 2014, they would get a notice that they are eligible to be dropped from the PEVL.
The federal approach
Activists have been out in full force at the Capitol in recent weeks trying to beat back the bills in highly contentious meetings, but have so far been wholly unsuccessful. Many say their best chance may be challenging the legislation in court, or relying on the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene.
Activist Randy Parraz, who spearheaded the recall campaign against former Senate President Russell Pearce, handcuffed himself together with other protesters at a committee meeting. Others showed up holding signs against SB1003, only to be removed for disrupting the meeting.
Rev. Jarrett Maupin, an African American activist, testified in the House Judiciary Committee that SB1261 was written by someone coming from a background of white privilege, before Republican Rep. Eddie Farnsworth of Gilbert, the committee chair, gaveled him down and threatened to have him removed.
Both bills passed through the Senate Elections Committee and Senate floor on party line votes, and have passed the House Judiciary Committee.
The closest either of the bills came to stalling was when Republican Rep. Doris Goodale of Kingman voted against SB1003 in the House Judiciary Committee, which would have stopped the bill. But Goodale switched her vote when pressured by Farnsworth.
Both bills must first make it through the House Government Committee before heading to a debate and a vote from the full House. But after seeing Goodale switch her vote, many opponents of the bills aren’t hopeful that they can stop the bills at the Legislature.
Many say their best option is Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which requires nine states with a history of racial discrimination, including Arizona, to submit any election procedure changes to the Department of Justice for preclearance.
However, the U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing Section 5. Some of the comments and tough questions from the court’s conservative justices have led many to speculate that the section may be tossed out, or justices might significantly change the formula to determine which parts of the country should remain subject to the law.
Anjali Abraham, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, which is opposing both measures, said the bills are high on her list to watch because they put a burden on the voters. In the last election, a lot of the problems with early and provisional ballots were in minority areas.
She said she would urge to the Department of Justice to give the bills a serious look before allowing them to be enacted. But she added that the Department of Justice may not have preclearance power over Arizona by the time the bills become law. The Supreme Court is expected to make a decision by June, while the laws won’t go into effect until 90 days after the legislative session ends.
“The timeline issue is a little bit complicated,” she said. “But preclearance isn’t the only option open to the (Department of Justice) … It’s not the only way to for them to look at bad elections laws.”
Democratic Sen. Steve Gallardo of Phoenix said he has sent a lot of letters to the Department of Justice during his eight years at the Legislature, but he said the letter that he wrote them about SB1003 and SB1261 was the first one they ever responded to.
He said even if the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act gets struck down or significantly modified, he thinks he can still successfully challenge the bill in court under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act because the bills would disproportionately impact Latino voters and attack the methods they use to increase voter turnout.
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act states that no voting procedure shall be applied by any state that denies or abridges the right of any citizen to vote on account of race or color.
“I can guarantee you that if these bills become law, we are not going to let them go into effect without a legal fight,” he said.