It looks like we touched a nerve.
Recently the Arizona Advocacy Foundation led a coalition of non-partisan groups to produce an in-depth study of our state’s most recent election in the wake of the United States Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act.
The Arizona Shelby Response Project — named for the court case Shelby v. Holder — reached some startling conclusions about whose vote counts in Arizona elections and whose does not. The product of a months-long breakdown of voter data as well as hundreds of in-person interviews with voters at the polls, the comprehensive study showed that thousands of eligible registered Arizona voters had their votes discarded in the last elections. Tens of thousands more have been disenfranchised in previous elections.
There were enough discarded ballots to potentially sway several close races. Caught by a variety of traps set through Arizona’s increasingly antiquated voting laws, the populations impacted shared a disturbing commonality. Young and minority voters — particularly Latino voters — were vastly over-represented among the invalidated votes.
Secretary of State Michele Reagan responded to the report in a defensive and hostile manner. Rather than seizing the opportunity to start a new dialogue to modernize Arizona elections for voters, Reagan instead published an op-ed last week taking issue with the report. Her piece included personal attacks on the report’s lead researcher and on my organization, ProgressNow Arizona, because I served as the report’s editor.
Her accusation that the Shelby Response data was “cherry picked” is ridiculous. We urge the public to read the report for themselves here and urge the media to follow our heavily footnoted footsteps to see what conclusions they reach. The only place where our data came up incomplete is when some election officials — including Reagan — stonewalled us. Those instances are noted in the report and we encourage the press to continue seeking answers.
But we must voice serious concern with Reagan’s when she says: “It is time to dispel the narrative that if a ballot ‘isn’t counted’ it is a bad thing.” This is an astounding statement from any state’s chief elections officer, but particularly one who was elected amid the lowest voter turnout since World War II (when half our country’s fighting-age men were overseas and unable to cast ballots).
Reagan further brags that “since 2006, Arizona has invalidated an average of less than 1.8 percent of the total ballots cast in each election.” Reagan seems to consider this percentage a GOOD thing.
We disagree. We do not think it is OK to reject tens of thousands of ballots from eligible voters on arguably unnecessary technicalities. Particularly after Reagan’s elections director testified at the Legislature that he could not point to a single credible case of voter fraud, which means these rejected votes are coming from eligible citizens. Unlike Reagan, we strive to do better.
Our report does not argue for degrading election integrity. In fact, it makes numerous suggestions to improve it.
The only voting “reforms” that Reagan has backed amount to more roadblocks that will prevent thousands more eligible voters from casting ballots. Reagan backed the notorious House Bill 2305 in 2013, which would have made criminals out of volunteers assisting voters turning in early ballots. After our coalition put that bill to a voter referendum, Reagan changed her tune and voted to repeal it. Then, like a weather-vane, she changed directions again this year and backed Senate Bill 1339, another attempt to criminalize civic engagement volunteers that died on the last night of the session with bipartisan opposition.
Although she has shown disturbing anti-voter tendencies with her legislative agenda, the bottom line is Secretary Reagan didn’t single-handedly cause the systemic problems that she now so vociferously defends.
But she does now sit atop a voting system that our report shows creates traps to catch and disenfranchise thousands of eligible registered voters. This fact clearly does not bother her.
Rather than being so defensive, Reagan should be motivated by one of our report’s primary — and indisputable — findings. In 2012 Arizona rejected the fifth most provisional ballots of any state in the country. Arizona rejected more provisional ballots than states with significantly larger voting populations, including Illinois, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and only slightly less than Texas.
Our simple question for Secretary Reagan is why?
Why would Arizona have rejected more provisional ballots than Florida? Does Arizona just have significantly more election-related lawbreakers? We don’t think so. States like Colorado and Oregon have already implemented some of our noted suggestions to modernize their elections with positive impacts on citizen participation and no ill-effect on integrity.
Perhaps Reagan believes that Arizona voters are not as intelligent as the voters in these other states. Again, we don’t think so. But it is beyond disturbing that Arizona’s Secretary of State is so accepting of this status quo.
Arizonans should rightfully demand from Reagan her plan to modernize Arizona elections to encourage voting, not make it harder. We call on her to modernize Arizona’s voting policies, procedures and laws for free, fair and accessible elections. The Arizona Shelby Response report provides a great start.
— Robbie Sherwood is executive director of ProgressNow Arizona.