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Arizona voting rights advocates see little change, but hope for future


Some voters waited in line for hours in last year’s presidential preference election. (Photo by AP).

Arizona may have made headlines in 2016 when voters waited up to five hours just to cast a ballot in the presidential preference election, but voting rights advocates said these kinds of problems are nothing new.

“Since we’ve been addressing it since 2012, there has been little to no action in actually fixing anything,” said Viri Hernandez, director at the Arizona Center for Neighborhood Leadership.

Hernandez pointed to two examples of what she sees as systemic problems: a mix-up of ballot due dates on Spanish-language documents in 2012, and then-Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell’s comments last year, when she initially seemed to blame voters turning out for polling lines being so long during the presidential preference election.

Hernandez was in Washington, D.C. this week with voting rights advocates from around the nation to take part in the America Votes State Summit, where voting advocates and liberal groups planned strategy to reverse the “shocking” 2016 election results.

The sessions were largely closed to the press, but Arizona advocates had plenty to say afterwards.

Sarah Michelsen, executive director at voter advocacy group Arizona Wins, said the government puts too many hurdles along the path to the ballot box, discouraging voters from fulfilling their civic duty.

“We really shouldn’t be putting up all these roadblocks and having a system that’s not modern enough to accommodate what we need in these times,” she said.

She pointed to systems in Oregon, California, Canada and many European countries that use automatic voter registration to expedite and ease the voting process.

“We have your data. We don’t need to collect your driver’s license and name and address time and time again, (including) every time you move,” Michelsen said. “That burden should really be on the state, when we already have your information, to just update your voter registration. This shouldn’t be hard.”

She said recent attempts by the state to fix voting issues have fallen short because the changes did not focus on “what people actually need. They centered it around cutting costs, which was the wrong method.”

Tomas Robles, co-executive director of Living United for Change in Arizona, said that rather than trying to ease the process, state lawmakers are trying to quiet the voices of voters through legislation like HB2404.

The 14-page bill would impose strict new requirements on groups that pay people to collect signatures on petitions for statewide ballot initiatives. It would require background checks for the collectors, training classes, registration and a registration fee for each collector, a bond of up to $50,000 and a statement that the organizers would be liable for any violations committed by the collectors, among other changes.

But supporters of the bill, like Tempe Chamber of Commerce President Anne Gill, said it is designed to protect Arizona voters, not muzzle them.

“It requires anyone who is paid to collect signatures for a statewide initiative to provide certain information to the secretary of state before they can gather signatures,” Gill said. “We believe it strengthens the integrity, accountability and transparency of the initiative process.”

Robles said Arizona residents need to get involved in local elections, both by voting and by holding their state legislators accountable.

“Give them (state legislators) a call. Let them know that suppressing voter rights is wrong and changing the Constitution of Arizona is wrong,” Robles said. “We have to let them know that, if they’re going to try to actively suppress our vote, we need to get them out of office.”

Despite the challenges, advocates say they do see some hope on the horizon, pointing, in particular, to current Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes, who ousted Purcell in November’s general election. She had held the office for almost three decades.

Fontes said he will reach out to minority communities that have been overlooked in the past to get them more involved in the voting process for all elections, not just the marquee ones.

That will help people from those communities feel “more empowered and encourage them to get out and vote,” he said, adding that he intends to take that message of participation to all groups in the county.

Hernandez said there is still work to be done, but that having a new recorder is a step in the right direction.

“I think that now, for the first time, there is an opportunity to make sure that everyone’s rights are supported and are maintained and that people have the right to vote without any issues,” she said.


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