Civil rights groups say state violates federal voter laws

Katie Campbell//November 14, 2017

Civil rights groups say state violates federal voter laws

Katie Campbell//November 14, 2017

Michele Reagan at her 2015 inauguration (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting)
Michele Reagan at her 2015 inauguration (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting)

Arizona and some state agencies are not fully complying with the National Voter Registration Act, according to several organizations now asking Secretary of State Michele Reagan to get involved.

In a letter sent to Reagan’s office Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, Washington D.C.-based public policy firm Demos and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law alleged the Arizona Department of Transportation, Department of Economic Security and the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System are out of compliance with several sections of the law. The organizations made their determinations based on an investigation that included public records, voter registration data and visits to agency offices.

The 1993 law was approved by Congress to provide people with additional opportunities to register to vote, finding that “unfair registration laws and procedures can have a direct and damaging effect on voter participation,” including that of “racial minorities.”

The laundry list of violations included failure to automatically update voters address changes, which could mean voters are no longer properly registered; failure to provide opportunities to register to vote when applying for or renewing a state-issued ID or driver license; widespread failure to provide voter registration applications through public assistance agencies; failure to ensure applicants are registered to vote after applications are completed; and failure by third-party agency partners to provide voter registration services as they, too, are required under the federal law.

The letter also indicates agencies including DES and AHCCCS have provided conflicting guidance to staff regarding voter registration questions, and language assistance at many such agencies is lacking. For example, investigators found no assistance for Native American language-speakers offered for voter registration at ADOT or DES offices in applicable counties.

And the ACLU and its partners took issue with state law rejecting voter registration applications not accompanied by “satisfactory evidence of United States citizenship,” which conflicts with federal election requirements, according to the letter.

The organizations are representing the League of Women Voters of Arizona, Mi Familia Vota and Promise Arizona, and contend that data “likely indicates systematic non-compliance and disproportionate harm to voter participation by low-income groups and people of color.”

According to state data provided to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, voter registration applications from public assistance offices decreased by nearly 60 percent over more than a decade even as food stamp applications nearly doubled in the same period.

Darrell Hill, staff attorney for the ACLU of Arizona, said this is not the first time issues like this have been raised as an attempt to bring the state into compliance with the law.

He said a similar letter was sent in 2014. He couldn’t say why or how efforts to address those concerns ended, but the Secretary of State’s Office has been involved in such talks before.

“They never fully reached compliance, and voters’ rights groups are stretched thin now,” Hill said. “But after the 2016 election, there was a want to go back to Arizona and correct what they see as some of the deficiencies in our voting process.”

Ultimately, Hill said he hopes the state will not only observe strict compliance with the NVRA but also simplify the voter registration process, following the intent of the law – “make it easier for every Arizonan, low income, high income, no matter your race or creed” to register and follow through with the voting process.

If done properly, Hill said the goal is to raise the number of Arizonans registered to vote and participating in elections.

According to a statement from Reagan spokesman Matt Roberts, the office will meet with the ACLU, the state agencies it named and election officials to review the issues.

If the office does not do so within 90 days, the ACLU “will have no alternative but to initiate litigation.”