Civil rights groups say state violates federal voter laws

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.”

Discontent with vote bringing slew of election bills

Arizona elections officials continue to count ballots inside the Maricopa County Recorder's Office, Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Arizona elections officials continue to count ballots inside the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office, Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

As a significant portion of Arizona Republicans continue fighting to overturn the results of the last election, some GOP lawmakers have pivoted to crafting legislation to change how future elections are conducted.

Only a handful of election-related bills have been introduced so far, but dozens more are in the works. In many cases, they’re repeats of failed legislation from previous years, but some bills will reflect specific issues – from voting instructions to how to audit ballots – that arose after the 2020 election.

Voting rights advocates are prepared for a deluge of election-related bills, said Alex Gulotta, Arizona director of the national nonprofit organization All Voting is Local.

“I anticipate there will be a significant volume of voting-related things, some of which may be positive things that could get bipartisan support and some of which will be unfair and designed to suppress the vote,” Gulotta said. “We won’t stand for it, and neither will other people in the community.”

During a Senate hearing this week on election irregularities, Republican lawmakers sought to make the case that longtime priorities — which they describe as promoting election security and voting rights advocates decry as voter suppression — were needed to restore faith in the electoral system.

Outgoing Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, said during the meeting that he hopes to see a return of previously unsuccessful legislation like a 2019 bill that would have removed voters from the Permanent Early Voting List, or PEVL, if they skipped two primary and general elections in a row.

Eddie Farnsworth
Eddie Farnsworth

“I would certainly encourage that some of the things that we’ve looked at in the past that were unsuccessful be revisited to try to clean up those rolls,” Farnsworth said. “I think that’s really important.”

Both Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, the Scottsdale Republican who sponsored the 2019 bill, and Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, plan to introduce legislation to prune the PEVL.

Voters can now remain on the list until they request removal, cancel their voter registration or election materials are returned as undeliverable. This can result in ballots being sent to voters who have moved or died, but it’s already illegal for the new occupants of those voters’ former homes to use their ballots.

“We would be looking into making sure that all of those who have mailed ballots are actually people who live in those addresses and have a pulse,” said Kavanagh, who will chair the House’s Government and Elections Committee next year. “I think that’s where a little bit of partisan politics comes in, striking the balance between voter access and ballot security.”

Pinny Sheoran, new advocacy chair for the League of Women Voters of Arizona, said her group will closely monitor any attempts to remove voters from the PEVL or close polling locations.

“We are going to be watching very carefully for any attempts to make it harder for people to vote, including any efforts to curtail access to the permanent early voting list or the ability of people to drop their ballots,” she said. “We’ll also be watching very carefully and speak out on any attempts to create new barriers for people that are legitimate eligible voters who want to vote.”

Some of the election law changes favored by voter advocates, like automatic voter registration, are unlikely to pass or even be heard in the Republican-controlled Legislature. But GOP lawmakers and voting rights advocates see some areas for bipartisan work.

John Kavanagh
John Kavanagh

Kavanagh said he expects Democrats could sign on to legislation he’s crafting to ensure voters retain privacy in polling places and understand how tabulating machines work. Multiple post-election lawsuits featured stories from a handful of Maricopa County voters who didn’t understand the green and red buttons on the machines into which they fed their ballots.

Gulotta agreed. “I don’t know how many people were confused, but even if it’s only a small number of people, if a sign by the machine fixes something, I think things like that are possible,” he said. “We should talk about that.”

For his part, Gulotta said he’d like to see the Legislature analyze what resources it can provide to help counties finish the counting of votes faster. In both 2018 and 2020, it took well over a week to call some close races.

Other legislation will deal with the post-election audits that are meant to confirm faith in election results. Despite a court ruling that Maricopa County was correct to perform its statutory hand count audit based on 2% of its vote centers, instead of dividing its ballots by precinct, some lawmakers still believe the county erred because state statute only refers to precincts. The election procedures manual, a document created by the secretary of state and approved by the governor and attorney general and that carries the force of law, laid out guidelines for audits in counties that used vote centers instead of precinct-based polling places.

Kavanagh and several other lawmakers said they would back legislation that would codify those standards in state statute — or clarify that counties must divide ballots into their precincts of origin before auditing. Another measure, introduced by Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, would increase the audit percentage from 2% to 5%, and allow the attorney general, secretary of state or Legislative Council to require a county to hand-count an even higher portion of ballots.

Mesnard’s bill also would allow anyone to ask for a full recount — provided the person pays for it. Arizona now only has recounts in extraordinarily close races: in a presidential race, the state’s recount laws only get triggered if the difference between candidates is less than 200 votes, or 1/10 of 1 percent of the votes cast, whichever number is smaller. In legislative races, the recount threshold shrinks to either 50 votes or 1/10 of 1 percent.

Mesnard said the bill could help build voter confidence in future elections.

“We need to bend over backwards, even if it costs a little bit of extra money and takes a little extra effort, to remove as much distrust as possible,” he said.

Legislators must make ERA priority in next session


“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” This powerful idea was conceived in 1923 by American suffragist Alice Paul. In 1776, we declared that all men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It was Alice Paul’s vision that the women of America should be guaranteed those same freedoms and rights.

Michelle Dorsey
Michelle Dorsey

After 49 years and tireless advocacy, Alice Paul’s Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) finally gained passage in Congress in 1972 with the support of President Richard Nixon. But only 35 of the needed 38 states achieved ratification within the required time frame. The ERA has recently seen new life, with Nevada becoming the 36th state to ratify in 2017 and Illinois following suit this past week. When 38 states finally achieve ratification, legal analysis shows a case can be made to enact the ERA.

The ERA is as relevant to American women today as it was nearly 100 years ago. The ERA guarantees equality for women under the law and protects women from gender discrimination. The ERA will establish a legal precedent for equal pay for equal work, equal access to education and health care, and allow us to legally contest economic inequality, pregnancy discrimination, and violence against women.

Join the League of Women Voters of Arizona in advocating for Arizona to become the final state to ratify the ERA. This year marks the second consecutive year that an ERA bill failed to see a vote in the state Legislature. We must convince our state legislators to prioritize the ERA in the next legislative session. Arizona can play an instrumental role in achieving constitutionally guaranteed equality for all women in the United States. Equal means equal.

Michelle Dorsey, MD, is vice president, League of Women Voters of Arizona


The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.