Arizona and the feds clash – again – this time over voter registration


The state is suing the Department of Justice over Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires federal government permission to make any changes to state and local elections in certain states, including Arizona

By Jack Fitzpatrick and Khara Persad

News21/Cronkite News

Arizona, already at odds with the federal government and civil-rights groups over immigration, is adding voter ID and the Voting Rights Act to the disputes.

Arizona’s voter ID law, a portion of Proposition 200, was partially struck down in April by a federal appeals court that said the state can’t require proof of citizenship for people who use a federal form to register to vote.

But the court said Arizona can continue to require proof of citizenship for those who register using a state form and the state can still require voters to show ID at the polls.

Federal voter registration forms, which must be accepted in all 50 states, were created as part of a 1993 federal law meant to make voter registration easier.

The federal motor voter law – so named because it allows registration upon renewing or applying for a driver’s license – does not require applicants to prove citizenship. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that states can require proof of citizenship for their own registration forms, but not for federal forms.

Arizona is appealing the court ruling against its restrictive voter ID law, and the state plans to sue over the section of the Voting Rights Act that requires federal permission for any changes to state and local elections.

Arizona has asked the Supreme Court to allow the state to require citizenship proof on federal registration forms.

Yvette Saenz, 19, a Mi Familia Vota volunteer, registers Guadalupe and Manuel Mercado for the permanent early voter list as their grandson, Alex Mercado, watches. Saenz also registered two other family members in the house.

Don’t ask, don’t tell

Even though voters can choose between the state and federal forms – and avoid the proof-of-citizenship requirement by doing so – Arizona elections officials still can tell voters they must prove their citizenship, as long as they don’t mention the federal forms.

The Arizona Secretary of State‘s Office website still directs voters to prove citizenship, but does not notify voters they can register federal by using forms.

Tammy Patrick, a federal compliance officer at the Maricopa County Recorder‘s Office, said if a voter tries to register without proof of citizenship, an election officer is not obligated to inform them of the federal form option. However, if a voter asks specifically for that form, the officer is required to provide it.

“Any single voter that comes in that says, ‘I want to register to vote but I want to use a federal form,’ … will get a federal form, no questions asked,” Patrick said.

The website advises, “If this is your first time registering to vote in Arizona or you have moved to another county in Arizona, your voter registration form must also include proof of citizenship or the form will be rejected.”

Communications Director Matthew Roberts said he did not believe the secretary of state’s website misleads voters by saying they must prove citizenship, because the website only addressed state registration forms, which still require proof.

Roberts also said he did not believe it was misleading for the website to only mention state registration forms. He said the court ruling was made recently and that the website’s instructions were written when the law was passed in 2004. He said he did not know if the office would change the website.

“I don’t see how people would be confused as to how to register,” Roberts said. “It’s relatively simple. I think there’s more awareness of the state form simply because … various groups all use the state form.”

‘Solution in search of a problem’

Arizona’s voter-ID law is one of 30 in effect across the country. All were passed by Republican legislatures except Democratic Rhode Island.

Supporters of ID laws say they prevent voter fraud, but civil-rights organizations say they disproportionately affect minority, poor, young and elderly voters who are likely to support Democrats.

Alessandra Soler, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Arizona, said the state’s voter-ID law is the latest legislative effort to suppress minority turnout.

“It is an additional barrier to keep eligible voters away from the polls,” Soler said. “It is a solution in search of a problem.”

Soler said minorities, including Latinos and Native Americans, often do not have a driver’s license, which can be used as ID for voting, and cannot afford to get one.

Former state Senate President Russell Pearce, who wrote the law, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

Arizona also is in the national debate over voting rights. Democrats say the increasing Latino population could put the state within reach for President Barack Obama in November, and that Arizona’s voter ID and immigration laws motivate Latinos to vote.

“We have all the ingredients to make Arizona in play for Obama,” said Luis Heredia, executive director of the state Democratic Party. “We have a sizeable amount of independent voters and an even more engaged Latino population.”

Fighting federal ‘micromanagement’

The state is suing the Department of Justice over Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires federal government permission to make any changes to state and local elections in certain states, including Arizona.

This preclearance gives the Justice Department the authority to block even minor changes, such as relocating a polling place.


Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said preclearance is an unnecessary burden on election officials.

“The federal government has no business trying to micromanage what we do,” he said.

Horne opposes the preclearance requirement on the grounds that it should not have been applied to Arizona in the first place, and that there is no discrimination that warrants the requirement today.

“It’s totally unjustified,” Horne said. “I don’t think anybody is trying to prevent anyone else from voting in 2012. They probably did in 1950 in the South, but in Arizona in 2012 no one is trying to prevent anyone else from voting.”

Horne filed the lawsuit earlier this year, dropped it in April because of scheduling conflicts, but he said he plans to refile.

James Garcia, chairman of the Phoenix-based nonprofit advocacy organization Arizona Latino Research Enterprise, cites the state’s voter ID law as proof that the state should not be let out from under the preclearance requirement.

“We are still at a place where the state of Arizona’s institutions need to show and provide evidence that they are willing to treat people fairly and respect their voting rights,” Garcia said.

Clint Bolick, vice president of litigation for the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based conservative advocacy group, disagrees. Bolick, who is working with Horne on the lawsuit, said federal oversight of the state’s elections was an excessive use of authority.

“(It is) outrageous that states remain supplicant to the federal government in terms of basic governmental decisions,” Bolick said.

A ‘critical tool’ in protecting voting rights

The Supreme Court struck down most of the state’s controversial immigration law in June, the Justice Department is suing Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio over allegations of racial profiling, and a recent state law forced a Tucson school district to end its Mexican-American studies program in January.

Nine states and 66 counties in seven other states are required to seek federal permission on election changes and to prevent discrimination.

Other states that have argued against the preclearance requirement in the last three years include Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said publicly that the provision “continues to be a critical tool in the protection of voting rights.”

Justice Department Press Assistant Mitchell Rivard said no department officials would comment on the lawsuit.

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August 2012