Feds sue Arizona over rushed absentee voting

A special election was slated to take place after Rep. Trent Franks, a Republican representing Arizona’s Eighth Congressional District, announced his retirement

By Matthew Renda | Courthouse News Service

The federal government sued Arizona on Wednesday, claiming the state failed to give absentee voters enough time to consider the finalized and official ballot ahead of a Democratic special primary election.

The Justice Department’s civil rights division sued Arizona and its Secretary of State Michele Reagan, claiming when it changed the roster of candidates for a congressional special election set for Feb. 27, it needed to give absentee voters 45 days to consider the finalized ballot.

“The inability of the state to transmit the final absentee ballots to UOCAVA voters receiving a Democratic Party ballot by the 45th day before the February 27, 2018 special primary election for the House of Representatives violates the United States of America under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act” wrote John Gore, an assistant attorney general with the civil rights division of the justice department.

“UOCAVA” refers to those covered under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act who need extra time with their absentee ballots due to long-distance mailing considerations.

The lawsuit, which was filed on Wednesday but not made available to the public until Thursday, seeks a court-ordered delay of the election until all absentee voters have “sufficient opportunity in accordance with UOCAVA to receive, mark, and return their ballots in time.”

The special election was slated to take place after Rep. Trent Franks, a Republican representing Arizona’s Eighth Congressional District, announced his retirement this past December amid a sexual harassment investigation.

Reagan immediately announced a special election, scheduling the primary for Feb. 27 and the general election for April 24.

The accelerated time frame to gather the signatures necessary to qualify a candidate meant Reagan took the unusual step of distributing ballots on Jan. 12 – one day before the federally mandated deadline – with a disclaimer that the ballots might change.

Twelve Republicans, 3 Democrats and a member of the Green Party filed for candidacy, and the Republican and Green Party ballots remained unchanged.

But a supporter of one of the Democratic candidates, Hiral Tipirneni, filed a legal challenge claiming the two rivals – Brianna Westbrook and Gene Scharer – hadn’t collected enough signatures.

A judge eventually agreed that Scharer did not have the necessary signatures, making the Democratic primary ballot distributed to absentee voters on Jan. 12 incorrect, according to the Justice Department.

At that point, Arizona should have delayed the special election to accommodate the changed ballot to ensure absentee voters would not file an incorrect ballot or cast votes for a candidate who was no longer qualified, the Justice Department says.

Instead, Arizona just distributed the updated ballot without altering the deadline – something the federal government says violates election laws on absentee voting.

The Eighth Congressional District is entirely within Maricopa County, and includes Phoenix and the satellite towns in south central Arizona.

Arizona is no stranger to lawsuits involving elections, particularly when it comes to Democratic voters.

The Democratic National Committee sued Arizona in April 2016, saying voters had to wait as long as five hours outside polling places to cast their vote.

“This was a reduction in voting sites of shocking magnitude,” the Democrats said in that complaint.

The Justice Department opened an investigation into Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell’s decision to reduce polling sites from about 200 to around 60. Purcell is a Republican.

An email to the Arizona Secretary of State’s office was not returned by press time.

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February 2018