Our Turn: Arizona’s perfect storm of voter suppression

Politicians at every level are taking a death-by-a-million-cuts approach to voting in Arizona

Published in the Arizona Republic on March 29. The entire article can be viewed here

On Monday, the Arizona House Elections Committee held a 3-hour-long hearing on the Arizona primary-election fiasco. Testimony was heard from Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell, Secretary of State Michele Reagan and a number of citizens enraged about the election. A majority of those who testified blamed Helen Purcell as the sole person responsible for the problems on Election Day, but these issues go deeper and farther than a single person.

House Elections Committee Chairwoman Michelle Ugenti-Rita was cheered when she questioned Purcell. But Ugenti-Rita is no voting-rights hero. She, along with her colleagues in the Legislature, has sponsored and voted yes on many voter-suppression bills.

We’ve been suppressed before

Legislation like House Bill 2305, which made it easier to remove voters from the permanent early-voter list, and criminalized the act of picking up someone’s early ballot and taking it to the polls, among other voter-suppression tactics. Another bill is HB 2023, which makes it a Class 6 felony to pick up a voter’s ballot and turn it in with their permission. Gov. Doug Ducey signed the bill into law moments after it passed. The anger at the hearing room was only a sample of frustration felt by voters across Arizona at how legislators and elected officials have handled the election-day debacle.

During the March 22 election, Arizona voters left the polls in disgust after waiting up to 5 hours in line. Election officials in Maricopa County, the largest in the state, reduced the number of polling places by 70 percent from 2012 to 2016, from 200 to just 60 polling places — one polling place per every 21,000 voters.

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Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Gallardo said the county provided $4.3 million to Purcell’s office but was never told that would not be enough money to effectively carry out the election. “They talk a lot about education, but they haven’t spent a nickel when it comes to educating voters … when it comes to informing the voters, the state has dropped the ball.The Legislature and Governor Ducey have to take responsibility too,” said Gallardo. Election officials said they reduced the number of polling sites to save money, an ill-conceived decision that disenfranchised thousands of voters.

Previously, Maricopa County would have needed to receive federal approval for reducing the number of polling sites, because Arizona was one of 16 states with a history of discrimination and required to submit any changes to voting processes under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. In 2013, however, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, and with it, the stipulation that Arizona must undergo federal oversight on election decisions.

Purcell, who is in charge of selecting polling precincts in the county, said this about the long wait times on election day: “Well, the voters are to blame for getting in line, maybe us for not having enough polling places, or as many as we usually have.”

Lawmakers – not voters – are the problem

Blaming voters for long lines at the polls is inexcusable. These problems, rather, are the result of lawmakers’ decisions over the years. For every voter who stayed in line to vote, how many more couldn’t and their voice went unheard? State Sen. Martin Quezada said his legislative district (29) had only one polling location open and voters were waiting for hours. “Having only one poll in all of Maryvale was a massive failure to the people of my community,” he said, “and as a result we’ve done all voters in Arizona a disservice by casting doubt on the government’s ability to conduct a fair and accessible election.”

The Legislature, Board of Supervisors, county recorder, and governor all share responsibility for the debacle. They’re part of an overall movement to limit the number of people voting, allowing politicians to pick their own voters and take away power from the people. Politicians at every level are implementing a death-by-a-million-cuts approach by passing legislation and policy that limit people’s right to vote. The result is the perfect storm of voter suppression we saw on March 22. We hope that by November, the Legislature will take action to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

Josselyn Berry is interim executive director of Progress Now, a nonpartisan communication and advocacy organization working on progressive issues and public policy. Email her at josselyn.berry@arizonawins.org; follow her on Twitter, @ProgressNowAZ.