Arizona lawmakers may make it a felony for community groups or political committees to gather and submit mail ballots before elections, a strategy used by Latino activists and others to boost voter participation.
The measure moving through the Republican-controlled Legislature is among several bills that backers say will help prevent fraud and reduce the burden on election officials. Opponents say they are intended to curb Latino voting, which tends to be Democratic, as Hispanics become a larger percentage of the population while white baby-boomers age.
“These bills are targeted at groups that are turning out the Latino vote,” said Roopali Desai, a Phoenix lawyer representing Promise Arizona, which said it helped register more than 34,000 new voters and turned in thousands of ballots last year. “They are trying to take away the tools in these groups’ toolkits, like mobilizing and getting people to return their ballots -- tools that we have learned are successful.”
More than 56 percent of all Arizona voters were signed up to receive ballots by mail in November, up from about 40 percent in 2010, according to the Secretary of State’s office. The dispute comes as the U.S. Supreme Court weighs a provision of the Voting Rights Act that requires Arizona and several other states, mostly in the South, to get pre-clearance from the Justice Department before making changes in voting laws.
It echoes the fights of the past election cycle over voting access in some swing states, including Ohio and Florida, where Democrats resisted measures Republicans said were needed to combat voter fraud and ensure smooth elections.
Democratic state senators in Arizona said yesterday they were asking the U.S. Justice Department to monitor the early-ballot measure and related bills and intervene if they violate the Voting Rights Act. They said they were concerned the bill may hamper participation by Latinos, African-Americans and members of American Indian tribes.
“That’s the dirty little secret behind these bills,” Senator Steve Gallardo, a Phoenix Democrat, said after a press briefing. “You have organizations like Promise Arizona and Mi Familia Vota that have been very successful in getting minorities and low-income voters to participate -- and that is what’s behind these bills.”
Nationally, Latinos were instrumental in the re-election of President Barack Obama, who won the Hispanic vote by 71 percent, according to exit polls.
In Arizona, Latinos have been mobilized by opposition to the state’s 2010 immigration crackdown and to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, an 80-year-old Republican elected to his sixth term as he faced a federal civil rights lawsuit over his treatment of Latinos.
Work by advocacy groups and campaigns helped to increase voter participation by Hispanics to 18 percent of all voters in Arizona last year, up from 16 percent in 2008, according to an analysis of exit polls by the Pew Hispanic Center. That wasn’t enough to deliver the state for the president, defeat Arpaio or send a Democrat to the U.S. Senate.
Still the state is projected to turn from red to blue by 2025 as a disproportionately high number of young Latino citizens, who are much more likely to vote Democratic, comes of age, according to a report last year by the Morrison Institute Latino Public Policy Center at Arizona State University in Phoenix.
The sponsor of the ballot bill, Senator Michele Reagan, a Scottsdale Republican, said the legislation is about protecting the integrity of ballots rather than curtailing Hispanic participation.
Reagan, who is weighing a 2014 run for Arizona’s top election post, secretary of state, said she is concerned that there are not enough safeguards in the early ballot process, in which any registered voter can opt to vote by mail. Advocacy groups, campaigns and political parties collect these ballots and turn them in en masse, which presents a risk to the integrity of the vote, she said in an interview last week.
“I would never try to limit anyone from voting,” she said.
Desai notes that under the measure, candidates or their spouses would still be allowed to collect ballots on behalf of voters. That “is like having the hen house guarded by the wolves,” she said in an interview from her Phoenix office. “Candidates, in my view, are the most aggressive in ballot chasing.”
The ballot bill, which passed the Arizona Senate last week and is being considered by the House, allows a voter to sign an affidavit permitting someone to deliver the ballot for them, as long as that person is not collecting it at the behest of a group for which they volunteer or work.
Another measure sponsored by Reagan that advanced to the House last week would purge voters who haven’t cast a mail ballot in the previous two federal election cycles from the Permanent Early Voting List, under which voters automatically get ballots for each election. Voters would have to respond to a notice in writing in order to stay on the list.
The proposal was endorsed by a bipartisan group of election officials after many counties were overwhelmed by the number of provisional ballots cast on election day at polling places, many of them by voters who should have received a mail ballot, Reagan said. The number of provisional and early ballots received in last November’s election in Arizona delayed final results for more than a week.
According to a report by the election office in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, 59 percent of the more than 120,000 provisional ballots issued at the polls on election day were because the person was on the early voting list. The provisional ballots cost the county almost $635,000, according to the report.
Voters with Hispanic surnames were almost three times as likely to vote by mail as at the polls, the report said.
“There should not be a price tag on someone’s right to vote,” Gallardo said at the press briefing. It should be clear that voters want to continue receiving mail ballots if they signed up on the permanent list, he said.
Other bills in the legislature would shorten the period of early voting and require notarized signatures to request early ballots.
Too often election reforms have been driven by hopes of changing election outcomes, said David Becker, director of Election Initiatives for the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington.
“Ideologues on both sides have trumpeted the idea of voter fraud and voter suppression without evidence of either,” he said.