When the U.S. Department of Justice asked Arizona elections director Lisa Daniel for a progress report on a new law designed to get low-income citizens to vote, Daniel did what Arizona Republicans love to do.
She told the feds to get lost.
It's true that the Department of Justice has no legal authority to monitor the National Voter Registration Act, which became law in 1993 and took effect in 1995. The act requires states to offer voter registration at military recruitment posts, motor vehicle departments and welfare agencies. And Daniel is not responsible for producing results until March 1997, when she must present them to the Federal Elections Commission.
But Patrick Deval, U.S. assistant attorney general for civil rights, had good reason to wonder whether Arizona public-assistance agencies and election officials are ignoring the act, which--among other things--requires that people be asked to register to vote when applying for food stamps, Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC).
A report published in December by two Washington, D.C., public interest groups alleges that fewer than 2 percent of food-stamp applicants in Arizona chose to register to vote. (The report analyzed only registrations by food-stamp applicants.)
That figure ranks Arizona dead last among 35 states that have implemented the voter registration law, according to the joint report by Project Vote and Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.
In contrast, more than 30 percent of the food-stamp applicants in Missouri and Indiana registered to vote, according to the report.
The findings make some Arizona Democrats wonder whether Republican state administrators are playing politics. After all, they say, needy people usually are Democrats.
Daniel and other Arizona officials criticize the report because it reflects food-stamp applications and voter registration in Maricopa County only. Doug Hess, who coordinated the report, says that's because those were the only numbers he and his researchers could find.
Hess insists his numbers are accurate. Fewer than half of the nation's citizens who earn $15,000 or less annually are registered to vote, he says. In contrast, about 75 percent of those making $50,000 or more are registered.
If some states can achieve voter-registration rates of 20 percent or 30 percent, "all states ought to be able to," Hess says.
Apparently, the Justice Department agrees. Deval wrote to many of the states that have implemented the program, expressing concern and asking for registration rates.
Elections director Daniel, who reports to Arizona Secretary of State Jane Hull, a Republican, also received a phone call and a letter from Lee Stein, an assistant Arizona U.S. attorney who reports to a Democrat.
Daniel wrote to Deval on March 21, saying, "At this time, we decline your request to give you an interim report on Arizona's compliance with NVRA. The language of the Act does not compel this office to help the Department of Justice monitor implementation. Reporting our results to the FEC biennially is enough of a burden on Arizona and its counties."
Daniel dismisses the results of the Project Vote/ACORN report. "I don't even know where they got their numbers," she says.
Arizona officials say it's impossible to determine exactly how many Arizona food-stamp applicants are asked if they would like to register to vote. Moises Gallegos, with the Family Assistance Administration at the state Department of Economic Security, says his office has no method of determining whether food-stamp applicants might have previously applied and been offered a chance to register to vote.
Daniel insists that there currently is no manageable method for determining how many applicants are asked to register.
However, a New Times analysis of statistics gleaned from several sources tends to support the finding of the Project Vote/ACORN study. That analysis indicates that during 1995, 137,672 people applied for food stamps in Maricopa County. But according to the county's Elections Department, only 504 of them registered to vote.
DES' Gallegos insists his workers are properly trained and instructed to offer to register people, although he concedes that some applicants are overlooked.
He says, "I wouldn't be willing to say that it's 100 percent. But I am confident that we do all that we can."
Gallegos and Daniel say the National Voter Registration Act is an unfunded mandate. DES and other agencies get no federal resources to implement the law.
Daniel says, "I don't think [federal officials] care, frankly, that the people they're asking to do this work have other things to do, really more important things to do, like helping the person learn how to brush his teeth."
Stan Furman, a former state senator, is among those who believe that politics--not a heavy workload--is preventing DES workers from registering voters. Furman, a Democrat who now works as an aide to Corporation Commissioner Marcia Weeks, recalls fighting with his Republican colleagues when Arizona was deciding whether to implement the federal law.
When Republicans declined to impose the law in the Senate, Furman brought it back. He recalls his opponents saying, "'Well, this is just a ploy to register Democrats. Who's going to be taking of social service agencies? Who's gonna be on welfare, except Democrats?'"
Furman's answer: "'Let's get them registered and then sell what you have to sell to them to have them support your position.'
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"It was clearly, clearly stated that they didn't want to do it because they thought it was going to register Democrats."
When Furman saw the Project Vote/ACORN report, he became suspicious--particularly since 1996 is an election year.
"I very strongly suspect that they didn't do what they were supposed to do all during 1995," he says.
Furman must wait until Daniel reports her findings to the Federal Elections Commission--next March.