Arizona Voting Rights at Crucial Crossroads — More Violation or Reform

Senator Kyrsten Sinema
Senator Kyrsten Sinema Gage Skidmore/Flickr
A lawsuit, a march, and a pair of bills before the U.S. Senate. That could be all that stands between Arizona and sweeping voting rights legislation.

The Grand Canyon State features front and center in a broiling battle over voting rights.

Special interest groups spoke out Thursday in favor of the Freedom to Vote Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act. Arizona's senior U.S. Senator spoke in favor of the bills but refused to change filibuster rules which would have enabled the legislation to move forward. 

Arizona GOP Representative David Schweikert voted alongside every other House Republican in opposing the John R. Lewis Act. But House Democrats have faith that the bills would pass.

Together, the twin bills would ensure two weeks of early voting, automate voter registration, pre-pay postage on mail-in ballots provided to all who want them, and tighten the leash on politicians looking to gerrymander or purge eligible voters from the rolls.

But Republican senators have sustained a filibuster.

The Senate filibuster is a congressional parliamentary rule employed by at least 41 senators – a minority unified to block legislation across the aisle. For Republicans, the tool has been effective in subduing Democrats' push for voting legislation to the debate stage. But it's unlikely that the filibuster rule will be changed since there are some Democrats wary of the move. 

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden said altering Senate rules to bypass a filibuster might be necessary to pass comprehensive voting rights legislation.

Sinema has not changed her stance on the filibuster, she said Thursday morning. Some worry that refusing to enable the rule change will threaten the passage of the voting rights bills. Still, Sinema claimed that she wanted to vote in favor of the voting legislation. 

“It is through elections that Americans make their voices heard,” Sinema said in her forceful speech on the Senate floor. “These bills help treat the symptoms of the disease, but they do not fully address the disease itself – the disease of division affecting our country.”

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, intends to bring rule changes to the chamber by Martin Luther King Jr. Day to circumvent the whims of the Republican minority.

That date is symbolic.

Two days before marching for federal voting rights legislation in D.C., Martin Luther King III, the famous Civil Rights leader’s oldest son, will do the same in Phoenix alongside family members and prominent Arizona groups.

They’re fighting against what one Arizona lawsuit claims amounted to racial discrimination against black and brown Arizona voters in the 2020 General Election.

Last year, 19 states passed 34 party-line voter suppression bills into law, according to Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group Common Cause. But in Arizona, the issue is bipartisan.

A poll this week found two-thirds of Arizona voters, including at least half of Democratic, Republican, and Independent voters in Arizona support election reform.

“Confidence in our election system is continuing to decline,” said C.J. Diegel of Stand Up Republic, a right-leaning political advocacy organization.

On the slew of futile election audits and perpetual fraud conspiracies centered around the Valley, Diegel said it’s “truly embarrassing to the state of Arizona.”

It’s an issue that has been politicized, but it is also an issue of morality and faith, according to the Reverend Katie Sexton-Wood, executive director of Arizona Faith Network.

“Our freedom to vote is sacred,” she said. “Silencing our vote means silencing our voice. It means regulating how we believe we are to live out our lives.”

It was this bipartisan opposition to voter suppression stemming from the 2020 General Election that led to the lawsuit filed against some of the state’s principal election agents.

A class-action lawsuit pending in federal district court in Arizona names Secretary of State and gubernatorial hopeful Katie Hobbs, Democrat, and Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich, along with 18 others, as defendants.

Maricopa County Recorder Steven Richer, a defendant in the case, denied all allegations. Hobbs didn't deny any of the allegations but rejected the notion that plaintiffs were entitled to an award of their expenses and attorneys' fees against her.

The other defendants took no position on the merits of the complaint.

Four reform organizations make up the charging party.

The suit concerns the Voter Purge Law and the Cure Period Law. These laws, enacted in the wake of the 2020 election, were “designed to make it harder for Arizonans – especially Arizonans of color – to vote,” according to the complaint.

Plaintiffs allege unlawful racial discrimination in court documents.

“The [laws] violate the right of all Arizonans to vote,” according to court records.

The lawsuit alleges public officials used false allegations of voter fraud to burden the rights of voters and shouldered baseless efforts to undermine voter confidence during and after the election.

For example, defendants admitted in court documents that, motivated by false conspiracy theories, auditors were instructed to scan ballots with ultraviolet light and look for traces of bamboo to determine if they were imported from China.

In March 2021, Senate President Pro Tem John Kavanaugh said that he didn’t “mind putting security measures in that won’t let everybody vote – but everybody shouldn’t be voting.”

That led to enacting the pair of laws referenced in the suit.

The Voter Purge Law, adopted in May 2021, drops infrequent mail voters from Arizona’s ballot list. It’s “all about election integrity,” Governor Doug Ducey said at the time.

Under Arizona’s Cure Period Law, which passed in April 2021, absentee ballots arriving without a signature that were not fixed, or “cured,” by 7 p.m. on Election Day would be discarded.

On the eve of Election Day in 2020, Hobbs said of curing ballots, “Arizona law includes this important step to help ensure all eligible votes are counted.”

She added that the curing process could take “a few days.” But under the new law, which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in July, that’s no longer the case.

It’s those restrictions at the ballot box, coupled with gerrymandering and partisan wrangling over election control, that give credibility to the lawsuit, according to Tucson activist Caleb Hayter.

Hayter is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who was deployed in Afghanistan in 2011. It struck him how Afghan citizens could not affect any sort of change to improve their lives, he said.

It also reminded him of home.

“Nations fail when they can’t function,” he said. “We are at a point in Arizona where we have not functioned for a very long time, and part of that is for a lack of voting rights.”

People turn to conspiracies to provide answers when they question why society has not fulfilled their needs and expectations, said Hayter, who is now a campaign worker in Tucson.

Those conspiracies thrive in battleground states like Arizona, where election margins are razor-thin.

“I do not want to see it in my country, I do not want to see it in my state,” Hayter said.

He called on Sinema to push the voting rights bills to become law.

Said Cameron Adams, former president of Arizona State Young Democrats, “If we don’t act now, we might not get another opportunity to protect voting rights for everyone.”

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Elias Weiss is a staff writer at the Phoenix New Times. A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, he reported first for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and was editor of the Chatham Star-Tribune in Southern Virginia, where he covered politics and law. In 2020, the Virginia Press Association awarded him first place in the categories of Government Writing and Breaking News Writing for non-daily newspapers statewide.
Contact: Elias Weiss