AZ Reps. Gallego and Kirkpatrick Convene Phoenix Forum on Restoring Voting Rights Act

Still frustrated about those long voting lines during Arizona's March 22 presidential preference vote? Concerned about the state's response to that and other polling-place fiascos? Worried about similar problems occurring in November's general election?

It seems U.S. Representatives Ann Kirkpatrick and Ruben Gallego are, too.

So much so that the two Democrats have planned a community forum Wednesday morning to discuss the need for greater local, state, and federal oversight of election procedures.

"Thousands of voters were disenfranchised, particularly in Maricopa County, due to a massive cutback of voting locations, excessively long lines, party affiliation mix-ups, and other harmful factors," they write in a joint announcement about the event.

As local and statewide efforts are under way to determine what went awry and who's to blame, Kirkpatrick and Gallego intend to discuss how the 2013 Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder weakened the U.S. Voting Rights Act, making it more likely that election problems would surface in Arizona and elsewhere.
The heart of the Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965, was Section 4, which contained a congressionally designed formula to identify states or counties with a history and pattern of discriminatory voting practices — literacy tests or gerrymandering, for instance. Areas that didn't pass muster were required to get "preclearance" from the federal government before changing any election protocols. Even something as benign-sounding as moving a polling location down the street required approval, a fact many resented as an unnecessary burden.

The states originally singled out were Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia, all of which had long histories of racially discriminatory voting laws. Every five years, Congress re-ratified the act and tweaked the coverage formula, adding new states and counties to the list. In 1975, it was Arizona's turn.

By most accounts, the Voting Rights Act was a huge success. The U.S. Department of Justice has called it "the single most effective piece of civil-rights legislation ever passed by Congress."

But in 2009, a Texas voting district challenged the act in a lawsuit, Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder, which wound its legal way up to the Supreme Court.

As Amy Howe of SCOTUS Blog explains, "In that case, the Court ultimately dodged the constitutional question, handing the utility district a victory on another ground. But at the same time, the Court fired off a cautionary shot to Congress" — warning it that times have changed and that the coverage formula needed to be updated.
Congress basically did nothing. And when Shelby County v. Holder came up four years later, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Section 4 was unconstitutional. The decision didn't invalidate the Voting Rights Act, but without Section 4, the law had no teeth.

Three years later, any effort to reform the formula has been stymied by political gridlock. And predictably, many states have enacted all sorts of voter-registration protocols or moved polling locations out of minority districts.

Consider Maricopa County, which had about 60 percent fewer polling locations this year than in the last presidential preference election. There's no evidence that the county made the change with the intent of suppressing the vote or disenfranchising anyone — it appears to have been a cost-cutting measure — but it almost certainly wouldn't have flown with the federal government.

In advance of this year's presidential election, which will be the first general election to take place with the Voting Rights Act in abeyance, efforts have been undertaken to restore it. Some of those efforts have been bipartisan, but none appear to be going anywhere.
"The Voting Rights Act has played a crucial role in protecting our right to vote, but [Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan] has refused to allow a renewed and strengthened Voting Rights Act to come to the House floor," Rep. Gallego writes in an e-mail to New Times. "Meanwhile, hardworking Americans are being disenfranchised and left without a voice in our democracy — just like we witnessed firsthand here in Phoenix in March.

"I'm hosting this discussion with Congresswoman Kirkpatrick so we can have a discussion as a community about the importance of making sure that every American has access to the ballot box. It's time to take real and meaningful steps to defend our right to vote."

It's unclear what those steps will be, but the forum includes an impressive panel of speakers from Latino, African American, and Native American advocacy groups, plus a representative from Living United for a Change in Arizona (LUCHA), a grassroots organization dedicated to economic and social justice.

At the very least, it's bound to be an interesting discussion.

According to a statement from Reps. Kirkpatrick and Gallego, speakers include:

• Cloves Campbell Jr., executive director of the Arizona Commission of African-American Affairs
• Debora Colbert, chair of Rep. Gallego's African-American Advisory Council
• Alex Gomez, co-director of LUCHA 
• Ann Hart, chair of Women in NAACP and deputy associate superintendent of the Arizona Department of Education
• Francisco Heredia, national field director for Mi Familia Vota
• John Lewis, former executive director of the Intertribal Council of Arizona
• Daniel Ortega Jr., civil-rights attorney and former chair of the National Council of La Raza

The event is free and open to the public:
10-11:30 a.m., Wednesday, June 29, at Greater Bethel A.M.E. Church, 7040 S. 40th Street, Phoenix 85042 

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser