Why Won’t Arizona Consider Automatic Voter Registration?

Earlier this year, state Representative Ken Clark, a Democrat who represents Central Phoenix, introduced a bill that would have made it that much easier for people living in Arizona to get out and vote.

Under HB 2348, all eligible U.S. citizens would automatically be registered to vote when they applied for a driver’s license or state ID, or renewed an existing one. They’d also have the option to opt out, if they wanted to.

“It creates a larger pool of people who are ready to vote,” Clark explains. “It’s this simple change, and it doesn’t take much money — it’s not like you’re advertising. And from other states, we know that it has increased voter registration numbers.”

Similar laws have already passed in California, Oregon, Vermont, West Virginia, and other states. And in other countries such as Canada and Australia, automatic voter registration has been in place for years.

But in Arizona, it’s not even up for discussion.

For nearly three months now, Representative Doug Coleman, a Republican from Apache Junction, has refused to even schedule the bill for a hearing in the House government committee, which he chairs.

That may have something to do with the fact that Progress Now Arizona posted a tweet encouraging people to call Coleman and ask him to give the bill a hearing, and included his office phone number.

“I think that the chair was unhappy about how many people were calling him about it,” Clark says. “I don’t think I got a complete answer about it, though.”

New Times called and e-mailed Coleman numerous times over the course of a month to find out if he had other reasons for not wanting to give the bill a hearing. He has yet to return those messages.

If Coleman was, in fact, just pissed off that people kept calling him about the automatic voter registration bill, then you have to wonder about the logic. You get a lot of people calling to let you know that they support a bill ... so you decide not to give that bill a hearing?

“To be fair to the chair, there has been a record level of involvement this year, so I don’t think they were prepared for that,” Clark says. “I know that I’ve been getting a lot of phone calls, and a committee chair is going to get even more than that.”

Still. Listening to constituents is literally part of a politician’s job. And the people who were calling Coleman’s office about the bill weren’t even asking him to vote for it. They just wanted it to get a hearing.

“The idea wasn’t that the bill could pass, but that there would be a forum for people to discuss it,” Josselyn Berry, Progress Now Arizona’s executive director, says.

And there’s plenty to discuss when it comes to automatic voter registration. For instance:
  • How do you address privacy concerns and make sure that voters’ information doesn’t end up in the wrong hands?
  • Does automatic voter registration increase the likelihood of voter fraud, as conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation have argued? Or will it actually reduce fraud, as left-leaning groups like the Brennan Center for Justice claim?
  • Will getting more people registered to vote actually translate into better voter turnout?
All of these are valid questions that could be debated in a committee session, but it's looking highly unlikely that it'll happen this year.

“We’re not naive,” Berry says. “We knew the bill had a small chance of passing in a Republican legislature. But the idea of a committee is to give people a chance to ask questions and have a discussion. It’s unfortunate that Doug Coleman decided not to have a hearing just because people were calling to ask him about it.”
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Antonia Noori Farzan is a staff writer at New Times and an honors graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Before moving to Arizona, she worked for the New Times Broward-Palm Beach.