Groups claim state violates federal laws on voter registration
Coalition gives Arizona 90 days to correct them, or they’ll sue
PHOENIX — A coalition of voting rights groups is charging that state agencies are violating federal laws designed to provide opportunities for people to register.
In a 15-page complaint Tuesday to Secretary of State Michele Reagan, attorneys for the groups detailed what they say are flaws in both state statutes and the processes used by state agencies in getting people signed up to vote. The lawyers say if the problems are not corrected within 90 days, they will sue.
Attorney Darrell Hill of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona defended the deadline.
“The state has been aware of some of these problems for quite some time,” he told Capitol Media Services. Hill said groups have filed similar complaints in the past.
As far as what happens at the end of 90 days, Hill suggested the organizations will hold off going to court “if there’s significant compliance” within that period.
Hill said the state’s practices violate the National Voter Registration Act, the 1993 federal law approved by Congress with the aim of providing additional ways for people to be able to register to vote. And he said they also unfairly — and illegally — discriminate against the poor and people of color.
In a prepared statement, Reagan said she takes the NVRA “very seriously.”
And while Reagan said she believes Arizona is “in full compliance” with the law, she agreed to set up meetings between the lawyers for those who filed the complaint and the state agencies whose practices they contend run afoul of the statute.
There was no immediate response from those agencies, who technically report not to Reagan but to Gov. Doug Ducey.
The NVRA has resulted in a variety of requirements for states to ease the registration process.
For example, there is the “motor voter” law that requires states to provide people an opportunity to register when they get or renew a driver’s license or state-issued ID card. The federal law, according to the lawyers, says that action also will “serve as an application for voter registration” unless the person does not sign the registration application.
But what happens, according to the lawyers representing the League of Women Voters, the Mi Familia Voter Education Fund and Promise Arizona, is that those who make a change of address with the Arizona Department of Transportation are not provided with voter registration services but instead told to seek an address change on their voter registrations.
The complaint also says people who file for a change of address online with ADOT must take affirmative action to update their voter registration.
“Rather than automatically updating an applicant’s address for voter registration purposes at the same time as the applicant’s address for their driver license is updated, all that is provided is an opportunity to click a button about voter registration,” the complaint says. That, in turn, leads them to other pages where they have to fill out an entirely new voter registration, something that violates the NVRA.
Where the issue takes on fiscal and racial overtones is in other complaints involving the Department of Economic Security and the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, both agencies whose duties include providing services to the poor.
The complaint charges that both agencies are failing to comply with requirements of the NVRA to provide opportunities for their clients to register to vote. That includes a requirement that they give applicants an opportunity to register unless that person declines — and does so in writing.
“It appears from our investigation that DES and AHCCCS are not distributing voter registration applications to clients who leave the voter preference question blank when filling out initial applications, renewal applications, or change of address forms,” the complaint says.
“Leaving the question blank is not equivalent to declining to register in writing,” it continues. “This is especially troubling with respect to change of address transactions given the high likelihood that the affected client should also have their address changed for voter registration purposes and, without the opportunity to update their registration, will no longer be properly registered to vote.”
Separately, the complaint says AHCCCS provides no guidance for how to offer an update on voter registration when someone provides a change of address to the agency without coming into the office.
And it finds fault with online methods people may use to get state services, like food stamps, noting that the ability of those people to update an address for voter registration is available only to those who have either a driver’s license or state-issued ID.
“Furthermore, many clients who do not qualify to register online may not have access to a printer,” the lawyers contend. “Providing only a link to the Secretary of State’s web page is a violation of the NVRA.”
The complaint says there is evidence that the state’s practices are discriminatory.
In the period of 1990 and 2000, there were 32,137 voter registration applications that originated from Arizona public assistance offices. By 2015-16, that dropped to 13,135 — even as the number of people seeking public assistance in the state has increased.
And Hill said there’s no evidence that public assistance recipients don’t need the voter registration services the state is supposed to provide.
He said just 58 percent of people earning less than $30,000 a year are registered. By comparison, the figure for those making more than $60,000 is 76 percent.
“So there’s a big gap in the number of low-income Arizonans who are being registered to vote,” Hill said. “And part of that is explained by the failure of these public agencies to implement the requirements of the NVRA.”
One specific complaint has nothing to do with state agency practices and instead is aimed at a provision of Arizona law dealing with people who move from one place to another within a county.
The statute says that person’s registration is canceled if he or she does not complete and return a new registration form with current information within 29 days. The complaint says requiring voters to take an additional step violates the NVRA, saying there is no reason county election officials cannot simply update the information.
Hill said fixing that would require legislative action, versus the policy changes that could be enacted by state agencies.