TUCSON (CN) – Arizona state agencies are systematically violating the National Voter Registration Act, burdening and impeding voter registration among minorities, the ACLU warned Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan in a letter Tuesday.
The 15-page letter, a required precursor to a lawsuit under the National Voter Registration Act, cites ACLU analysis of voter registration and public assistance data, policies, and practices, and interviews with public assistance employees and recipients.
The ACLU found that the state departments of Transportation and Economic Security and the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state’s health coverage program for low-income residents, all violate the Voter Registration Act.
Registration information is not offered, or not offered in native languages; mandated automatic updates to registration information are not happening, and potential voters are not being told they can register, the ACLU says in the letter it wrote on its own behalf and for the League of Women Voters and other groups.
“It’s clear that the effect is that low-income voters and voters of color are not registered in the numbers that they should be,” said ACLU staff attorney Darrell Hill.
In a brief statement in response to the lengthy letter, Secretary of State Michele Reagan said the state and its agencies are in compliance with the NVRA. “As we further clarify the policies, procedures and responsibilities of voter registration with state and local administrators, we’re confident that Arizona will remain in full compliance with the NVRA,” Reagan wrote.
But the ACLU says the NVRA requires that registration information be available in foreign languages if a population contains a high concentration of people who speak those languages. Yet information in Spanish – widely spoken across the state – is not available at some agencies, Hill said.
“Spanish language information should be ubiquitous throughout the state of Arizona,” he said.
Thirty-one percent of Arizonans are Latino, more than 2.1 million, according to a 2014 report from the Pew Research Center. Of those, 640,000 speak primarily English at home, and more than 1.2 million speak Spanish, according to the Pew report. Arizona ranks sixth among the 50 states in percentage of Latino population.
In addition, 287,000 Native Americans live in Arizona, many of whom speak their tribal languages. Arizona is home to 10 percent of the nation’s Native Americans, and home of the largest and third-largest reservations, the Navajo and Tohono O’odham.
Federal data show that the number of minorities registered to vote through state public assistance agencies dropped by 60 percent from 1999 to 2016, and that indicates non-compliance with federal law, the ACLU said in the letter.
“In our experience, such a decrease, in the face of rising caseloads and persistent need, is an important consideration and likely indicates systematic non-compliance and disproportionate harm to voter participation by low-income groups and people of color,” the ACLU wrote.
The letter identifies problems in a network of partner agencies, mostly nonprofits, that contract with the state to help low-income residents apply for public assistance. These agencies do not appear to be providing required voter registration services, the ACLU said.
“None of the partner contracts we reviewed even mention voter registration,” the letter says.
The ACLU said its letter also speaks for Demos, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Mi Familia Vota Education Fund, and Promise Arizona.
“We were disappointed to learn that Arizona is not following critical voting rights laws,” said Robyn Prud’homme-Bauer, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Arizona. “Now they have a great chance to work with us to fix the situation so Arizonans can make our voices heard in the upcoming 2018 elections.”
Arizona is burdening potential voters as other states are easing restrictions on voter registration and moving toward automatic registration, said Ezra Rosenberg, co-director of the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
“At a time when states across the country are moving toward automatic voter registration, Arizona has fallen behind in supporting its citizens’ participation in the electoral process. We are committed to ensuring Arizona adheres to the National Voter Registration Act and that all eligible Arizonans are offered a meaningful opportunity to register to vote,” Rosenberg said.
The state has 90 days to respond to the letter, after which the ACLU can file a lawsuit, Hill said.
Both houses of the Arizona Legislature and the governor’s office are controlled by Republicans.