(CN) – Arizona’s voter-registration system – which uses separate forms for federal and state elections – confuses, discourages and disenfranchises tens of thousands of potential voters across the state, a group of nonprofits say in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.
“It doesn’t serve any purpose other than voter suppression,” said attorney Danielle Lang, who represents the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Arizona Students’ Association. The organizations sued Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan and Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes, seeking to simplify the process.
The system is an unconstitutional burden on voters, Lang said.
Registering to vote in Arizona state or local elections requires proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate, driver’s license or Social Security card. Federal elections do not require documents proving citizenship; voters need only sign a form stating they’re U.S. citizens. The dual system, designed to enforce the proof-of-citizenship requirement for state elections, confuses voters and makes registering unreasonably difficult, the groups say in the lawsuit.
“The design of this system is so fundamentally flawed that it disenfranchises tens of thousands of Arizonans without furthering the state policies, however tenuous, behind the original documentary proof of citizenship requirement,” the groups say.
More than 26,000 voters have been disenfranchised just in Maricopa County, home to more than half of the state’s 7 million residents. Fewer than 17 percent of voters rejected for lack of citizenship proof successfully re-register because the system is confusing and difficult to maneuver, the plaintiffs claim.
In addition to the two forms, Arizona’s system requires an entirely new registration, including new proof of citizenship, if a voter moves across a county line. And if a voter files a state form with no citizenship proof, he isn’t registered for any election, state or federal.
In that case, voters have to start over from scratch, even though the state form, sans proof of citizenship, could be used for federal registration, and in many cases the state could verify citizenship through existing Department of Motor Vehicles records.
Luis Vera Jr., who also represents the League of United Latin American Citizens in the lawsuit, thinks the intent of Arizona’s labyrinthine registration system is clear: to confuse mostly uneducated, low-income minorities.
“This is just another form of voter discrimination, because they know people get confused, and they know that in Arizona the vast majority of those people are going to be Latino,” he said.
Although Lang acknowledges a “nationwide trend” toward using voter registration policies and processes to discriminate, that is not a claim in the lawsuit filed Tuesday, she said.
The Arizona system stifles political activity among young voters and makes campus registration drives nearly impossible, said Shayna Stevens, executive director of the Arizona Students’ Association, a nonprofit that advocates for the state’s more 500,000 college students.
“Making students fill out duplicate forms or dig up their original birth certificates and passports is making that process very difficult for no reason,” Stevens said in a statement.
The groups ask the court to order Arizona to allow the use of state forms, with or without proof of citizenship, in federal elections; to allow voters to amend their registrations with proof of citizenship if it is missing when they register; to stop requiring new registrations for people moving across county lines; and to use readily available DMV records to verify citizenship before rejecting registrations.
Secretary of State Reagan issued a brief statement after the lawsuit was filed.
“In 2004, Arizona’s voters passed a requirement for ID at the polls and proof-of-citizenship when registering to vote,” she said. “Over the past decade we’ve gone through five election cycles electing two presidents and dozens of congressional representatives. While it’s puzzling to understand why this lawsuit is being filed now, I think voters still want the state to verify eligibility to ensure election integrity and discourage fraud.”
Fontes, Maricopa County’s recorder, did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
Vera said the attempt at voter suppression and the singling out of Hispanics is just the latest expression of discrimination in our nation’s history. After the 9/11 terror attacks, it was Muslims. In the 1960s, it was black people. In the 1930s, it was Hispanics. Now, it’s Hispanics again, he said.
“All we can do is fight these things, and we will,” he said.