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Friday, December 8, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Trial begins over Arizona voter registration laws

Plaintiffs say two voter registration laws target Latino voters.

PHOENIX (CN) — Witnesses on the first of a 10-day Arizona voting rights trial said two recently passed voter registration laws will disproportionately harm Latinos, who make up more than 33% of the state's population.

The trial, scheduled to continue until Nov. 21, stems from four lawsuits concerning the same two voting laws consolidated into a single case against the state of Arizona, the secretary of state, the attorney general and all 15 county recorders. Plaintiffs include political advocacy groups Mi Familia Vota, Voto Latino, and the Arizona Asian American Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander for Equity Coalition, as well as the Tohono O'odham Nation, the Democratic National Committee and others. 

The challenged laws are House Bill 2492 and House Bill 2243. Passed in 2022, the laws are blocked from taking effect until the conclusion of the trial.

The laws require already registered voters to show proof of citizenship to remain registered to vote in presidential elections or vote in any federal election by mail, and require county recorders to terminate registration of anyone who hasn’t provided the necessary documents. 

Plaintiffs argue the laws place an unnecessary burden on those who are already eligible to vote but don’t have access to the required documents: a birth certificate, passport, driver’s license, tribal identification number or a naturalization number.

Reginald Bolding Jr., president and founder of plaintiff Arizona Coalition for Change, told the judge Monday afternoon that he’s spoken to people trying to register who don’t have access to any of those documents. He said others might assume they are registered based on old laws, and not learn otherwise until they show up to vote. 

He added that students and low-income or transient people rarely have access to the necessary documents, so they would be barred from voting until they could locate them.

Not only do the laws require recorders to reject a registration application not accompanied by the proper documentation, rather than suspend the person’s voting status until they can clear the ballot, as current law dictates, but it also allows recorders to cancel a voter’s registration if they have reason to believe the voter isn’t a citizen. 

“We see these as voter suppression laws,” said Joe Garcia, president of public policy for plaintiff Chicanos Por La Causa. “We expect less people would vote” if the laws are enacted. 

Witnesses also challenged provisions of the laws requiring voters to write their place of birth on their registration form, which is optional under current law. Amir Patel, managing director of plaintiff Voto Latino, said the requirement will disproportionately affect those born outside the United States.

Because the law doesn’t specify the form in which one should write their place of birth, like city, state, country or other, it will just be another confusing requirement that can “trip up” eligible voters into making an error on their forms. Others, he said, might think the birthplace box is still optional, and be rejected for failure to complete their form. 

Janine Petty, senior director of voter registration for Maricopa County, testified that birthplace is immaterial to voter registration anyway. The county recorder’s office doesn’t use birthplace to verify eligibility to vote, nor does birthplace determine citizenship, she said. 

The office only uses birthplace as a security question to verify someone’s identity, Petty explained. Even then, there are other security questions that can be asked.

The laws require recorder’s office employees to use five federal databases to verify citizenship status: the state Motor Vehicle Department, the Social Security Administration, the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlement program, the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems, and “any other state, city, town, county or federal database” that the county recorder has access to.

The issue with that, Petty said, is that the recorder’s office already uses the MVD and SAVE databases, social security can’t be used to verify citizenship, and the recorder’s office doesn’t have access to any other databases listed or otherwise that could help to verify voter eligibility or citizenship status. 

Josh Whitaker, representing the attorney general’s office, honed in on that point, asking how that portion of the law would change Petty’s practices. She said it wouldn’t change them much, but she and her colleagues are still waiting on implementation guidance from the secretary of state. 

Whitaker said the database requirements include language like “to the extent practicable,” meaning the recorder’s office wouldn’t be required to do more than is reasonably possible.

Defense attorneys used the same logic to address the rest of plaintiffs’ arguments — if all voters need to be a citizen to vote, then nothing in that requirement would materially change given the enactment of the new laws. 

“You wouldn't register people if they’re not a citizen?” attorney Tim Horley asked Garcia. 

Garcia said no. 

Follow @JournalistJoeAZ
Categories / Civil Rights, Courts, Politics, Regional, Trials

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