Sam Levin, The Guardian, January 27, 2020
A federal court has ruled Arizona Republicans’ ban on mail-in ballots is illegal and unconstitutional, calling it intentionally discriminatory toward people of color, who already face increased barriers to voting.
The ruling is a major victory for the Democratic party, which filed the suit, and will likely make it easier for minorities to get their ballots counted in the largely red state.
Four years ago, Arizona Republicans made it a felony, punishable by prison time, for third-party groups to collect mail-in ballots during elections – a process often called “ballot harvesting.”
Marginalized communities in the state may rely more on ballot harvesting, the court noted. Native Americans, for example, benefit significantly from third-party ballot collection efforts because just 18% of registered voters have mail service at home, and reservations can be far from polling stations. Some minority communities also have widespread distrust in the mailing system: in San Luis, a city that is 98% Hispanic, a major highway separates 13,000 residents from the nearest post office.
“The adverse impact on minority communities is substantial. Without ‘access to reliable and secure mail services,’ and without reliable transportation, many minority voters ‘prefer instead to give their ballots to a volunteer’,” the court said. And Hispanics and Native Americans make up nearly 37% of the state’s population – promising to be a key demographic in this year’s presidential election.
The ruling noted that the Republican effort to restrict third-party ballot collection appeared to be part of a longstanding effort to suppress black, Hispanic and Native American votes. Republicans passed a similar law in 2011, but abandoned the effort after a state election official admitted that the measure was designed to target voting activity in Hispanic areas.
The court also struck down a separate state policy that required election officials to throw out ballots if someone voted in the wrong precinct. But voters faced some egregious challenges. At times they were directed to the wrong precinct, without being told their vote wouldn’t count, the court noted. And Arizona changes its polling locations with unusual frequency and rejected 38,355 ballots from people who voted in the wrong place between 2008 to 2016. (Minority voters were more than twice as likely than their white counterparts to cast a ballot out of their precinct.)
Arizona has a long history of voter discrimination and until 2013 was required to submit any voting changes to the federal government for approval under a provision in the Voting Rights Act. But after the supreme court gutted that provision, Arizona was free to implement changes – like the discriminatory ballot harvesting ban – without federal oversight.
Republicans have claimed that several of those changes, including the Arizona ballot harvesting ban, were created to avoid voter fraud. But voter fraud is exceedingly rare in the United States, and there was no evidence it was connected to ballot collection in Arizona.
“No one has ever found a case of voter fraud connected to third-party ballot collection in Arizona,” the court wrote. “This has not been for want of trying.”