Rally calls state, Maricopa ‘ground zero’ for voter suppression issues

Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Alabama, called for support of bills to toughen the Voting Rights Act, by retstoring federal oversight of states like Arizona. (Photo by Danika Worthington/Cronkite News)

Alejandra Gomez of Living United for Change in Arizona called hours-long waits during Arizona’s presidential preference election “targeted voter suppression. (Photo by Danika Worthington/Cronkite News)

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, said that if changes to voting laws aren’t made soon, problems like hours-long voting lines will become the new normal in the U.S. (Photo by Danika Worthington/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Congressional Democrats and voting-rights activists Thursday described Arizona as “ground zero” for voter suppression, what they said was one of the results of the Supreme Court’s 2013 “gutting” of the Voting Rights Act.

The Capitol Hill briefing drew lawmakers and advocates from across the South and West, but Arizona’s bungled March 22 presidential preference election that left voters standing on line for hours was noted by several speakers.

“What happened to our communities is a national disgrace,” said Alejandra Gomez, an activist with Living United for Change in Arizona who was on the panel.

“This was not a coincidence,” Gomez said of the 70 percent reduction in Maricopa County polling places since the last election that led to waits of five to six hours for some voters. “This was targeted voter suppression.”

Maricopa County elections officials have acknowledged problems with the March 22 election, but a spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office said Thursday that it “was absolutely not targeted voter suppression.”

“It was not targeted to one specific political party or minority group,” said Elizabeth Bartholomew, the spokeswoman. “Everyone had to stand in line and everyone had to wait in those long lines.”

Bartholomew said the county has already made changes aimed at preventing a repeat in the special election on May 17. There will be 116 voting stations – almost twice the 60 from the presidential preference vote – that will be manned by 10 to 12 people and three to four check-in lines.

Part of the problem in March was a state law that prevents independents from voting in the partisan elections, she said. That won’t be an issue in upcoming elections when anyone can vote, regardless of party affiliation, as long as they registered in time.

But voting-rights activists at Thursday’s Capitol Hill event said the problems should never have happened in the first place.

– Cronkite News video by Katie Bieri

Until the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, states with a history of voting discrimination – such as Arizona – had to get any changes to their voting rules pre-approved by the Justice Department. The court rejected that “preclearance” requirement, saying it was unfair to hold states to events that happened in 1960 – but it left open the door to Congress writing a new formula that would assess states’ performance today.

Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Alabama, cited two bills that would put the bite back into the Voting Rights Act, including one she sponsored that would bring Arizona and 12 other states under federal oversight if there had been repeated voting rights violations in the past 25 years.

“We’re not waiting for the House Judiciary Committee to hold hearings to talk about modern-day voting barriers,” Sewell said. “We know they exist and we’re here to expose modern-day barriers to voting. We all saw what happened in Maricopa County, Arizona.”

The briefing, held by the National Election Defense Coalition and Transformative Justice Coalition, focused on voting suppression among minority groups, particularly black voters. Speakers pointed to voter ID laws and voting-roll purges as other actions that disproportionately affect minority groups.

Lindsay Nielson, co-author of a University of California, San Diego, report on voter suppression, said that minority turnout was 5 to 7 percent lower in states with voter ID laws compared to states without, while there was no difference in turnout among white voters.

“We’ve always fought to overcome obstacles,” said the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP. “But the question is not can we do it? Should we even have to in a democracy?”

Gomez pointed to a law passed this year that makes “ballot harvesting,” or collecting and turning in other people’s ballots, a felony. LUCHA and other Latino activists have used the practice in the past to increase Hispanic voter turnout.

“What are we doing in Arizona to fix a lot of what is happening?” Gomez asked. “We’re calling back for federal oversight because we clearly have demonstrated that we do not protect our community and we need it.”

Other speakers agreed that federal oversight is needed.

“There’ll come a time, Ms. Gomez, where if we’re not careful, it will be normal for people to wait for five to six hours after polls close to vote,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland. “That will become our normal.

“We’ve got to do some disruption things because our very future depends upon this,” Cummings said.