Court: Holiday did not give Arizona voter an extra day to register

A woman fills out a voter registration form at a Phoenix farmers market in this 2016 photo. A federal court this week rejected a Maricopa County man’s claim that he should have been allowed to register a day late in 2016, because the registration fell on Columbus Day, a holiday, that year. (File photo by Courtney Columbus/News21)

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court Thursday rejected a Maricopa County man’s claim that he was denied the right to vote in 2016 because the last day to register fell on a holiday, and he registered a day later.

State election officials rejected ballots from David Isabel and about 2,000 others who registered on the day after Columbus Day that year, saying they had not met the registration deadline.

Isabel sued, but a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday rejected his claim, saying Arizona’s law was clear cut and that it did not violate the National Voter Registration Act.

The appeals court also noted that its “rigid” ruling will not likely affect other voters, since the state changed the law in 2017 to give voters an extra day to register if the deadline falls on a weekend or holiday.

An attorney for former Secretary of State Michele Reagan – who was sued along with Maricopa County and then-County Recorder Adrian Fontes – called Isabel’s suit “completely unfounded” and welcomed the court’s ruling.

“We are very happy that, by a unanimous ruling of this panel, the 9th circuit has rejected completely unfounded claims that there was any constitutional violations here,” Timothy La Sota, Reagan’s attorney, said Thursday.

Isabel’s attorney said it was not the ruling they wanted, but still put a good face on the result.

“We hoped for a different outcome, but are pleased that the Ninth Circuit ruled on a narrow basis and unequivocally held that the Constitution secures the right to vote of all qualified voters,” Spencer Scharff said in an emailed statement.

The case began in 2016 when Isabel, who was new to the state, went to register to vote. Arizonans can register to vote in one of four ways: at a Motor Vehicle Division office, at a county recorder’s office, by mail or online through the Service Arizona website.

Under Arizona state law at the time, voter registration applications had to be received “prior to midnight of the twenty-ninth day” before an election. In 2016, that day fell on Oct. 10, Columbus Day that year, a federal and state holiday, which meant that MVD and Postal Service offices were closed.

Isabel went to an MVD office when it opened the next day and registered. On Election Day, he filed a provisional ballot because his name did not show up on voter rolls, but his ballot was later rejected because officials determined he was not registered to vote.

Isabel filed a class action complaint in 2018 for himself and the 2,000 other late filers, claiming that the state law violated the federal law and that election officials had essentially denied him his right to vote. A federal district court dismissed the suit.

In his suit, Isabel pointed to another Arizona law that said if a deadline falls on a holiday, the required action can be “performed on the next ensuing business day” without penalty. That should have applied to his case, making his Oct. 11 registration legitimate, he argued.

But the appeals court said the Arizona Supreme Court had already ruled on the law Isabel cited, and found it applied to specific dates – like Jan. 1 – and to deadlines for action after an event. It could not be used to compress deadlines prior to an event, like an election, the state court ruled, and the appeals court said it is bound by that decision.

“There are no extraordinary circumstances present that warrant our deviation from the Arizona Supreme Court’s interpretation of its own state law,” said Judge Mary Murguia, who wrote the 9th Circuit opinion.

Murguia added in a footnote that, while MVD and post offices were closed on Columbus Day, online registration was still available and 14 of the 15 county recorder’s offices were open on the holiday to accept registration forms.

The opinion went on to say that Isabel’s situation “is not likely to reoccur” after the State Legislature amended the voter registration law in 2017 to give prospective voters a break. Since 2017, if the registration deadline falls on a weekend or a holiday, voters have until the next business day to get their applications in.

Molly Hudson Mohl-lee Hud-son (she/her)
News Broadcast Reporter, Phoenix

Molly Hudson expects to graduate in May 2022 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Hudson, who has interned with NBC’s Dateline, The Arizona Republic and KTAR radio, is working in the Phoenix News Bureau.