Thursday, April 14, 2016

Dem. Party and Clinton Campaign Sue Arizona Over Voting Rights

The Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign will sue the Arizona over voter access to the polls after the state’s Presidential Primary last month left thousands of residents waiting as long as five hours to vote.

The lawsuit, which will be filed on tomorrow, focuses on Maricopa County, the state’s most populous county, where voters faced the longest lines three weeks ago during the Democratic and Republican Primaries after the County cut the number of polling places by 85 percent since 2008.

Marc E. Elias, the Elections lawyer for Clinton’s Presidential campaign. Elias is bringing the lawsuit on behalf of the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Arizona Democratic Party and several Arizonans. The Clinton campaign will join the lawsuit after it is filed. “Increasingly, what we’ve seen over the last few years has been a widescale effort by Republicans in state after state to make voting harder,” said Elias, a veteran voting rights lawyer with the Washington firm Perkins Coie.

“It was truly shameful,” said Leslie Feldman, 34, a plaintiff in the lawsuit who waited in an “extraordinarily long line snaking in, out and around” a Phoenix church for four and a half hours with her 3 1/2 year old daughter and 12-week-old infant. When she finally got inside the church, she said, there were no Democratic ballots and she had to wait another 25 minutes for more to be delivered.

The lack of voting places was “particularly burdensome” on Maricopa County’s black, Hispanic and Native American communities, which had fewer polling locations than white communities and in some cases no places to vote at all, the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit is calling on the U.S. District Court of Phoenix to review the polling location plan for the November election. It also wants to stop State policies that have a “dramatic and disparate impact” on minorities, who are more likely to vote Democratic, the lawsuit says. For instance, the filing cites a recently enacted law that makes it a felony for someone to turn in a sealed absentee ballot on behalf of another voter, unless the person is a caregiver or family member.

For Democrats, there is more than the Presidential race at stake. Republican Sen. John McCain is likely to face Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick, who has launched the most serious challenge to the longtime Senator in years. The Kirkpatrick for Senate campaign will also be party to the lawsuit.

Arizona will be the fifth state that Elias is suing over voting issues following cases in Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin and North Carolina.

This Presidential race will be the first since a divided Supreme Court invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act and triggered a number of states to pass stiffer requirements for voting. More restrictive voting laws will be in effect in 17 states for the first time in a race for the White House.

The day after the Primary, Republican Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey called the long lines “unacceptable.” Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton wrote a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch asking for the Justice Department to investigate the “fiasco.” “Throughout the county, but especially in Phoenix, thousands of citizens waited in line for three, four and even five hours to vote,” Stanton wrote. “Many more simply could not afford to wait that long, and went home. This is unacceptable anywhere in the United States, and I am angry that county elections officials allowed it to happen in my city.”

Earlier this week, senior Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee, along with top Congressional leaders representing minority groups wrote Lynch, asking the Justice Department to review the impact of voting restrictions across the country, specifically highlighting Arizona.

On April 1, Justice officials opened an investigation into the debacle in Maricopa County. In a request for information about the polling places and elections procedures, Chris Herren, Chief of the Civil Rights division’s Voting section, noted the “allegations of disproportionate burden in waiting times to vote on election days in some areas with substantial racial or language minority populations.”

A Justice Department investigation could drag on for many months and not be completed by the time of the November election. It is also unclear whether the department has the evidence to file a lawsuit under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color or membership in a language minority group.

Some Arizona officials said the Primary problems were a miscalculation and an effort to save money. “We made some horrendous mistakes, and I apologize for that,” Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell said during a contentious hearing in Arizona after the Primary. Purcell, a Republican, said she made her decision based on numbers from the 2008 Presidential Primary and thought many people would mail in ballots rather than vote in person. She also said it was a cost-saving measure because the Legislature hadn’t given her County enough money to administer the election.

Arizona’s election laws and practices were once overseen by the Justice Department, which had to approve any changes made by the State under the Voting Rights Act because of the state’s history of discrimination against minorities. That requirement was lifted in 2013 in a landmark Supreme Court ruling that in essence took away the power of the Justice Department to challenge potentially unfair voting laws in 15 states before they are enacted. The court said that Congress must come up with a new formula based on current data to determine which states should be subject to that requirement. Congress has not yet acted.

Since that ruling, Arizona and Maricopa County specifically have engaged in “consistent activity that has created a culture of voter disenfranchisement,” the lawsuit said. “Arizona has been a flashpoint for voting rights for a while,” said Wendy R. Weiser, Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. She said that Arizona was the first state to require documentary proof of citizenship from its voters, a practice that has also been adopted by Kansas, Georgia and Alabama.

The lawsuit being filed this week is also contesting a rule that does not count ballots cast in a precinct other than the one to which the voter is assigned.

With the election seven months away, the Democrats face a tight timeline for their lawsuits across the country to be resolved.

The Arizona case faces a tight deadline, especially in light of what is known as the Purcell doctrine from a Supreme Court case, which states that courts should not issue an opinion in an election case too close to Election Day if it will cause voter confusion.

“While it is April before a major election, the fact is that courts know how to expedite cases such as this to ensure that the people of Arizona receive the relief necessary to ensure that all their votes count,” Elias said.

NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote! Michael H. Drucker
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