Prior to 2013, the Voting Rights Act required federal oversight of changes to election laws in areas where voter disenfranchisement had historically been a significant problem. One of those places was Maricopa County in Arizona. However, after the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act three years ago, Maricopa County officials were free to make whatever changes they wanted. One of the changes they made was to reduce the number of polling sites from the 200 they opened for the presidential primary in 2008 to just 60 in the primary held there this week. This meant that there was one polling location for every 21,000 voters. As Ari Berman writes at The Nation, that wouldn’t have been possible prior to 2013:
[Maricopa County election] officials said they reduced the number of polling sites to save money — an ill-conceived decision that severely inconvenienced hundreds of thousands of voters. Previously, Maricopa County would have needed to receive federal approval for reducing the number of polling sites, because Arizona was one of 16 states where jurisdictions with a long history of discrimination had to submit their voting changes under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. This type of change would very likely have been blocked since minorities make up 40 percent of Maricopa County’s population and reducing the number of polling places would have left minority voters worse off. Section 5 blocked 22 voting changes from taking effect in Arizona since the state was covered under the VRA in 1975 for discriminating against Hispanic and Native American voters.
But after the Supreme Court gutted the VRA in 2013, Arizona could make election changes without federal oversight. The long lines in Maricopa County last night were the latest example of the disastrous consequences of that decision.
“Severely inconvenienced” is too mild a term for what transpired in Maricopa County. The lines were so long that some voters waited over five hours to vote, many left, unable to stay in line due to jobs or other obligations. Some just left in disgust. The last vote was cast at 12:12 a.m. the next morning, over five hours after polls had closed. During that time, media outlets began calling the race for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, well before some people had even cast their vote.
Initially, the county’s top elections official, Recorder Helen Purcell, blamed independents for trying to vote and clogging up the system. Arizona has a closed presidential primary that requires voters to be registered for the party they are voting in. However, many people were on the voter roles as “independents” when they were, in fact, registered Democrats. They were forced to cast provisional ballots that wouldn’t be counted unless they could prove their party registration. Purcell, facing whithering criticism from across the country, has now backtracked on her blaming of voters.
Arizona Democrats are livid at Tuesday’s debacle and are now demanding an investigation:
By Wednesday, the mayor of Phoenix said the cutbacks were about more than saving money. Mayor Greg Stanton, a Democrat, called for a federal investigation into whether election officials illegally put fewer polling locations in poor or minority-heavy areas.
Stanton in a letter to the Justice Department also cited examples of other policies adopted by elections officials and the state Legislature that have created “a culture of voter disenfranchisement.” […]
Purcell was slammed by Democrats and civil rights proponents, who called the lines the latest sign that the state was making voting for minorities and the poor more difficult. […]
State Rep. Reginald Bolding, a Democrat and the only black member of the Legislature, said he visited four county polling places and said what he saw “was disheartening.”
“You saw individuals who were seniors, handicapped, you also saw individuals who had to spend their entire workday waiting in line to cast a vote,” Bolding said. “And this was directly due to the county recorder’s negligence in cutting the polling locations in Maricopa County from 200 to 60 locations.”
He said while he didn’t suspect the efforts were intended to suppress turnout, combined with cuts in election funding and new laws passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature, he sees a pattern.
“When you start to put all of these different voter-suppression mechanisms in a line, it’s hard to believe that this is all coincidental,” Bolding said.
The Arizona Democratic Party is also investigating why many of their members were listed as independents.
The impact of the 70% reduction in polling locations hit minority communities inordinately hard as Arizona Republic columnist Elvia Diaz made clear in a sharply-worded op-ed this week titled “Maricopa County election officials writing off voters? You bet”:
For weeks, some Democrats have been sounding the alarm about not enough polling places in Maricopa County for Tuesday’s presidential primary.
They warned that reducing the number of polling places from 200 during the 2012 primary election to 60 would mean long lines and discourage people from voting.
They said the fact that some predominantly Latino areas got one or none polling places essentially translates into voter suppression.
Before, it was easy to dismiss their claims as pure conspiracy theories. It was difficult to fathom that Maricopa County election officials would purposely design a plan to keep people, especially minorities, away from the polls.
Well, think what you may. But the fact is that voting on Tuesday turned into long waits and traffic nightmares near some polling places, proving their case. […]
[I]t is no coincidence many poor and predominantly Latino areas didn’t get a polling place.
Sec. Hillary Clinton won Arizona by a large margin and has remained silent on the situation. Sen. Bernie Sanders expressed outrage, calling it “a disgrace”. “In the United States of America, democracy is the foundation of our way of life,” said Sanders. “And what happened in Arizona is a disgrace. I hope that every state in this country learns from that and learns how to put together a proper election where people can come in and vote in a timely manner and go back to work.”
Both campaigns worked hard to encourage voters to stay in line after the polls closed according to the Phoenix New Times. That was probably a hard sell for some considering that media outlets began calling the race over two hours before some people had even had a chance to vote yet:
Both the Sanders and Clinton campaigns made a strong effort today to encourage voters to stay in line, and while some voters just couldn’t wait hours and hours to cast a ballot, others said they refused to give up their right to vote.
When New Times stopped by a downtown Phoenix polling location at 9:20 p.m., the line to vote still was more than two blocks long. We witnessed a woman near the end of the line overhear the news that Clinton won Arizona:
“What?” she said. “Who declared that? We’re still waiting to vote.”
It seems unlikely that this situation was the result of intentional voter suppression. After all, it impacted both Republicans and Democrats alike. Plus, this was a presidential primary so, although a majority of Maricopa County voters are Republican, there is no reason to believe that election officials favored either of the Democratic candidates or, in fact, that either Sanders supporters or Clinton supporters were hit harder than the other. But it’s safe to say one thing: Maricopa County, home to the odious racist and bigot Sheriff Joe Arpaio, may be the one place in the United States that gives Michigan a run for its money when it comes to terrible governance.