I was reading the complaint in Feldman, et al v. Reagan, the case challenging HB2023, which criminalizes the collection of ballots from early voters, as well as some of the voting procedures established in Maricopa county regarding the number of polling places. I won’t write much about HB2023 (pdf link) — suffice it to say that the legislative history and bill itself evinces a clear intent by the state legislature to make it more burdensome for some minority groups to vote, and not any concern for the wing-nut fantasy of voter fraud, which even the lawyer for the State in this case admitted there was zero evidence of in his arguments before the court in this case.
This suit is important as it clearly demonstrates the kind of harm to the constitutional rights of citizens that pre-clearance under the VRA’s Section V was intended to avoid. The Supreme Court held in 2013 that the pre-clearance formula in the VRA’s Section V was outdated because it based inclusion of jurisdictions on the status of voting rights in 1975, despite Congress renewing the formula in 2006 for 25 more years, and despite 50 years of great results and institutional expertise in the Justice Department protecting American voters, and despite there being clear termination criteria to exit any and all pre-clearance requirements.
This lawsuit also exemplifies just how necessary it is to reinstate pre-clearance in states like Arizona (read as: states controlled by the GOP…) to protect the rights of voters. I certainly expect that future Congresses will consider the passage of legislation like HB2023, and lawsuits like this one across the country as criteria for inclusion in a new pre-clearance formula: Arizona’s government has certainly demonstrated that we deserve pre-clearance status.
Perhaps it would be best if, instead of creating a new formula, pre-clearance were imposed on every state and voting jurisdiction in the United States. That way there can be no issue of treating states differently, no formula that must be updated, and there will be strong and positive pressure to adopt standardized nation-wide voting laws and best-practices. Such universal pre-clearance could be the only positive result of the Supreme Court’s foolish, and demonstrably short-sighted decision in Shelby County v. Holder. Justice Ginsberg’s dissent in that case is a master course in the history, purpose, and on-going need of the federal government to oversee state and local election to protect the right to vote in our nation.
Back to the case at hand: I was moved and shocked by the stories of some of the plaintiffs in the case. I knew there were problems in Maricopa County with a lack of polling places and long waits during this year’s Presidential Preference Elections (PPE, or the primaries), but I have to admit, I was surprised by some of the granular impact of that seemingly intentional debacle. I wanted to share some of those personal stories with readers, as specific stories are always more powerful than arid and abstract policy. I doubt anyone, Democrat or Republican, can justify what happened to some of these citizens.
Just for context, according to the complaint, Maricopa County operated 403 polling locations in the 2008 PPE, 211 in the 2008 PPE (in which there was only one party with an actively contested primary), and only 60 in the 2016 PPE, which was hotly contested in both parties. That’s only 15% the number of polling places compared to 2008 for one of the most hotly contested PPEs in recent memory .
After the fold are some of the plaintiffs’ personal experiences that resulted from that disastrous decision.
“Plaintiff Leslie Feldman is a United States citizen registered to vote in Maricopa County, Arizona. She is registered as a Democrat and ordinarily votes in person. On March 22, 2016, Ms. Feldman endured a nearly five-hour wait to vote in the 2016 PPE. She arrived at her vote center, the Church of the Beatitudes, at approximately 3:20 p.m. Upon arriving, she was forced to park half a mile away from the vote center, and then to walk to the vote center with her three-year-old and twelve-week-old daughters. Ms. Feldman arrived at the line to vote at approximately 3:40 p.m. She then waited in line for nearly four hours before even entering the vote center. This experience was made even more unpleasant and upsetting because the one bathroom at the vote center was overwhelmed and leaked raw sewage onto the sidewalk and into the adjacent grass. After nearly four hours of waiting, Ms. Feldman entered the vote center, only to be informed that the location had run out of Democratic ballots. Ms. Feldman then waited another twenty-five minutes for Democratic ballots to arrive. She voted at 8:05 p.m., nearly five hours after arriving at the location. When she left, there were still hundreds of people remaining in line. ”
“Plaintiff Luz Magallanes is a United States citizen registered to vote in Maricopa County, Arizona. Ms. Magallanes is Hispanic and is registered as a Democrat. Ms. Magallanes is a school teacher and she regularly votes in person so that she can be sure her vote is counted, and so that she can share her voting experiences with her students on Election Day. On March 22, 2016, Ms. Magallanes attempted to vote in the PPE before work at the American Legion at 2240 W. Chandler Boulevard, but was unable to vote due to the length of the line. After work, Ms. Magallanes returned to her vote center at approximately 6:00 p.m. and was forced to wait in line for nearly five hours in order to cast her vote. Ms. Magallanes left the vote center at approximately 10:50 p.m.“
“Plaintiff Mercedes Hymesis a United States citizen registered to vote in Maricopa County, Arizona. Ms. Hymes is African American and is registered as a Democrat. She lives in a predominately Hispanic part of Maricopa County. Ms. Hymes first attempted to vote in the 2016 PPE around 6:00 p.m. at the Bell Recreation Center. Upon arriving, she saw that the line wrapped around the block, so she drove to the next closest vote center, the Church of the Advent, in hopes that the line to vote would be shorter. Upon arriving at the Church of the Advent, Ms. Hymes observed that the line at that vote center was even longer than the line at Bell Recreation Center. Therefore, she drove back to the Bell Recreation Center to attempt to vote. Ms. Hymes was unable to find any available parking at Bell Recreation Center, and was still looking for parking at 7:00 p.m. when the line closed. Realizing she would not be able to vote, Ms. Hymes went home without casting a ballot.“
“Plaintiff Julio Morera is a United States citizen registered to vote in Maricopa County, Arizona. Mr. Morera is Hispanic and is registered as a Democrat. On March 22, 2016, Mr. Morera waited in line for three hours and fifteen minutes before finally being able to cast his ballot in the PPE. Mr. Morera originally planned to vote in the morning before work, but when he arrived at the Tempe Christian Church vote center around 8:00 a.m., the line was too long for him to wait. Instead, Mr. Morera returned after work at approximately 6:00 p.m. and waited in line until 9:15 p.m. The wait was particularly burdensome because there were limited bathroom facilities at the location.”
“Plaintiff Alejandra Ruiz is a United States citizen registered to vote in Maricopa County, Arizona. Ms. Ruiz is a registered Democrat. She is Mexican American and voted in a predominately Hispanic neighborhood. Ms. Ruiz recently moved to Maricopa County and could not register for early voting in time for the 2016 PPE, therefore, her only option was to vote in person. Ms. Ruiz first attempted to vote on her lunch break at the only vote center in downtown Phoenix, the Salvation Army on Third Street. Realizing that the line was too long to allow her to return to work before her lunch break ended, she decided to vote after work instead. Accordingly, at approximately 6:30 p.m. she arrived at the vote center at West Thomas Baptist Church. After a nearly six-hour wait, she finally cast her ballot at 12:07 a.m. on March 23, 2016. When she left the vote center, there were at least one hundred voters still waiting in line.”
“Plaintiff Cleo Ovalle is a United States citizen registered to vote in Maricopa County, Arizona. Ms. Ovalle is a registered Democrat. She considers herself to be Latina and voted in a predominately Hispanic neighborhood. Ms. Ovalle did not originally plan to vote in person; however, she never received her early ballot in the mail and had to vote in person to make her voice heard in the 2016 PPE. Ms. Ovalle made three separate attempts to vote. First, she visited the Church of the Beatitudes at approximately 4:00 p.m., but realized that the line was too long to allow her to vote with sufficient time to pick her son up from school. Therefore, after picking up her son, she dropped him off at her mother’s house and drove back to the Church of the Beatitudes, arriving at approximately 5:50 p.m. The line was even longer than it had been before. Ms. Ovalle then proceeded to a second vote center, North Hills Church, where she arrived at approximately 6:00 p.m. There were no available parking spaces. Ms. Ovalle estimates that she spent twenty to thirty minutes looking for parking. By the time she was able to park her car and approach the building, she saw the full extent of the line and realized that she would have to wait several hours in order to vote. Ms. Ovalle needed to be available to care for her son and was not able to wait in the line. Frustrated, Ms. Ovalle left without being able to vote.”
These are only a few of the doubtless thousands of stories of citizens that day whose right to vote was severely burdened or even denied by Maricopa’s decision to only provide 15% of the polling places that they did in 2008.
Lest you think that this was a problem that did not have partisan and racial overtones, look at an interactive map of the polling locations, and judge for yourself.
It is exactly this kind of chicanery that the VRA pre-clearance process was meant to prevent. The Justice Department had decades of experience and institutional memory to deal with these sorts of dirty electioneering tricks and racially- and partisan-motivated legislation, such as HB2023. The task of keeping politicians from manipulating the vote by burdening our citizens’ exercise of the franchise now falls to federal courts lacking such experience and institutional capacity to do so in a timely and effective manner.