Liberal groups sue over Arizona election law that they say allows 'targeted voter suppression'

Ray Stern
Arizona Republic

Liberal voting-advocacy groups filed a federal complaint against Arizona on Monday over an election law they claim will "chill" voter registration and allow "targeted voter suppression." 

The lawsuit by Voto Latino, Priorities USA and the Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans is the second challenge this week against new, Republican-created state voting laws aimed at shoring up alleged election security problems.

Also on Monday, the Democratic National Committee and Arizona Democratic Party filed the fifth lawsuit targeting House Bill 2492, which tightens the state's proof-of-citizenship requirements for registering to vote. That law already faces lawsuits in federal court by multiple voting advocacy groups and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Republican lawmakers introduced more than 100 bills this year that covered a wide range of purported fixes, including some tied to debunked 2020 election conspiracy theories. Only a fraction of the bills actually made it to law, with many blocked by House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, and Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale.

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What the new law would do

The law that's the target of the latest lawsuit is Senate Bill 1260, which Gov. Doug Ducey signed after the Legislature passed it on party lines. Sponsored by Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, the law makes it a felony to knowingly helping someone to register to vote when the person is already registered in another state.

County recorders will have to double-check to make sure people aren't registered in two places. If officials receive "credible information" that someone has registered in another county, the Recorder's Office would cancel the registration on file, but only after confirming the person was on the other county's voter rolls. The law is scheduled to take effect Sept. 24.

It also asks residents who receive someone else's ballot in the mail to send it back to the county with a note that the voter is "not at this address." Once a county recorder's office receives the returned ballot, workers must remove the voter listed on the ballot from the state's active early voting list, preventing the voter from automatically receiving a mailed ballot.  

That provision "effectively conscripts Arizona residents into helping the state purge their neighbors from the voter rolls," the lawsuit states.

Voters wouldn't know if their name was stricken from the early voting list because the law doesn't require anyone to notify them, the lawsuit states, adding that it's not illegal to be registered to vote in a different county as long the voter only votes once in a single jurisdiction.

Worse, according to the groups, the law would facilitate the targeting of various groups by political operatives who could send county recorders third-party information that the recorders' offices would then have to investigate.

The advocacy groups say the law would have the greatest negative impact on people who move frequently, like young voters, college students, older voters and people of color.

"​​​​SB 1260 is almost certain to disenfranchise older Arizonans who may have moved to the state to retire, or moved from their long-time home to live in a retirement community or nursing home, or with a family member," said Saundra Cole, president of the Alliance for Retired Americans, in a written statement.

The provision that criminalizes people who provide a "mechanism for voting" for people already on voter rolls in another state will cause people conducting registration drives to wonder if they're breaking the law, according to the lawsuit. "Ambiguity" in the statute's language will add to the confusion and chilling effect, the groups state.

"It is unclear, for example, which of Plaintiffs’ voter registration or mobilization activities would constitute 'a mechanism for voting,'" the lawsuit states.

Groups mostly based in D.C.

Two of groups have Washington D.C. headquarters: Voto Latino, a nonprofit founded in 2004, and Priorities USA, the Democratic Party's largest super-PAC. The Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans, which is affiliated with labor unions including the AFL-CIO, also has a parent group in D.C.

The Washington D.C. firm of former Democratic lawyer Marc Elias, who's representing the groups, is also representing Mi Familia Vota in one of the lawsuits against House Bill 2492.

Aneesa McMillan, deputy executive director for Priorities USA, said the group has spent over $50 million in litigation nationwide since 2015 to counter laws that put up barriers to voting.

"Whenever you have a situation where you're talking about purging people from voter rolls ... it's disturbing," McMillan said. "Particularly to people who are young, people of color, and folks who are transient and move around a lot."

Mesnard said the new law instead will clean up the state's voter rolls, making them more accurate.

"The least we can do is make sure people aren't duplicating registrations," he said, adding that the law will boost confidence in elections. "It's not hearsay — all this has to be verified."

Mensard, who faces a Democratic competitor for his Senate seat, said he doubts the law would inspire the third parties to provide specific voter information to recorders, but "even if it's what happens, it's improving the system in the sense that they're not registered in more than one place."

The latest lawsuit against House Bill 2492 states that the Democratic National Committee and Arizona Democratic Party would experience direct harm by the implementation of the proof-of-citizenship law. Like Senate Bill 1260, it directs county recorders to take proactive action against possible registration violators.

Because of that, the Democratic groups will need to expend money and resources making sure voters aren't "erroneously removed from the voter rolls," the suit states.

Reach the reporter at rstern@arizonarepublic.com or 480-276-3237. Follow him on Twitter @raystern.