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Phoenix Mayor Asks Justice Department to Investigate Alleged Voter Suppression in Arizona

Long lines that took five hours to clear and allegations of minority voter suppression permeated Arizona's primary on Tuesday night.

by Liz Fields
Mar 25 2016, 3:50pm

Photo by Matt York/AP

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton has called on the Justice Department to launch an investigation into alleged voter suppression tactics that led to excessively long lines of voters in some areas on the night of the Arizona primary. In some areas, lines stretched around several blocks and took five hours to clear after polling closed on Tuesday night.

In a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch Wednesday, Stanton described election night at polling stations throughout Maricopa County, which encompasses Phoenix, as a "fiasco." Stanton is a Democrat who endorsed Arizona primary winner Hillary Clinton.

"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 [c]ounty elections officials allowed it to happen in my city."

"My request comes on the heels of consistent activity that has created a culture of voter disenfranchisement in the state," he added.

Stanton said that polling sites quickly became overwhelmed, in part because there were significantly fewer locations than in past elections. County officials cut polling locations by some 85 percent from 2008 to save money, Stanton claims, and disproportionately distributed those sites to mainly white communities while setting up fewer in areas representing higher minority populations.

"In Phoenix, a majority-minority city, county officials allocated one polling location for every one in 108,000 residents," he wrote. "The ratios were far more favorable in predominantly Anglo communities: in Cave Creek/Carefree, there was one polling location for 8,500 residents; in Paradise Valley, one for 13,000 residents; in Fountain Hills, one for 22,500 residents; and in Peoria, one for every 54,000 residents."

The Justice Department issued a statement saying it would "review the request from the Mayor of Phoenix, just as we review all such requests."

Related: Activist, Preacher, Civil Disobedience Leader: Rev. William Barber on North Carolina's Landmark Voting Rights Trial

On Tuesday night and in the days following, residents posted pictures to social media of lengthy voting lines and protested their hours-long waits at polling places. Some encouraged journalists and the government to investigate allegations of voter suppression and even fraud. Others set up a White House petition, claiming that on the night of the Arizona primary, "numerous voters who switched from Independent to Democrat could not vote and were turned away or given provisional ballots which in turn were never counted." The petition has received more than 141,000 signatures as of Friday morning.

In Arizona's closed primary system, independent voters must declare a party in advance of Election Day. Independents may show up and vote with a provisional ballot, which are held until officials can confirm their party switch. Each state determines its own rules for whether a provisional ballot can be counted. The varied interpretations can be controversial in cases where elections officials throw out thousands of provisional ballots, especially in a tight election. Some states, for example, strictly count only those provisional ballots cast in the precinct where the resident lives, while others accept those cast in the wrong voting precinct. In 2012, Arizona rejected 2 percent of all ballots cast, which equaled nearly 46,000 votes.

Maria Peralta, senior national coordinator for election watchdog the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told VICE News that her group received more than 100 complaints on its hotline about voter disenfranchisement on Tuesday. One student reported that several classmates were given provisional ballots at polling stations and immediately told by staff that their votes would not count, triggering 15 students to simply walk out, she said.

"This is a common problem in Arizona," Peralta said. "You've got a lot of college students that are living on campus and have registered in another county or another state, and many are not aware they need to reregister in the county they're living."

Other callers said they had pre-registered as Democrats, but turned up to polling stations to find they were still listed as independents on voting rolls, Peralta added.

The thousands of complaints from Tuesday's primary in Arizona highlight broader accusations by Democrats who view funding cuts that lead lawmakers to pare back voting sites and implement new voting restrictions in at least 16 states across the country since 2013, as an effort by Republicans to muzzle the Democratic vote, and especially minority voices.

"The way Arizona administered its elections last night is absolutely, unequivocally unacceptable," Clinton campaign counsel, Marc Elias, wrote in a Reddit thread. "It's the result of a larger Republican effort to make it harder for people to vote — especially those who are less likely to support their policies. From attacks on the Voting Rights Act to harsh voter ID laws to cutbacks on early voting to limits on voter registration, these restrictions disproportionately target low-income voters, young voters, and people of color, especially African Americans."

In an email sent to supporters the day after the election, the Bernie Sanders campaign said the electoral process in Arizona on Tuesday night "should be considered a national disgrace."

"One reason it is so hard to vote in Arizona is because the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act," the campaign wrote. "There were 70 percent fewer polling places this year than in 2012 in Phoenix's county. They wouldn't have been allowed to cut those polling places if the Voting Rights Act was still in tact."

The 2016 election is the first since the US Supreme Court's 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, which struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, a landmark legal protection that eviscerated the most egregious obstacles for black voters in the 1960s. The court's ruling essentially diluted the Justice Department's powers to vet state voting bills and stop legislators from passing unfair election laws or changing congressional boundaries without prior approval. Arizona is now among 16 states that has introduced new restrictive voting laws in the years that followed. In many cases these laws sought to strip back policies enacted over the years that had significantly increased voter participation among African Americans and other minorities, including early voting periods, same-day voting, and allowing alternate IDs at polls.

Republican leaders in these states contend that the new restrictions have been put in place to counter election fraud, and have denied any effort to suppress minority votes. On Thursday, Arizona's Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich announced plans to prohibit county and state officials from releasing election data before all polls are closed. He also said that county and state officials have pledged to review procedures to combat long lines in future, which he characterized as "unacceptable," but did not address the cutting back of polling sites that led to the problem.

"I plan to work with the legislature on a law to prevent early election returns from being released before all polls are closed," Brnovich said in a statement."I want to ensure that all voters who are following the rules have a chance to cast their ballots in a fair and neutral environment. While I understand the public anticipation and demand for the results, it is problematic if early election returns and projections of winners are broadcast while voters are still in lines at the polls.

Related: 50 Years after Selma March, Activists Walk Again to Restore Voting Rights in South

Clinton ultimately won the Arizona Democratic primary with nearly 58 percent of the vote. On Thursday, Sanders praised Stanton for his calls to a Justice Department to launch an investigation into voter disenfranchisement.

The Clinton campaign looked ahead to the November presidential election, saying they hope that the problems seen on Tuesday would be resolved before then.

"The election officials in Arizona are to blame for inexcusable long lines in the primary. We should all be committed to use this experience to pressure the state — whether through the media, legislative process, or the courts — to fix their system for November 2016," Elias wrote in a follow-up Reddit post on Thursday. "This is what the voters deserve."

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields