Maricopa County residents have been purged from the voter rolls nearly 1.1 million times since the 2008 election.
Nearly half, or 491,944, of the removals happened, as required by state statute, after the Maricopa County Elections Department mails a notice — an early ballot or a voter guide — to a voter and it is returned undelivered by the U.S. Postal Service.
If the initial and subsequent notices are undelivered, the individual is designated “inactive.” Inactive voters who do not update their registrations or vote in the following two general elections are removed from the rolls.
It’s a policy intended to ensure the rolls include only people who are eligible to vote, and, supporters say, it helps prevent fraud. The remainder of the purges are largely voters who moved out of the county or died.
But an Arizona Republic analysis of Recorder’s Office data since 2008 shows the voter-purge policy isn’t experienced equally across Maricopa County, home to 61 percent of all registered voters in the state. Purges of inactive voters in Maricopa County over the past 10 years have disproportionately affected lower-income communities, where minorities make up a larger share of the population, according to the analysis.
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Critics of the county policy say the result is thousands of people who are eligible to vote will run into problems at the polls Tuesday, when they learn they are no longer on the rolls.
The Republic analysis shows that will happen more often to poor and minority voters, groups that are less likely to own a home and are more likely to change addresses.
Civil-rights groups argue the state could do more — by automatically updating voters’ registrations with new addresses when they are changed on their driver’s licenses, for example — to avoid disenfranchising citizens.
“It shouldn’t be this difficult,” said Darrell Hill, a staff attorney with the ACLU. “You shouldn’t have to jump through so many hoops to make sure you can cast a ballot.”
The Republic analysis, which incorporated data from the Census Bureau, found:
To calculate the purge rate, The Republic divided the average voter purges in the years following elections by the average number of active voter registrations at the end of election years. Five election cycles were included in the analysis. The active registration numbers by year are an estimate based on the voter’s most current registration address or other updates, according to the recorder’s office.
Battles over voting
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona sued the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office this year, claiming the state doesn’t update voter-registration information when individuals change their address on their driver’s license.
The suit was filed on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Arizona, Arizona’s chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens and multiple voter-registration organizations.
ACLU sued after requesting in early August that Secretary of State Michele Reagan’s office update the addresses of more than 500,000 people to reflect new addresses they provided when they updated their Arizona driver’s licenses. The intent of the lawsuit was to ensure those individuals could vote in Tuesday’s general election.
Reagan said she was working with the Arizona Department of Transportation to make those changes next year. But Reagan’s bid for re-election ended in the primary, which means it will be left to Arizona’s new secretary of state to implement any potential changes.
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Reagan said the current system has been in place for more than 10 years and any changes must be managed carefully, given that it involves several systems and state agencies, including ADOT and county recorders, so voters’ information is handled securely.
“What they were asking for was not good for voters because it could have led to massive confusion of people’s addresses getting changed right before an election,” she said. “These changes or upgrades are planned for 2019, which is a non-election year, and to us that makes the ACLU lawsuit just a moot point.”
Hill, the ACLU staff attorney, said a judge refused an emergency request to force Reagan to immediately update the addresses.
The case continues, he said, but thousands of voters may run into problems at the polls Tuesday.
Opt in, opt out
The National Voter Registration Act requires that, unless a voter opts out, election officials automatically update addresses on voter rolls when a person moves and updates the address on their driver’s license.
Arizona requires voters to opt in to have their registration automatically update, or to affirm the address change.
That’s a violation of federal law, Hill said.
It’s also one example of the confusing policies that create hurdles for eligible citizens to cast a ballot, Hill said.
“The system is so confusing across Arizona, there’s little uniformity for a voter who’s just trying to vote,” Hill said.
The ACLU and the Arizona voter-registration organizations it represented won a parallel fight in August. The settlement covered voting-rights violations that disenfranchised Spanish-speaking, minority and low-income voters.
Hill said certain Arizona social-services agencies weren’t providing voter-registration forms to their clients as required by federal law.
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Federal voting laws, recognizing that low-income and minority voters have been historically disenfranchised, have protections to ensure voter-registration opportunities.
Under the settlement, the Department of Economic Security and the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, or AHCCCS, agreed to send voter-registration forms in English and Spanish to about 300,000 people who had contact with the agencies between Aug. 1, 2017, and July 31. The letters were to be mailed by the end of August to give voters time to register for Tuesday’s general election.
Additionally, ADOT, under the settlement, agreed to translate driver’s license/ID card applications into Spanish. The forms, provided at ADOT offices, include an option to register to vote.
Federal law requires that voter-registration information distributed in the four Arizona counties named in the lawsuit — Maricopa, Pima, Santa Cruz and Yuma — to be available in Spanish as well as English.
Petra Falcon, executive director of immigrant-rights advocacy group Promise Arizona, applauded the agencies.
“While the Arizona Secretary of State makes excuses as to why she can’t send a similar letter to at least 500,000 Arizonans who may have been denied their voting rights, these agencies are taking an active step to protect our fundamental right to vote,” she said in a statement following the settlement. “The right to vote is one of the most powerful tools the Latino community has.”
The politics of voting
Tuesday’s elections will determine the balance of power in Congress, and many of those races are expected to be decided by narrow margins.
Arizona’s U.S. Senate race, for example, appears to be among the tightest in the nation, with Republican Rep. Martha McSally and Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema each leading in various polls.
It’s typical of recent elections. And against that backdrop, voting policies often become political, said Rick Hasen, a University of California, Irvine, election-law expert.
“Democrats have called for voter access and Republicans have called for (protections against) voter fraud and bloat on the rolls,” he said.
States have leeway in implementing voting policies. But federal laws such as the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the Help Americans Vote Act supersede state laws.
Election lawsuits, like the ACLU’s suits against Arizona officials, often reflect the larger battle between states’ powers to control local elections and federal voting mandates.
“The whole point of the NVRA is to balance these two things — the desire to maintain clean voter rolls and on the other hand making sure voters have access and the ability to vote,” Hasen said.
Arizona is one of two states that requires documentary proof of citizenship to vote in state elections.
Helen Purcell: I won’t second-guess Adrian Fontes
Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes said that when he took office, he found about 100,000 state-issued voter-registration forms that employees had stockpiled in boxes. Staffers said the forms, under former Recorder Helen Purcell, a Republican, were not processed for registration because the voter did not show proof of citizenship.
In an interview with The Republic, Fontes, a Democrat who in 2016 unseated Purcell, a 28-year incumbent, said his staff checked state records and contacted voters in a painstaking attempt to register them.
“That exercise took a great amount of time and resources, but we ended up bringing thousands and thousands of voters onto the voter rolls,” he said. “And we found several thousands of voters who were unfortunately kept off, kept out of voting in certain elections, and that could have been avoided.”
Voter fraud in Arizona since 2010
President Donald Trump and conservatives across the U.S. have argued greater election-security measures are needed to limit voter fraud.
Trump has claimed, without proof, that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 election, and he created an executive order to ensure election integrity.
On Oct. 20, Trump tweeted, “All levels of government and Law Enforcement are watching carefully for VOTER FRAUD, including during EARLY VOTING. Cheat at your own peril. Violators will be subject to maximum penalties, both civil and criminal!”
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Concern over voter fraud is a common refrain when conservatives lobby for policies to secure voter rolls and registration or tighten demands on what a voter will need to cast a ballot at the polls.
But voter-fraud convictions in Arizona remain consistently low.
Katie Conner, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, said the agency tracks voter-fraud cases.
Since 2010, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office has received 34 referrals — a period that’s seen 16.1 million votes cast, according to data from the Secretary of State’s Office.
Twenty-two of the referrals resulted in convictions. One was overturned on appeal. And another was dismissed without prejudice. Seven cases were turned down and three remain active.
Thirteen of the convictions were in Maricopa County.
Reagan said nothing is more important than protecting the integrity of an election so that voters know their voice on candidates and election issues matters.
“I think the National Secretary of State Association says it best, and it’s an idea that many of us have adopted whether Democrat or Republican,” she said. “It should be easy to vote and hard to cheat.”
‘No guarantee my vote would count’
Mateo Rios spotted a voter-registration table on his way to class at the Arizona State University West Campus in Glendale.
The 19-year-old had been meaning to register to vote since he moved back to Arizona from California in August for school. Realizing it was already mid-September, he decided to stop and sign up. Rios said he’s an independent because he’s dissatisfied with both major parties.
Rios said he and a friend registered at the ASU voter drive. To make voting easier, he chose to have an early ballot sent to his apartment in Glendale.
He checked online about a week later to confirm his registration was complete. “It was there, my information was there and I was registered with the county,” he said.
But when friends began receiving early ballots, Rios’ hadn’t shown up. He checked his voter registration online.
“It said no one was registered with my name, with my address,” he said. Rios said he called the Recorder’s Office on Tuesday and was told he was not in the system.
“All they said I could do was go to the early-voting place and fill out a provisional ballot,” he said. “He gave me no guarantee my vote would count.”
Disillusioned, Rios considered not voting.
“I’ve read about voter suppression happening and people being taken out of registration all the time,” he said. “I was just really upset by it, and they really had no solution for me.”
Rios said his conscience convinced him to vote with a provisional ballot on Tuesday.
“I’ve been saying how important it is to vote to people, to my friends and family,” he said. “There’s no way I can expect other people to vote when they’re angry with the government if I don’t do it.”
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Michael Zubiria’s experience with the voter rolls also was puzzling.
When contacted by The Republic, the Phoenix Republican was shocked to learn he had been registered to vote in Arizona in 2008 and removed from the rolls in 2017.
Zubirias said he wasn’t registered to vote in Arizona those years.
“There’s not very many Zubirias in this country,” he said. “We’re extremely rare, so I don’t know who put me down as registered to vote because I never registered.”
This year, he registered just before the cutoff so he can vote Tuesday. He said he’s backing Doug Ducey, a Republican, for governor and wants Sinema, a Democrat, as his senator.
“That’s going to be the first time that I voted within the state of Arizona,” he said. “The reason I stopped voting years ago is because I was just tired of the bulls – – t.”
Recorder Fontes backs automatic voter registration
Fontes said sometimes voters believe they registered but haven’t, or they are certain they have updated their address or voted in a recent election, which triggers a voter-registration update after a move, but they haven’t.
Fontes faced a backlash in the primary election when voters showed up during the primary election to find their polling sites were closed.
Fontes said he modernized voting systems and increased the number of voting centers where any registered voter, regardless of where they live, can cast a ballot. Voters who have moved can also provide documents — like a current utility bill — and ID to show their new address and update their registration at the voting centers.
“Maintaining the voter rolls is a partnership between the voters and my office — that partnership exists 2.5 million times in Maricopa County,” he said.
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Fontes said some critical improvements that would limit voter purges in Maricopa County are in the state Legislature’s hands, not his.
“Let’s be honest, we’ve got no-fly lists … we’ve got all kinds of other ways to tell who people are and where people are born,” he said, “and yet when it comes to elections, somehow we want to ignore all that, not use all that technology, to make sure that every single eligible citizen can vote easily.”
If Fontes had his way, Arizona would adopt automatic voter registration.
Automatic voter registration is often operated through a state’s motor-vehicles department. When a citizen obtains or renews a license, the agency automatically checks if the person is eligible and registered to vote. If the individual is eligible but unregistered, that information is sent to elections officials who register the person to vote.
“It makes sense not only from a policy and safety consideration, but from an economic perspective,” he said. “Let’s not forget I’ve had to employ over 40 temporary employees to work six days a week, 12-hour days to process all the paper that comes through this office.”
Study: Arizona ranks among toughest states to vote
Arizona is the 15th most difficult state in which to vote, according to a recent Northern Illinois University study.
“In recent years, American state legislatures have been busy changing state laws to either make it more difficult or easier to cast a vote on Election Day,” the study said.
Oregon was the easiest state in which to cast a ballot.
States where it is easiest have automatic voter registration and same-day voter registration, according to the study. Michael Pomante, a lead researcher with the study, said that by 2020, 13 states will have automatic voter registration in place.
The system has come under fire in California where Department of Motor Vehicles officials have acknowledged more than 100,000 errors, including incorrect changes to party preferences or mail-in ballot options, according to a Calmatters report, which attributes the problems to an outdated computer system. In Oregon, though, registration rates quadrupled after automatic voter policies, according to a 2018 Brennan Center report.
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Mississippi was the hardest state to vote in.
Pomante said he’s not surprised that the highest rate of voter purges in Maricopa County happened in areas with the highest rate of minorities.
“It’s more difficult on average to vote in the state of Arizona than the rest of the country,” he said.
His study found a strong correlation between the difficulty in voting and the percentage of non-whites.
“States that have higher rates of minority populations … are more likely to have polices that make voting more difficult for everyone to vote,” he said.
Pomante said many states have adopted policies targeting certain voters.
“We know that Democrats and African-Americans are more likely to take advantage of early-voting days,” he said, “and over the past years, we’ve seen states reduce the amount of early-voting days or specifically the weekend before elections because this is when African-Americans are likely to vote.”
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He pointed to a recent North Dakota law requiring ID with a current address and the difficulties it is creating for Native American voters. Native Americans have argued they are disenfranchised by the law because tribal members on reservations don’t have standard addresses.
What would make it easier for Arizonans to vote?
A Brennan Center report on national voter purges called out states with problematic voter removals and outlined steps that states could make to protect citizens’ rights to vote.
“Voter purges are an often-flawed process of cleaning up voter rolls by deleting names from registration lists,” the report said. “Done badly, they can prevent eligible people from casting a ballot that counts.”
The report warned of negative effects stemming from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which ended oversight known as “preclearance” requiring Arizona and eight other states with a history of racial discrimination to seek federal approval before enacting new voter laws.
In a 5-4 split decision, the court ruled that the formula determining which states must receive preclearance was unconstitutional and said the conditions that originally “justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.”
The decision weakened voter protections under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for minority populations, the report said.
“For the two election cycles between 2012 and 2016, jurisdictions no longer subject to federal preclearance had purge rates significantly higher than jurisdictions that did not have it in 2013,” the report said.
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The report also noted Arizona’s policy of using a system called Crosscheck to purge voters within 90 days of an election. Federal law prohibits large-scale purges during that period.
Fontes said the County Recorder’s Office no longer uses Crosscheck.
“It’s a terrible program designed to suppress votes, and it was costing the county one full-time employee from January to October every year because the list was so inaccurate,” Fontes said.
The voter-purge report makes the following recommendations:
Even if the general election runs smoothly Tuesday, policies that prevent citizens from voting will continue in Arizona.
“There are people who make it harder for eligible citizens to vote,” Fontes said.
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Rios said he couldn’t help but think of his last name and the color of his skin when his voter registration disappeared.
“I really want to have the hope that it could happen to anyone,” he said. “But I do think it partly has to do with my ethnicity.
“I feel like as we’ve seen many times, history has repeated itself right now. Minorities are being targeted when it comes to voting because right now people in power don’t want them voting. It’s that minorities tend to vote Democrat instead of Republican.”
ZIP codes with the 5 highest purge rates
ZIP codes with the 5 lowest purge rates