Back in March, the elections director for Arizona’s largest county found a bunch of dusty boxes in a warehouse.
Now, he says the contents of the boxes suggest the county may have been systematically disenfranchising nearly 60,000 eligible voters.
Adrian Fontes, the Maricopa County Recorder, told The Arizona Republic that those boxes contained up to 100,000 state-issued voter registration applications, going back over a decade. The forms hadn’t been processed, because they weren’t accompanied by documentary proof of citizenship, as required under an Arizona law passed by voters in 2004.
The law was justified by the need to stop non-citizens from voting, but the state has been able to point to only a tiny number of cases of non-citizen voting.
Fontes said that a random sample of 74 forms pulled from the boxes was checked against records from the state motor vehicles department, which verifies citizenship for driver’s licenses. Forty-three forms were found to have been submitted by citizens. By that rate, Fontes said, applications from 58,000 eligible voters may have been wrongly rejected.
“I’m very confident my worst nightmares will come to pass, and that makes me sick to my stomach,” Fontes told the Republic.
The 2004 law requires that county elections offices send a letter to applicants who use the state-issued voter registration form and don’t submit citizenship proof, asking them to do so. If there’s no response, the application is rejected. But Fontes wants his office to check with the motor vehicles department and add the applicant to the rolls if proof of citizenship is found.
Election officials who helped implement the 2004 law told the Republic that Fontes would be going beyond his authority as a local elections director if he did that. And other county recorders said they, too, believe the process requires them to reject state-issued applications that don’t contain proof of citizenship.
Underlying the controversy is the reality that making voting easier in Arizona’s largest county could have major political implications. The state’s surging Hispanic population is threatening Republicans’ traditional dominance. In 2012, Mitt Romney won Arizona by 9 points, even while losing the election. Last year, Donald Trump won it by only 3.5 points.
In addition to Arizona, three other states—Kansas, Georgia and Alabama—have passed proof-of-citizenship laws for voter registration. Voting rights advocates say such laws make it far too difficult for new voters to register.
Courts have ruled that states can’t enforce the requirement for applicants who use the federal voter registration form, or who register to vote through the DMV. But they have allowed states to continue enforcing the law for state-issued forms.
Fontes, a Democrat, defeated the incumbent Maricopa County Recorder, Republican Helen Purcell, last November. Purcell, who had been in office since 1989, was heavily criticized after voters faced hours-long wait times during the 2016 primaries.
Since taking office, Fontes has signaled he wants to do more to expand access to voting, including switching to an all-mail voting system. He also quickly settled a lawsuit triggered when Purcell’s office tried to charge a voting rights group $50,000 for access to voter registration records, which it was seeking to ensure that applicants weren’t unfairly being prevented from registering.
“We are not in the business of creating obstacles to citizens to exercise their constitutional rights,” Fontes told the Republic.