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State Officials Ask Judge to Void Requirements for Arizona to Get Federal Approval When Changing Voting Laws

Phoenix, AZ – Congress approved the Voting Rights Act in 1964 to address what it saw as practices by some state to suppress minority voting. While most of the affected states were in the deep South, the law also drew in Arizona because of its high percentage of Spanish-speaking residents and the fact that it did not have bilingual ballots until 1974. Attorney General Tom Horne pointed out the federal law was updated in 1975. But federal lawmakers made its provisions retroactive.

(So in 1975, knowing that we had implemented bilingual ballots in prior year, they arbitrarily said it as of three years prior, previously. And we're still being punished for it four years later.)

The federal law says the state has to run changes in voting procedure by the Department of Justice. These range from who vets to vote and what identification is required to changes in legislative districts and polling places. If the federal agency does not object in 60 days, the changes can take effect. Horne said this can be an inconvenience, as in last year's special election for the temporary sales tax hike. But there are more practical effects. Just this year the DoJ refused to approve a law which says anyone who turns in more than 10 early ballots at a polling location must provide photo identification. An agency official said he had a bunch of questions, including the legislative history of the bill, efforts to get public comments and what basis the state has for contending the changes will not affect the ability of minorities to vote by mail. The result is that the law will not be allowed to take effect. Horne said that makes no sense.

(When we're talking about people bringing in 10 or more ballots, we're concerned about voter fraud. And it's not a legitimate federal interest to stop us from trying to be sure there's no voter fraud.)

Horne acknowledged there may have been discriminatory practices in the past. Some of these gained national attention during the 1971 confirmation hearings of William Rehnquist for the U.S. Supreme Court. There was testimony that during the 1960s he intimidated black and Hispanic voters, using the state's then-existing literacy requirement. Horne said that's old news -- and no reason to impose special requirements on Arizona.

(There's no one out there right now trying to prevent Latino people from voting. They have the same opportunity to vote as anybody in any state that's not covered.)

In a prepared statement, U-S Attorney General Eric Holder said the Voting Rights Act -- quote -- plays a vital role in our society by ensuring that every American has the right to vote and have that vote counted. Holder said his agency will defend the law -- quote -- as it has done successfully in the past. For Arizona Public Radio this is Howard Fischer.