Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The Democratic Party is suing state election officials over the long lines that marked last month’s primaries, charging they created voter suppression.
Addressing the nation the night he was re-elected to the White House roughly four years ago, President Obama drew attention to the prohibitively long voting lines marring those 2012 elections and said, “We have to fix that.”
Arizona missed that memo. Despite the range of scandalous election day ordeals the state endured during the 2012 elections, officials there learned nothing and the state still managed to flub this year’s presidential primaries. This flubbery was perhaps worst in Maricopa County, where election administrators reduced the number of polling locations by two-thirds compared to those open in 2012.
Consequently, voters waited in incredibly long lines in last month’s primaries, some giving up rather than waiting up to five hours to cast ballots. This was both a preventable and inevitable consequence of Arizona’s refusal to heed the president’s call to fix its election administration problems. This negligence has subjected the county to a U.S. Justice Department civil rights investigation. And now it is being sued by the Democratic Party over the oppressively long voting lines.
From a Democratic National Committee press release on the the lawsuit:
In particular, the suit cites the state’s decision to drastically reduce the number of voting locations, forcing thousands of voters to wait in lines for up to five hours, as well as the state’s arbitrary rejection of provisional ballots at alarming rates, especially those cast by Hispanic voters. In Maricopa County alone, which has a large Hispanic population, more than 2,800 ballots were rejected in 2014.
Such racially complicated outcomes are not only the result of Arizona ignoring Obama’s call to action, which is practically a state tradition. They are also the product of the dilution of Voting Rights Act protections for voters of color. One of the plaintiffs in the Democrats’ lawsuit is Peterson Zah, the First President of the Navajo Nation, whose voters also suffered due to negligent election administration. Arizona has failed to protect its Native American, Latino, and black voters for decades.
“Arizona has a history of problems with guaranteeing the rights of their citizens to vote, and with this lawsuit we hope to stop it now in time for the 2016 general election,” Marc E. Elias, the lawyer suing Arizona, told The Washington Post.
Citing the “particularly burdensome” effects felt by black, Hispanic, and Native American voters in the county, the lawsuit asks a U.S. District Court in Phoenix to examine and correct polling resource allocations for the upcoming general election in November.
This didn’t have to happen. There is no shortage of reports on how to improve polling resource allocation to prevent long lines. Obama set up a bipartisan task force shortly after his re-election, with the primary mission of developing ways for local election supervisors to anticipate and ameliorate these problems. MIT has an entire lab devoted to tools election administrators can use to fairly estimate voter turnout and allocate adequate polling resources accordingly.
Election officials seem to not trust reports indicating that voters of color will turn out in high numbers for elections. Minority voters may not come out full blast for midterm elections, but this has not been true for presidential elections. In fact, African-American voters turned out at a higher rate than white voters in the 2012 elections.
A lot of that huge turnout can be attributed to excitement around voting for the nation’s first black president. However, there is little reason to believe that black, Latino, and Native American voters wouldn’t also be excited about voting this year: GOP frontrunner Donald Trump is running on a vociferously anti-immigration plank, and his rival, Senator Ted Cruz, could become the first Hispanic president. The Democratic race is tighter than it’s been in years. It would make sense for Arizona to prepare for high voter turnout.
However, Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell, who presides over polling resources, said she “didn’t anticipate there would be that many people going to the polling places.” Which is why she elected to reduce the number of polls available for the March 22 primary. As a result, there were far more places for people to vote in predominantly white neighborhoods in Maricopa County than there were in non-white neighborhoods throughout Phoenix.
This is not the only time or place in which election officials have underestimated turnout for voters of color. For the 2008 presidential election in Virginia, the NAACP’s state chapter sued election officials right before election day, arguing that too few polling booths were available to accommodate the anticipated surges of black voters in cities like Richmond and Norfolk. This was based on the huge black voter turnout seen in Virginia and across the country in the 2008 presidential primaries. The NAACP argued that black voters would be subjected to longer waits in lines than white voters if there weren’t enough polling places open in black precincts.
Virginia election officials disagreed with these contentions, and wrote in a motion to dismiss the NAACP’s lawsuit that, “A wait before voting is a minimal harm … It is not at all clear that a long wait is a harm of constitutional proportion… .”
A judge sided with the state, but the decision turned out to be wrong. For the November elections that year, NPR reported that near Norfolk lines were between “six and seven hours long. And part of it is because machines have broken down and the system is just overloaded.”
The New York Times reported:
A precinct in the Hampton Roads area reported a morning line of approximately 1,000 people, according to the secretary of the Virginia State Board of Elections, Nancy Rodriguez. And in Petersburg, about 40 miles south of Richmond, the line at one precinct was reported to be a half-mile long.
Come 2012, Virginia still had egregiously long voting lines, with many people— again, mostly black—unable to cast ballots until after midnight. It was even worse in Florida in 2012 for black and Latino voters. It’s not certain whether election officials keep underestimating turnout from voters of color intentionally, or whether it’s due to irresponsibility or incompetency. But what does it matter to the disenfranchised whether these are errors of election officials’ minds or hearts?
There are cities and counties that have been taking advantage of the wealth of data and technology that exists to ensure that their voters’ rights are protected. In Collin County, Texas, near Dallas, election officials have developed a web app that voters can use to see which polling places have long waits and what the wait times look like. In Washington, D.C., election officials have been working with hackers and data specialists to develop applications for more precise measuring of where polling resources should be distributed, based on voter registration and past data on turnout.
Arizona has failed to take advantage of similar tools and data. Which is how it now finds itself in court, defending itself against charges of voting rights violations. Again.