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Democrats File Lawsuit Over Arizona Voting Troubles

downtown Phoenix voters
(Photo by Jude Joffe-Block - KJZZ)
The lines were so long at the downtown Phoenix polling location on March 22, 2016, that voting did not finish until after midnight.

UPDATE: Lawyers representing Democratic groups filed the lawsuit Friday morning.

In the wake of Arizona’s botched Presidential Preference Election last month, national Democratic Party groups and some Democratic candidates plan to file a federal lawsuit Friday to get federal court oversight over future elections in Arizona and block certain state voting policies.

The suit is to be filed on behalf of the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Arizona Democratic Party, Democratic voters and Democratic Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick, who is challenging Sen. John McCain’s seat. State and local officials are named as defendants.

The Hillary Clinton campaign released a statement on Thursday indicating plans to join the suit. A lawyer for the Bernie Sanders campaign told KJZZ Sanders plans to either join the suit or file his own.

The suit points to the highly criticized decision by Maricopa County elections officials to reduce the number of polling locations in the March 22 presidential preference election to just 60. That was an 85 percent decrease compared to eight years ago, the last time both parties had a contested presidential primary. The dramatic reduction has been blamed for causing more than five-hour waits to vote at some locations, which prevented some voters from casting a ballot.

“I am really bothered that Arizonans were denied their constitutional right to vote, because those who ran the system were not prepared,” Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick told KJZZ. “We have got to make sure this never happens again.”

The suit alleges the long lines at the polls particularly impacted minority voters, and charges there have been issues with disenfranchisement in Arizona ever since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the provision of the Voting Rights Act that required Arizona officials to get voting policies cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice. Before the high court’s 2013 ruling, Arizona was one of nine states that had to seek such pre-clearance due to a history of discriminating against minority voters, including Latinos and Native Americans.

This suit seeks to require Arizona election officials to clear future Election Day plans with the court, said Sheila Healy, the Executive Director of the Arizona Democratic Party.

“The election that we saw on March 22 was a disaster,” Healy said. “We need to put some federal court oversight in place to make sure the allocation of polling locations happen in a better way, a more systematic way than it happened on March 22.”

A draft of the lawsuit states that without court oversight, there is nothing to ensure that Maricopa County elections officials and the Board of Supervisors “will not continue to dismantle the fair election process in Maricopa County by disenfranchising and disparately burdening Arizona’s minority voters when allocating polling locations for the 2016 general election.”

The suit also seeks to block two Arizona voting policies on the basis that they are discriminatory against minority voters and violate the constitution and federal law.  One is a new state law enacted this legislative session that makes it a felony to collect and turn in someone else’s early ballot, with a narrow exception for relatives and caregivers. The plaintiffs argue a key part of Arizona Democratic campaign strategies for more than a decade has been to collect early ballots from voters, and this policy will hamper Democratic and minority voter turnout.

The other is a policy that prevents provisonal ballots from being counted if they were cast by voters who show up to vote in the wrong precinct. The suit alleges that because Maricopa County voters were allowed to vote in any of the 60 polling centers in the past presidential preference election, there will be widespread confusion when voters are only allowed to have their vote count if they go to their assigned precinct in the November general election.

“Consequently, thousands more Maricopa County voters will be disenfranchised in the upcoming 2016 general election if the State’s prohibition on counting out-of-precinct ballots remains in place,” the lawsuit reads.

Arizona's strict rules on provisional ballots mean that the state consistently has one of the highest tallies in the country of provisonal ballots that are tossed out and not counted each election.

Arizona Secretary of State spokesman Matt Roberts said his office was open to any inquiry about the past election, though he had not yet seen the lawsuit as of Thursday.

“But any attempt to get to the bottom of what occurred is something we are supportive of,” Roberts said. On Thursday evening Secretary of State Michele Reagan held her third community meeting to hear from voters about their experiences on March 22.

Last week, Tucson election activist John Brakey filed a lawsuit challenging the results of the presidential preference election in Maricopa County Superior Court. The suit seeks to cancel certification of the election.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice has requested information from the Maricopa County Recorder’s office about its decision to reduce the number of polling locations and how it evaluated the impact on minority voters. The Recorder’s office has until April 22 to respond.

MORE: Maricopa County Recorder Adds 54 Polling Sites For May 17 Special Election

In the map below, click the slider in the top left corner to toggle between polling places for the Feb. 28, 2012, Presidential Preference Election (red), the March 22, 2016, Presidential Preference Election (green) and the May 17, 2016, Special Election (blue). Data from the Maricopa County Recorder's Office.

Editor's Note: This story was updated with the correct spelling of Sheila Healy's name.

Jude Joffe-Block was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2010 to 2017.