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Depositions show a right-wing group influenced passage of voter registration laws

Attorneys made their final arguments Tuesday in a lawsuit about heightened voter registration requirements passed by Arizona lawmakers. Depositions show that a conservative group had a heavy hand in passing the Republican measures. 

Arizona House Speaker Ben Toma (R-Peoria) and Senate President Warren Petersen (R-Gilbert) said in depositions that the bills were filed on behalf of the conservative Free Enterprise Club. 

The advocacy group said it’s a way to “ stop illegals from voting,” and cited close races in 2022 where Democrats prevailed as a reason for the legislation. 

The club’s website also says that the “well-funded lawfare of the left” worked to whittle away proof of citizenship requirements.

Warren Petersen on the Arizona Senate floor in 2023
Warren Petersen on the Arizona Senate floor in 2023.

Among other things, the laws add tougher proof of citizenship requirements and mandate investigations of registered voters — potentially striking many from the rolls. 

Presiding Judge Susan Bolton said that the club’s website suggests there was racial animus behind the legislation. 

That’s an idea that the plaintiff’s attorneys emphasized. They said the laws make it harder for people to register to vote and to stay registered.

The defense countered that proving you’re a citizen is not a heavy burden.

Plaintiff’s attorney Danielle Lang said that the Free Enterprise Club is one of several groups serving as the source of voter confidence issues by promoting the idea that federal-only voters are not citizens, in a “racially-charged manner.”

The laws would require the Secretary of State’s office to compare databases with voter registration and driver’s license information every thirty days.

Plaintiffs said that the population who will be most affected by that is naturalized citizens who might get flagged as foreign — even though they’re eligible to vote — and get stuck in a loop of trying to prove it every month. Plaintiffs also argued that it will especially effect Latinos.

Bolton asked defense attorney Joshua Whitaker whether some parts of the laws would fall exclusively on naturalized citizens. He said yes, to the extent that there are false flags in the system.

Ben Toma at the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry’s 2023 awards ceremony
Ben Toma at the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry’s 2023 awards ceremony

Petersen and Toma’s attorney, Hannah Porter, noted that Toma himself is a naturalized citizen and said both lawmakers view the laws as “reasonable common-sense election integrity measures.”

Petersen and Toma joined the case as intervenors, making them parties after it was filed. They were then ordered to turn over communications about the process of passing the bills, and were subjected to depositions by the plaintiffs. 

The lawmakers fought the disclosure, but a higher court dismissed their complaint. They asked Bolton not to make them do the depositions, but she did not change their mind.

Plaintiffs said the resistance was due to the fact that the lawmakers couldn’t show they had evidence of voter fraud that warranted passing the laws, and that they disregarded warnings from the legislative council that the laws would be challenged.

Bolton is expected to make a ruling between January and March. If the case is appealed, it will go to the 9th Circuit

Petersen said on Dec. 13 that he doesn’t expect anything from the 9th Circuit “based on their history.”

If the case is appealed but expedited, any parts of the laws that are allowed to take effect could do so in time to alter the process of the upcoming 2024 election.

More stories from KJZZ

Camryn Sanchez is a field correspondent at KJZZ covering everything to do with state politics.