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Federal judge upholds most provisions from new Arizona voter registration laws

Posted 3/2/24

PHOENIX — A federal judge has blocked Arizona from enforcing two more provisions of two controversial 2022 laws imposing more restrictions on voter registration.

But she upheld most of the …

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Federal judge upholds most provisions from new Arizona voter registration laws


PHOENIX — A federal judge has blocked Arizona from enforcing two more provisions of two controversial 2022 laws imposing more restrictions on voter registration.

But she upheld most of the rest of them.

In a 104-page ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton affirmed claims by attorneys for the state that Arizona has a legitimate interest in ensuring that those who vote in elections are citizens. And she upheld several provisions about requirements to prove citizenship, investigating the legal status of voters and procedures for canceling registrations.

“The court concludes that Arizona’s interests in preventing non-citizens from voting and promoting public confidence in Arizona’s elections outweighs the limited burden voters might encounter when required to prevent documentary proof of citizenship,” the judge wrote.

Bolton also rejected arguments by a host of rights groups and the U.S. Department of Justice that the Republican-controlled Legislature acted with discriminatory intent in approving the laws.

But she said there is no reason county recorders should be precluded from allowing individuals to register simply because they do not provide the state or country of their birth. The judge concluded that information is not relevant to whether the person is a citizen.

Bolton also found fault with a mandate to county recorders that they must conduct monthly checks through certain federal databases on registered voters who they have “reason to believe” are not citizens.

She said that provision purportedly applies to confirming the citizenship of all voters.

Only thing is, one of those databases — known as SAVE, operated by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — requires an immigration number.

“Naturalized citizens will always be at risk of county recorders’ subjective decision to further investigate these voters’ citizenship status, whereas the ‘reason to believe’ provision will never apply to native-born citizens,” Bolton wrote. And that, she said, violates requirements to apply equal scrutiny to all.

The decision drew mixed reactions from those involved.

“I am pleased to see that the court found that plaintiffs failed to show that Arizona’s common-sense voting laws were enacted with discriminatory intent,” said House Speaker Ben Toma. But the Peoria Republican said he is still reviewing the rest of the decision.

Yadira Sanchez had a different take.

“While this decision unfortunately leaves in place many discriminatory provisions, we are extremely heartened to see the court strike down a modern Jim Crow law that targeted naturalized voters in our community,” said the executive director of Poder Latinx, one of the organization that sued. That refers to the section requiring county officials to investigate when they have “reason to believe” someone is not a citizen.

And Joseph Garcia, vice president of public policy at Chicanos Por La Causa, said it’s not the end of legal battles.

This is actually second time that Bolton has voided parts of the 2022 laws.

She previously blocked Arizona from enforcing another part of the law that sought to extend Arizona’s demand for proof of citizenship to those who are voting in the presidential race.

Bolton said Arizonans who use a federal voter registration form, which does not require such proof, are entitled to cast a ballot in presidential elections. And she said the state cannot enforce another provision that says anyone who uses this federal form can’t vote by mail.

Both of the challenged 2022 laws have their roots in claims advanced by Donald Trump and his political allies that the results of the 2020 election in Arizona were affected by votes by people who are not citizens.

Trump lost to Joe Biden by 10,457 votes. At the same time, though, there were about 21,000 Arizonans who registered using a form designed by the federal Election Assistance Commission.

It entitles residents to vote only in presidential and congressional races without proof of citizenship. Instead, it require only that applicants sign a sworn statement avowing, under penalty of perjury, they are in fact citizens.

The provisions in both bills were designed to both keep those who could not provide what the state considers “documentary proof of citizenship” citizens from registering, regardless of the form they used. And they also sought to purge the rolls of those who did not provide that proof.

Much of what the lawsuit claimed is that the Republican-controlled Legislature enacted the laws with “discriminatory intent,” something that would run afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act.

Bolton agreed to let challengers pursue that theory, even to the point of allowing them to question both Toma and Senate President Warren Petersen. And neither could recall the Legislature being presented with or considering evidence of non-citizen voter fraud in Arizona.

But the judge said there was no proof of discriminatory intent.

“Nothing in the legislative hearings evince a motive to discriminate against voters based on race or national origin,” she wrote.

Nor was she swayed based on testimony by former state Sen. Martin Quezada that Senate Majority Leader Sonny Borrelli had frequently made racially motivated comments to him. Borrelli denied to Capitol Media Services making such remarks.

Bolton said it’s irrelevant what the Lake Havasu Republican did or did not say.

“Even assuming Sen. Borrelli expressed discriminatory remarks, plaintiffs may not impute his motives to other individual legislators or the Arizona Legislature as a whole,” the judge wrote. “And while Sen. Quezada testified as to his reasons for voting against the (challenged) voting laws, the concerns expressed by political opponents during the legislative process are not reliable evidence of legislative intent.”

Bolton also brushed aside the failure of lawmakers to consider the impact of the laws on people of color or naturalized citizens. She said that also is insufficient to show a discriminatory motive.

And there’s something else.

The judge noted that Arizona has had some sort of requirement to provide proof of citizenship to register since 2005. She said the 2022 laws simply “supplement this requirement.”