Arizona's Voting Nightmare Is Just the Beginning

March 25, 2016

I couldn't vote button.

In Arizona, during Tuesday’s presidential primary, Aracely Calderon was the last voter in the state to cast a ballot. What’s the story there? She did so at 12:12 am., after waiting in line for more than five hours.

You probably expect long lines on Free Cone Day, but waiting hours to vote? That’s a threat to our democracy.

According to the Arizona Republic, there were more than 700 people in front of her in a line that stretched almost four blocks when she arrived just before 7 pm. Standing in line forever was pretty much the norm throughout Maricopa County, home to Phoenix and the state’s most populous county. Many would-be voters left in disgust unable to wait and having to get back to work, pick up kids, or other commitments.

Aracely, an immigrant who became a citizen in 2012, said, "I'm going to go home very happy and satisfied because it really is a joy to be able to vote. I'm from Guatemala and I never thought I'd get to see the day where I would have the right to vote."

While Aracely’s civic commitment should be celebrated, this is not at all how voting should work. So what happened?

The Supreme Court happened. When it gutted the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 2013, decades of progress were reversed, and it opened the door to travesties like this. Prior to this decision, Arizona had been one of 16 states that, due to a history of discrimination, had to submit any changes in its election laws to the federal government for review. But with the VRA rendered toothless, Arizona was free to do what it wanted.

And what it wanted to do was reduce the number of polling stations in Maricopa from 200 in 2012 to just 60 in 2016 – a 70% reduction that means there’s now one polling place for every 21,000 voters. That is an absolute outrage. Minorities make up 40% of Maricopa County’s population, and the fact that some heavily Latino areas had zero polling places was no accident.

Without the VRA, the long lines and ridiculous delays seen in Arizona are bound to become a familiar sight on Election Day all around the country. That’s why, more than ever, Ben & Jerry’s supports reinstating the VRA.

The Voting Rights Act Unlocked Voter Participation

Prior to 1870, people of color weren’t allowed to vote, and women couldn't vote until 1920. That’s a huge portion of the population whose voices were simply not heard.

Even after voting was established for all men, regardless of race, black voters faced everything from violent opposition to impossible literacy tests in southern states that wanted to block them from casting their ballots. That ended in 1965 with the VRA. The VRA profoundly reshaped the American political landscape: In the states with the worst racially biased voter disenfranchisement, black voter registration nearly doubled over the next two years.

Without the Voting Rights Act, We’re Back to Disenfranchisement

The VRA continued to be a success through our own political era, when it was reauthorized for another 25 years in 2006. But in 2013 the Supreme Court struck down the section designating which states required federal oversight of election rule changes.

The Supreme Court issued their ruling on the grounds that “things have changed dramatically” in the southern states that had a history of discrimination. But almost immediately, many of the same states that had mandatory federal oversight began to set voter restrictions into place that disproportionately hinder the voting methods known to be mostly used by minorities.

We just saw how that played out in Arizona. Here are some of the latest developments elsewhere in the country:

  • Alabama: An effort to shutter DMV offices in counties with a high black population, making it harder for black voters to get the state-issued ID that Alabama requires for voting
  • Florida: New restrictions on early voting and voting by former felons
  • North Carolina: Passed a 2013 law that created a whole host of restrictions, such as fewer early voting days, and voter ID requirements that would disproportionately affect minority voters.
  • North Dakota: Passed legislation to limit the valid forms of ID that could be presented at polling places
  • Ohio: Shortened the absentee voting period, eliminating the week when registration and voting could happen simultaneously
  • Texas: Passed bill that required voters show photo ID, despite no evidence of voter fraud

Why We Still Need and Support the Voting Rights Act

While the VRA is still an important tool to protect democracy, without the requirement that states with histories of discrimination submit their new voting laws to federal review, the burden has fallen onto individual voters to prove discrimination on a case by case basis. Can you imagine having your vote taken away or blocked—and then having the burden of proving discrimination placed squarely on your shoulders? That’s simply not fair. Voting access is an essential right of citizenship, and no one should need a lawyer to cast their vote.

How You Can Help Support Democracy Through Voting Rights

As Tuesday’s Arizona debacle demonstrated, we need the VRA restored. Luckily, there are plenty of states that aren’t sliding backward and are instead working to ensure equal voting access, by making registration a part everyday DMV transactions and modernizing electronic registration.

We hope that Aracely Calderon’s love and dedication for voting inspires many more to join us in calling for system-wide reforms. Democracy only works when it works for everyone.