- The Washington Times - Monday, April 4, 2016

Ever since the Supreme Court poked a hole in the Voting Rights Act, activists have been warning of devastating effects on average voters showing up at the polls.

Last month, they got their case in Arizona, where some voters said they waited in lines longer than five hours to vote in the primary elections after Maricopa County, one of the most sprawling in the country, cut its number of polling places from more than 400 in 2008 down to 60 this year.

Other voters said they had their registration secretly changed without their knowledge, locking them out of the “closed” primary, in which voters had to have declared their affiliation in advance to be able to vote in either party’s contest. Supporters of Sen. Bernard Sanders alleged dirty tricks, saying the vast majority of secret switches were those who were changed from Democrat to independent.

“We made some horrendous mistakes, and I apologize for that. I can’t go back and undo it. I wish that I could, but I cannot,” Helen Purcell, the Maricopa County recorder, told a state legislative investigation last week. “I can only say we felt we were using the best information that we had available to us.”

Lawmakers questioned her decision-making, while activists — particularly supporters of Mr. Sanders — saw more sinister motives, including suppression of minority voters’ rights and an attempt to keep a specific category of voter from casting ballots.

“There’s been 4,000 people that had their registration changed. Everybody I know who had their registration changed was a Bernie Sanders supporter,” said Jeff Woods, a man who said it took him more than six hours to vote.

He demanded both a federal investigation and a do-over of the primary.

The do-over may be a stretch, but the federal Justice Department is getting involved, sending a request for information last week about the irregularities.

Chris Herren, chief of DOJ’s voting section, demanded Ms. Purcell explain her decision-making, Election Day procedures, the information given to voters ahead of time and whether minorities were disproportionately affected by long wait times.

Voting rights experts say had the election taken place four years ago, the Justice Department could have stepped in ahead of time, perhaps even stopping the county from slashing its polling locations.

At that time Arizona was one of nine states covered under part of the Voting Rights known as “preclearance” — a controversial provision that requires states and counties with a history of disenfranchising minority voters to have to get any voting changes approved ahead of time. That meant everything from showing ID at the polls to shifting a polling place across the street needed federal approval.

But the Supreme Court upended that in 2013 in a case known as Shelby County v. Holder, when the justices ruled the criteria used to decide which states needed preclearance were out of date.

That means that while preclearance is still the law of the land, the government doesn’t have any way of deciding who had to go through it — so Arizona didn’t.

Reports of voters having a tough time navigating voter ID laws or new polling places have surfaced over the last three years, but it was Maricopa County’s experience that has quickly become the marquee example for advocates looking to restore preclearance.

Ms. Purcell, at last week’s hearing, admitted she never gave any thought to whether federal officials might have objected had they been given a chance. That drew a firm rebuke from state Rep. Ken Clark.

“When states are not required to go to preclearance anymore, people just don’t think about it. Just like you said, we didn’t think about it. And that’s when voters are disenfranchised, particularly minority voters, voters that don’t have the means to go to these polling places many miles away and take the time off work,” Mr. Clark, a Democrat, said.

The state chapter of the League of Women Voters agreed, saying there was no doubt federal oversight would have prevented the number of polling places from being cut to 60, down from more than 400 in 2008, the last time both parties had a contested primary, or from 200 in 2012, when just the GOP primary was hotly contested.

Ms. Purcell defended her decisions, saying they were counting on early voting and vote by mail to take much of the burden off of polling places. Indeed, of the 1.2 million Maricopa voters who identify as either Republican or Democrat — and thus were eligible to vote in a primary — some 900,000 were issued ballots by mail, meaning they weren’t supposed to be in line on primary day.

That left just 83,000 voters who showed up at the polls, where she said they had doubled their staffing and had a new electronic poll book system to process them more quickly. Voters were also supposed to be able to show up at any of the 60 polling places to cast their vote, hopefully alleviating pressure on overloaded sites.

It didn’t work.

Voters who made it to the polls reported long lines and confusing registration, while the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union reported hearing of cases where some voters never made it because their local precincts were closed and they didn’t have a car or other means of getting to their new, more distant polling locations.

The key question is whether sites in minority areas were disproportionately affected.

Ms. Purcell says she made her decisions without regard to those factors. Rights groups say that’s exactly what the Voting Rights Act was supposed to make sure she did.

“These changes would have been subjected to preclearance, and there would have been an outside agency looking at what the potential impact would have been,” said Alessandra Soler, executive director of the Arizona ACLU.

Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan certified the primary results Monday, showing Donald Trump the winner on the GOP side and Hillary Clinton the Democratic winner.

Certification means those results can be challenged, and some Sanders supporters have said he should lodge an objection based on reports of voter registration switches.

But Ms. Reagan has said “nothing malicious occurred” and that any registration problems were likely the result of confused voters and complicated procedures that only allow members of a party to vote in that primary. That means thousands of voters try to switch their party ahead of time, then switch back — creating changes for “mistakes.”

She and other Arizona officials have questioned the wisdom of holding a closed primary.

“The simple answer is that the state should treat this election the same as the others or not run it all,” she said.

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