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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Judge upholds parts of Arizona law requiring voters to prove citizenship

Voters arrive at the poll station for the primary election at Burton Barr Library in Phoenix, Aug. 2, 2022. A federal judge issued a mixed decision in Arizona’s ongoing battles over voting rights and public trust in elections, upholding new requirements for voters to prove their citizenship but limiting the ways that voters could be disqualified. (Cassidy Araiza/The New York Times)

By Jack Healy

Republicans and Democrats alike claimed victory days after a federal judge issued a mixed decision in Arizona’s ongoing battles over voting rights and public trust in elections, upholding requirements for voters to prove their citizenship but limiting the ways that voters could be disqualified.

The decision, issued Thursday, dealt with two voting laws passed in Arizona in 2022 by Republican lawmakers, who said they were necessary to keep noncitizens from casting ballots. Latino voting-rights groups and the U.S. Justice Department had challenged the laws in court, saying they violated the civil rights of immigrants and minority voters.

One of the laws created new requirements for voters to provide proof of citizenship. The other required local elections officials to run checks to purge potentially ineligible voters.

In a 109-page ruling, Judge Susan Bolton struck down some parts of the laws while leaving major pieces standing, saying that Arizona had an interest in ensuring that noncitizens could not vote.

The ruling is unlikely to settle a furor over voting that has raged in Arizona since President Donald Trump narrowly lost the state in 2020. He and his supporters have assailed Arizona elections officials and the state’s popular mail-in voting system. Republican lawmakers carried out a much-criticized partisan audit of the 2020 vote in the state’s most populous county.

In general, voters already provide proof of citizenship when they register for state elections. On Monday, voting-rights groups celebrated the ruling as a win, while local elections officials were still trying to understand how it might affect how they maintain voter rolls.

Gabriella Cázares-Kelly, the Pima County recorder in Tucson, criticized the laws as “a blatant attempt at discrimination” and said she was heartened that the judge struck down major provisions of them. She said she did not think the ruling would significantly change how her office handles elections or voter registration.

“We’re largely seeing this as a win,” Cázares-Kelly, a Democrat, said in an interview. “We hope we can move forward with some clarity.”

Even now, as presidential primary ballots go out to voters, the election official who oversees voting in Maricopa County has been trying to parry criticism from conservative voters about the integrity of their ballots.

The two laws at issue in the judge’s ruling passed over Democratic opposition and were signed by the Republican governor at the time, Doug Ducey.

In their legal challenges, Latino activists and other voting-rights groups argued the measures could lead to thousands of immigrants and minority voters being kicked off the rolls. The Justice Department also sued.

Bolton struck down pieces of the laws for violating the Civil Rights Act and a federal voter-registration law. She also struck down measures requiring voters to list where they were born and provide proof of where they lived.

She upheld some provisions requiring local Arizona election officials to do their own investigations by cross-checking voter information against other government databases.

But she rejected a portion of that law requiring elections officials to run monthly checks on voters if they had “reason to believe” a voter was not a citizen. Voting-rights groups said that standard could empower officials to second-guess and scrutinize voters’ qualifications based on flimsy suspicions, such as whether they had a Hispanic last name or wore a hijab.

“You just can’t have a suspicion of people, maybe because of the color of their skin or a funny feeling,” said Joseph Garcia of Chicanos Por La Causa, one of the groups that sued to overturn the laws. “There has to be something more to suspect someone should not be voting.”

The judge found that it was “quite rare” for any noncitizen to cast a ballot in Arizona.

Other parts of the laws had been struck down months earlier, including a provision that would have prevented people from voting in presidential elections if they failed to provide proof of citizenship.

Anyone who wants to vote in state elections in Arizona has to provide a driver’s license, passport or other proof of citizenship, but for federal elections, the United States requires only that voters fill out a form swearing they are citizens. Arizona has about 20,000 of these “federal only” voters, and they are disproportionately racial minorities.

In a victory for conservatives, Bolton ruled that the challengers did not prove that the laws had a discriminatory intent. And she said that requiring proof of citizenship, as a whole, did not place an undue burden on people’s right to vote.

Ben Toma, speaker of the Arizona House and a Republican, said he was “pleased” with the partial win.

“The court found that plaintiffs failed to show that Arizona’s common-sense voting laws were enacted with any discriminatory purpose,” he said in a statement.

Since the voting laws passed, Arizona has elected Democrats as the governor, attorney general and secretary of state. Gov. Katie Hobbs and Attorney General Kris Mayes did not comment on the rulings Friday. But Secretary of State Adrian Fontes, a Democrat, largely hailed the decision as a win for voter rights.

“Today’s opinion dismantles a blatant attempt to suppress the votes of Arizona’s diverse electorate,” he said in a statement. “This ruling reaffirms that voter suppression has no place in our democracy.”

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