Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic party will file a joint lawsuit on Friday to demand greater access to the polls in Arizona, where voters were left waiting as long as five hours to cast their ballot in last month’s primary.
Democratic party officials said their national committee and senatorial campaign committee would spearhead the lawsuit, which promises to put voting rights front and center in the 2016 presidential race – in Arizona and in at least four swing states where restrictions imposed by Republican-dominated state legislatures are being challenged in federal court.
The focus of the lawsuit is the county encompassing Phoenix, where election officials cut back the number of polling places to just 60 from 400 in the 2008 primary. The Maricopa County recorder, Helen Purcell, acknowledged after the 22 March primary that she had made “horrendous mistakes” but chalked them up to bureaucratic miscalculation, not a desire to suppress the Democratic vote.
However, a draft version of the suit seen by the Guardian alleges that the shortage of polling locations was “particularly burdensome” on blacks, Latinos and Native Americans – groups of voters who are protected by the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The Washington Post, which was shown the lawsuit in advance, first reported it.
“Hispanic, Native-American, and African-American voters had to travel farther than white voters to access the polls,” the suit says, “had to wait in long lines in disproportionate numbers; and had fewer polling locations in their communities than white voters.”
The suit also accuses state officials of enacting broader policies with an “adverse and disparate impact” on minority voters, including a prohibition on friends or family members delivering a sealed absentee ballot on a voter’s behalf and a further prohibition on voting – even provisionally – in any precinct other than the one allocated.
“Republicans are using every tool, every legal loophole and every fear tactic they can think of to take aim at voting rights wherever they can,” the Democratic National Committee chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, said in a statement. “And what they’re aiming at is clear – they want nothing less than to disenfranchise voting groups who are inconvenient to them on Election Day.”
Until 2013, Arizona’s voting laws were subject to oversight by the US Justice Department, under so the so-called preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act, which the supreme court scrapped on the grounds that conditions had changed since the civil rights era and special protection of minority voters was no longer necessary.
Voting rights groups, however, point with alarm to a flurry of strict new voter ID laws and restrictions on early voting, same-day registration and provisional voting that have been enacted since 2013 – in North Carolina, Texas and Virginia, among other states previously covered by the preclearance provision.
It is highly unusual for a national party or campaign to file a voting-related lawsuit before Election Day. Bob Shrum, a veteran former Democratic campaign consultant, said he could not recall a single previous instance but said it attested to a rancid atmosphere being generated by the Republicans as they wage partisan warfare over voting rights.
“The lawsuit is smart, and it’s the right thing to do,” Shrum said. “What’s going on in Arizona is preposterous.”
Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, said on Thursday that the campaign was “committed to fighting for all voters to be able to exercise their fundamental right to have their voices heard in this election. We share the concerns of Arizona supporters of both campaigns who encountered barriers and appreciate the DSCC and DNC’s willingness to let us join the case as a party.”
The Democratic party has joined other lawsuits in Virginia, Wisconsin, Ohio and North Carolina but has not spearheaded any of them. Few, if any, are expected to result in definitive opinions before November, especially since the supreme court has a track record of disliking last-minute rule changes in voting procedures.
Still, the courts might curb some of the more extreme proposals to restrict voter access. Bob Phillips of Common Cause North Carolina, a non-partisan government watchdog group, said: “Here in North Carolina, things have progressed enough to where, in my mind, we will see some decisions before the general election – on same-day voter registration and out-of-precinct voting.”
Clinton, meanwhile, has been trumpeting her commitment to voting rights on the campaign trail ever since she started running – in part because it plays well with African American and Latino voters who have proved the bedrock of her support during primary season.
She has pushed for automatic voter registration, following a model already in place in Oregon and California, championed early voting and argued for the restoration of voting rights to ex-felons. Of the Republicans she has asked repeatedly: “What part of democracy do they not understand?”
Despite a strong record on voting rights in the Senate, Clinton had some repair work to do with African American voters following a bruising episodes in the 2008 campaign when her husband, Bill Clinton, made remarks about Barack Obama that were seen as racially inflammatory in South Carolina. In the past week, Bill Clinton has been in similar trouble for remarks about the Black Lives Matter movement.
Shrum thought Clinton’s participation in the Arizona lawsuit would not make much difference in the primaries and noted that Bernie Sanders’ numbers with Latino voters have been going up. It could, however, help boost her cause if she wins the nomination.
“If the Republicans nominate [Donald] Trump or [Ted] Cruz, Arizona will certainly be in play,” he said.
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