PHOENIX — Saying the pandemic interfered with the process, two groups want more time to sign up voters for this election.
Legal papers filed in federal court here claim the current deadline of Oct. 5 to register does not work this year. The deadline complies with the requirement in Arizona law to close the process 29 days before the general election.
So Mi Familia Vota and the Arizona Coalition for Change are asking U.S. District Court Judge Steven Logan to extent it to no earlier than Oct. 27. That is just a week ahead of the vote.
The move could draw opposition from Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, if for no other reason than the idea of making major changes in the system so close to the election.
Attorney Zoe Salzman said her clients recognize that. But she said there is ample evidence that the unique conditions this year have put a damper on getting people registered to vote.
She also said that Arizona’s voter registration deadline is one of the most restrictive in the country, saying 37 other states allow people to sign up closer than 29 days before the election. And Salzman said 40 percent of states permit people to register the same day they vote.
But all that notwithstanding, she pointed out her clients are requesting a change in the registration deadline for this year only. And that may prove more acceptable to a court.
In her pleadings, Salzman said Mi Familia Vota had the goal of registering 30,000 new voters this year. And Arizona Coalition for Change had a target of 25,000.
But all that was interrupted by the COVID-19 outbreak and, more significant, the various orders by Gov. Doug Ducey in March limiting group gatherings, closing certain businesses and, eventually, issuing a stay-at-home order. While some of this was lifted in May, an explosion of new cases resulted in new restrictions which ran into August.
Others limits remain, however, affecting traditional sites to sign up voters.
“In response to the pandemic and the governor’s orders, the majority of these high-traffic areas, including schools, churches, and community centers, closed at the end of March 2020 and most remain closed to this day,’’ Salzman wrote. “Even in those high-traffic areas which remained open, such as grocery stores, it was almost impossible for voter registration staffers to register voters while maintaining the physical distancing of at least six feet required by the governor’s orders.’’
And she said that same distancing requirement also complicated door-to-door registration efforts.
Salzman said this isn’t a problem of just her clients.
For example, she said, in 2016 — the last presidential election year — 146,214 people registered to vote in Arizona between January and August. This year the figure is 62,565.
A court order extending the deadline, Salzman said, will make a real difference.
She said in the last three weeks alone, with most restrictions lifted, Mi Familia Vota registered 4,500 new voters. That, said Salzman, is in line with the pace before the March closures.
“An extension of the voter registration cutoff would allow plaintiffs to register thousands of new voters before the November election,’’ she told Logan.
Salzman alleges that the deadline, at least this year, places a “severe burden’’ on the right to register voters, something she said are “core political rights protected by the First Amendment.’’ She also is arguing to Logan that the deadline, at least this year, deprives people of their right to vote, violating their due process rights.
She dismissed concerns that pushing the deadline beyond Oct. 5 would cause problems in running the election, pointing out for example, that early voting starts on Oct. 7.
“That means that, as a matter of course, Arizonans can register to vote on Oct. 5 and cast their ballot by voting early just two days later,’’ Salzman said.
She also said the state allows already registered voters to simultaneously update their address and cast their votes the same day. And Salzman said the use of electronic poll books, instead of the old-style computer printouts, allows for swift and frequent updating of the list with new registrations.
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